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  • December 14th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Here’s the difference. When a Norwegian dies and goes to Heaven he is delighted to find that lutefisk is served every night for dinner. When the rest of us die and go to Hell we are horrified to find that lutefisk is served every night for dinner.


That is, of course, assuming that the rest of us have ever eaten lutefisk. I have— once. It was a traumatic culinary experience that, this side of the Fiery Furnace, I don’t want to repeat. Lutefisk is an ethnic dish, peculiar to those of Scandinavian extraction, and is not likely to be found in mainstream eateries. There is no such thing as a McLutifisk and, God willing, there never will be— although it really doesn’t matter to me since I never scuttle under the Golden Arches for an instant heart attack anyway.


For the uninitiated (and the initiation is akin to what fraternities in the past deemed Hell Week) is a dish of jellied fish that shimmers on the plate much as did alien blobs of matter in 1950s science fiction horror films. Those blobs often morphed into substances that enveloped people, houses and even whole cities. One look at a plate glistening with lutefisk is enough to make one fear for the safety of the old home place.


There is an ill logic in lutefisk from the get-go. The concept is to desiccate fish after they emerge sensibly damp from the water in which they live, then rehydrate them through the use of toilet bowl cleanser (lye) and then eat them. I grew up believing that when you catch a fish in its moist condition, you eat it then not after you parch it and resurrect it. Perhaps there is some sort of Biblical parallel here that I missed.


I know someone is going to tell me that drying fish is a way to preserve them especially on long ocean voyages to discover new worlds. Thus, the Vikings were able to load up their ships with dried fish and head out for Manhattan so they could inflict Native Americans with lutefisk.


Pres. Trump with his usual erratic grasp of reality recently said that this country needs fewer immigrants from places he deemed as “shithole countries” and import more immigrants from Norway. I would suggest that Trump be weaned from big Macs and be forced to eat a heaping plate of lutefisk, every bite, which, I would be willing to bet, would temper his enthusiasm for immigrants from Scandinavia and possibly even engender an affection for shredded chicken quesadillas, to which I am addicted.  I have to say that if I were an immigrant stopped at the southern border of the United States and ordered to eat lutefisk before being deported, I would say, “Please take me to the nearest Taco Bell and give me a bus ticket heading south.”


In the fairytale, a princess kissed a frog and it turned into the vintage Brad Pitt. The process by which a fish especially a dead one, is turned into lutefisk sounds like a research chemist’s worst nightmare.  At least the frog wasn’t dead, a circumstance of great relief for the princess. In the case of the dead fish, all it took was a hungry Scandinavian, origin lost to history, who wasn’t fussy about what he ate and the process by which it arrived on his dinner plate.


Children, even babies, when plagued by an inability to fill their nappies, often are dosed with cod liver oil, a ghastly remedy for all that ails toddlers who usually bring kicking and screaming to new levels when confronted with a spoonful of the puréed residue of a dead codfish.  Cod liver oil is portrayed as a miracle cure for all that ails the little ones and there are even are capsules of it flavored like bubblegum. You try convincing a five-year-old that the pill you’re holding actually is Double Bubble and you are well on the way as a parent to creating an adult who not only no longer believes in Santa Claus, but also does not believe that Donald J Trump is God’s representative for the Second Coming.


It is the codfish, liver and all, in dried form which constitutes the bulk of lutefisk— but not without first undergoing a chemical transformation last seen when Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde. Or think of poor Lawrence Talbot as the Wolf Man howling at a full moon and sprouting facial hair all the way down to his toenails.


Here is how you too can create lutefisk: acquire a dead codfish (you can use ling or turbot, according to Wikipedia) and dry it by hanging it in the sun until it looks like the tongue of an old boot.  You can dry fish in your oven, but anything baked you serve guests for decades to come is likely to have the faint aroma of something that you scraped off the deck of your rowboat.  In my Missouri home waters we have fish such as largemouth bass, bluegills, and even trout— not cod, ling or turbot.  And while our native fish often make it to the dinner table, it is as beloved entrées not jellied lab experiments.


Anyway, you dry your dead fish and you’re well on the way to lutefisk. Now you soak the dehydrated fish in cold water for five or six days, changing the water each day. Now comes the part that should daunt you, if you already are not so bemused that you have dismissed the theory that the Vikings discovered America rather than Columbus because they must have all died of ptomaine poisoning somewhere near Greenland.


Enter the part of the process involving toilet bowl cleanser. Plunk your soaked fish into a solution of cold water and lye for two more days. Wikipedia says that at the end of the two days the fish is caustic. The definition of caustic is “a corrosive substance which will damage or destroy other substances with which it comes into contact by means of a chemical reaction.” How does that tingle the old taste buds? You have now reached the stage of meal preparation where your dinner theoretically can eat you rather than the other way around.


One thing to remember— if, as a non-Scandinavian, you are revolted by lutefisk and can manage to sneak off to the restroom with your plate full of it, you can flush it down the toilet, confident in the knowledge that not only are you ridding yourself of a noxious substance, you also are sanitizing the potty.


Obviously, you need to defuse the entrée and this is done by soaking the lye infused fish in cold water for an additional two days to remove the caustic lye. Note that the application of cold water is essential in preparing lutefisk. If you watch any of the various Alaskan television shows where dried fish is common, you might deduce that cold is an essential part of Arctic food preparation. Cold air combined with cold water is common in Alaska, but not so much in, say, Florida  which may explain why you rarely if ever will be invited to a lutefisk dinner in Key West. There, ask not for lutefisk and lefse but settle for a grouper sandwich.


Note also on the Alaska television shows that dried fish rather than becoming lutefisk is fed to the sled dogs. So far, Purina does not offer Lutefisk Kibble as trail food for teams entered in the Iditarod.


It’s not that I have an aversion to ethnic food. Actually I have embraced exotic dishes from other cultures many times. I once ate rattlesnake which was like chewing a piece of garden hose—it seemed to grow larger the more I chewed. I also once sampled escargot, a French delicacy, but could not escape the feeling that I was dining on garden slugs. Having once stepped on a garden slug barefoot, eating one was not a pleasant experience. Some foods are meant to be sampled once and only once. As one fellow said about lutefisk, “I tried lutefisk twice—once going down and once coming up.”


There are two traditional side dishes, designed to make lutefisk palatable to the hitherto uninitiated— Swedish meatballs (delectable) and lefse which eaten by itself, is kind of like pizza dough left uncooked and untopped by anything (i.e. tomato sauce, sausage, mushrooms, or cheese). Lefse can be made palatable by generous applications of butter, jelly, jam or preserves. The meatballs are good enough that perhaps the Vikings made it to Nova Scotia on them alone, the lutefisk having given out before they all died of gastric agony.



Once, on a ruffed grouse hunt in northern Minnesota I attended a lutefisk dinner at the local Lutheran Church.  The church basement was crowded, tinged with the delicate aroma of Scandinavian cuisine simmering on the kitchen stove. We gathered around a bench which I shared with a beefy Norwegian who stared at a plate glistening with a heaping serving of lutefisk as if he were staring through the gates of Paradise. I am willing to bet that his surname no matter how it began ended in “son”. This, being a house of worship, it was obvious to me what he was worshiping at the moment. Also in a house of prayer, I was silently praying for deliverance from what he was eating.


He plowed through the heap of fish Jell-O making occasional sounds of orgasmic pleasure. He slathered butter both on the lutefisk and lefse and they vanished as if by magic. There was no sound of chewing— just gurgles of gratification.  Almost before he had begun, he was finished. I toyed with my lefse, ignoring the lutefisk, half afraid it might come to life.


My Scandinavian friend (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or Finnish—they all eat lutefisk) stifled a satisfied belch, rose and said, “by dang, dot’s gude lutefisk. Tink I’ll git some more before dey run out. You vant some?” He looked suspiciously at my untouched lutefisk as if suspecting I might be a foreigner from someplace south of The Cities. I certainly had zero desire to fight him for any lutefisk leftovers— after all, it was a church basement, and you don’t want to fight a Minnesotan anyway for fear a hockey game might break out.


I resisted saying, “Yah sure, you betcha!” And settled for a simple murmured “no thanks.” And he lumbered away toward the serving counter.  And thus ended my one and only lutefisk dinner, not with a bang but a belch, the soothing aftertaste of Swedish meatballs in my mouth, and a lingering hint of fish Jell-O in my nasal passages.


Uff Da!



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1 Comment

  1. Paul F. Vang

    December 14th, 2018 at 11:52 am


    Love it!

    My daughter has done a lot of international travel for work and has made a point, when dining with colleagues, to eat whatever comes. She reports the absolute worst was in Seoul, Korea, where the entree was live slug. She gagged one down but that was it.

    I don’t eat lutefisk and subscribed to my uncle’s declaration, “Anything that turns the sliverware green cannot possibly be fit to eat.”

    My dad loved it and we always had it at Christmas. His bedtime snack late on Christmas Eve would be some cold lutefisk rolled up into lefse. Sitting at the kitchen table, eating his lutefisk burrito with fish juices dripping down his pajama tops, he was a happy man.

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