It's Beginning to Taste A Lot Like Lutefisk. Lutefisk Dinner. Sons of Norway. Van Nuys, CA.
Lutefisk or lewd fish?
Roland Henin, a mentor of super chef Thomas Keller, once told him “If you’re a really good cook, you can go back in time.” I’d like to believe that this is applicable if you’re a really good eater as well, especially if what you’re about to eat is a particularly difficult and notorious delicacy rooted in Norwegian history and tradition called lutefisk. Going way back to the Viking Age, Eric the Red, Leif Erickson and other horny-helmeted, stone hammer wielding, longship rowing, Nordic marauders would work up maddening appetites from plundering loot and invading coastal European villages. The problem was they’d be so busy with these Viking activities that they’d forget about lunch. Still worse, their victims weren’t very sympathetic to their hunger pangs. In fact, the invadees would do everything in their power to ruin or poison any food the Vikings had stored. Stockfish or air dried cod fish was a major commodity back in those days and, legend has it, these village people would sneak on board the Viking ships and pour caustic lye on their stockfish hoping to poison the invaders. However, rather than kicking the bucket from feasting on the tainted fish, the Vikings collectively belched with satisfaction, picked their teeth with their horny hats and declared lutefisk a delicacy. This, of course, scared the hell out of the village folk and reinforced the Vikings reputation for being bad asses (or, more accurately, iron stomachs). Makes perfect sense really, tough guys of all stripes throughout history have had their own version of tough grub: Genghis Khan and the Mongols drank blood from their steeds, the United States Marines eat the inedible MREs and the Vikings polished off slabs of lutefisk.
Viking and the King.
Now many centuries later, the Vikings, having faded into the ocean spray of history, seem more like a novelty than a menace. Lutefisk, on the other hand, still proves as menacing to some as the Vikings formerly were. Every year around this time, mixed marriages of which one of the spouses is a lutefisk loving Scandinavian hang in the balance. Home kitchens become culinary battlegrounds where one person’s ethnic comfort food is the other’s biohazard on a plate. Thousands of noses and mouths are at stake when lutefisk becomes a real possibility on the holiday menu.
But for others, lutefisk is a delicious, though dying, culinary connection to a tradition that is in danger of disappearing just like the Vikings did long ago. Many would gladly say good riddance and wish that this odd fish would just go away. However, during the holidays, the Sons of Norway, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Norwegian heritage, hosts massive fundraising dinners all over the U.S. with lutefisk as the main attraction.
I was invited to one of these dinners by Lisa, one of my readers who is an authentic half-Norwegian and half-Swedish woman. Me, my family, Lisa and her fully Norwegian mom, accent and all, would go dine on a delicacy Jeffrey Steingarten calls “a weapon of mass destruction.” He adds:
“Lutefisk is the Norwegians’ attempt at conquering the world. When they discovered that Viking raids didn't give world supremacy, they invented a meal so terrifying, so cruel, that they could scare people to become one's subordinates.”
If this is a food that even the self-proclaimed Man Who Ate Everything would not eat out of sheer terror, then it sounds like I may just have a new favorite food.
The Norrona chapter of the Sons of Norway is situated in a predominantly Mexican section of Van Nuys, California. This fact may seem odd at first but the history of that part of town used to reflect a decidedly Norwegian heritage. There is a Lutheran church two blocks from the lodge which thrived decades ago with Norwegian parishioners but will close down soon due to a steady downturn in attendance. Many of the Norwegians and miscellaneous Scandinavians who go to the lodge for the annual lutefisk dinner come from all over Southern California, some even used to live in the neighborhood, and a handful still do. That night I was added to the tiny local Norwegian population and sort of became an honorary “Norski” for one evening, so long as I was willing to eat lutefisk.
Just because one is Norwegian or possesses some trace amount of Norwegian DNA doesn’t automatically mean the person has an innate appreciation for lutefisk. The fact is there are fewer and fewer actual Norwegians who live in Norway itself willing to eat lutefisk. Most by far prefer a pedestrian frozen pizza. What’s worse is that most Norwegians only have to subject their mouths to lutefisk once or twice a year and yet the number of lutefisk consumers still drops. In fact most of the lutefisk in the world is consumed in the U.S., primarily in the Midwestern states. There are red states, blue states and lutefisk states. These lutefisk states logically include places with large Scandinavian immigrant communities such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, the Dakotas, Montana, Washington and Minnesota. Madison, Minnesota calls itself the lutefisk capital of the world and even hosts a lutefisk eating contest.
“I heart lutefisk…and zany hats!”
A huge problem in lutefisk land is its main demographic. The majority of the connoisseurs for this stuff are mostly the card carrying AARP set and their numbers are dropping as quickly as the demand for Lawrence Welk mp3 downloads. The hall where I attended the dinner looked to be a sea of white and gray heads with a few young adults and some kids who didn’t seem as enthusiastic about the night’s main event as their elderly counterparts. So like Phillip Morris, lutefisk purveyors desperately need to recruit a new generation of consumers to replace the old ones but are having a difficult time of it. I, on the other hand, couldn’t wait for my first hit of this curious reconstituted fish.
Lutefisk, directly translated, means lye fish. Lute = lye. Fisk = fish. Lye fish. The reason why it’s called this is because a major component of lutefisk is lye. Lye is caustic stuff and, according to experts, is used in the lutefisk process to extract the salt from the stockfish, aid in water absorption and clean the fish. Lutefisk begins its long and difficult journey as air or kiln dried cod, haddock or pollock. (Cod stinks while haddock and pollock are aromatically mellow.) Stockfish is also as stiff as a board and hard as a rock so it needs to be reconstituted. To start the long process of reconstitution, the stockfish must be placed in a cold water bath for about one week. The water must be cold and changed daily for a week. After that, it is placed in a lye solution of ash lye or caustic soda plus cold water. This solution also must remain cold and changed daily. When the stockfish has been marinated in tasty lye for two days, it is then placed back into a cold water bath for, you guessed it, another week. When that’s done, the stockfish is almost lutefisk and it also becomes 8 times its dried self in weight. And there’s an option to add an extra chemical taste profile to the fish with hydrogen peroxide if one prefers his white fish whiter. (Hell, who doesn’t want whiter whites?) At last, the stockfish is ready to be cooked. This part of the process is especially harrowing due to the unforgiving nature of lutefisk. It must be baked precisely at 375º for 30 minutes or boiled in salt water for 6 minutes. Overcook by a minute and lye fish becomes soap fish—a slimy, goopy mess that nobody would want to shower with let alone eat. But if cooked properly, lutefisk is translucent and gelatinous on the edges gradually becoming more dense, flaky and fishlike as it gets to the center.
To detractors this whole complicated nature of preparing lutefisk may seem quite logical, that is: what a pain in the ass it is to make something that tastes like ass. In reality, the taste or lack thereof is experienced more like a placebo effect and you think to yourself that you must be tasting something, after all, you’re eating fish. The fact is lutefisk has had virtually all of its natural flavors dried, soaked and lyed out of it. The process of reconstituting stockfish is so abusive to both the cook and the fish that you’re lucky to be eating anything that resembles fish or stimulates your taste buds at all. Many lutefisk loathers also complain about the stench. Typically the reason for the odor is because the stockfish used was dried cod and also the lutefisk was not prepared properly, which is easy to do.
The line weaving out the door of the Sons of Norway lodge that night would lead any passerby to believe that surely there must be some kind of trendy food being sold at this fundraiser like real frozen yogurt or fancy cupcakes or deep fried Philly cheese steaks. If that passerby actually went into the lodge, he would’ve gotten the same sense with all the buzz in the air and with all the platters flying in full and flying out empty. He would never have guessed that what everyone here was happily gorging on was lutefisk.
How Swede it is.
It was a festive and frenetic scene with a literal smorgasbord of food being brought to all the large tables. We sat with strangers and ate like family. Simple sides of peas and carrots and cole slaw were served with Scandinavian favorites like the familiar Swedish/Norwegian meatballs and the not so familiar lefse and limpa. Lefse is a thin, pita-like flat bread on which copious amounts of butter is slathered and then generously doused with brown sugar. It eats like a tiny candy burrito. Limpa is a soft piece of bread that can be of rye or wheat and is flavored with anise or fennel with cumin and orange peel. All this was just a warm-up to the lutefisk. When the lutefisk finally came, it was piled on a huge platter in nicely portioned pieces.
I tasted the lutefisk unadorned just to get an idea of its natural flavor. Nothing came to the tongue. I concentrated harder. Still nothing. I took a bigger bite. Aha! Chemical. Artificial. A note of soap. However, not so much like fish. One of my dinner companions suggested dumping on the melted butter. So I did and what a difference it made. There was a subtle fish flavor and, if I really focused, a tease of lobster, plus the chemical taste. All combined, it was actually quite good. As an acquired taste, lutefisk was a delicacy that I became fast friends with, and, in all honesty, it tasted better as I ate more. I’m not too clear on why I enjoyed it so much. It may have been the company. It could’ve been the celebratory mood of the night. The pride in Norwegian heritage through the food could’ve influenced me. The idea that Vikings ate this stuff. Or, maybe, I just like weird food.
Nah, that couldn’t be it.
Lovin’ that lutefisk.
Happy Holidays to you.