Tell most people that you are looking forward to a Christmas dinner of lutefisk, you will typically get a look of disgust. Or pity. Or “what is lutefisk?” First of all, let me say that I am not on the pro-lutefisk bandwagon. I have been subjected to the foul stench every Christmas I can remember.
Our Scandinavian heritage dictates we serve this delicacy (I use this term only in honor of my dearest mother). I am not caught up in the fervent pursuit of this revered tradition, but somehow it would not be Christmas without it.
For the uniformed, lutefisk is dried cod that is soaked in lye (yes, the caustic POISON), then soaked again in water to remove the aforementioned caustic POISON. I won’t bore you with a lutefisk history lesson, but that is the Reader’s Digest description. Being from Minnesota, it is certainly a familiar site in the grocery stores and meat markets around Christmas, although it seems to me to have become less prominently advertised and displayed as it had been when I was younger.
Perhaps this is just another case of how ones’ memories and perceptions become skewed as we grow older. Or not. I would not be at all surprised if the per capita consumption of lutefisk is rapidly declining as the geriatric market for it is drying up as our loved ones pass on. This is not intended to be harsh, but let’s face it: lutefisk is not on the cutting edge of the culinary arts. At least I haven’t seen it as the secret ingredient on the Iron Chef.
So the big day is here: Christmas. We celebrate the birth of our Savior and the expansion of our waistbands. Mom has been cooking and baking for weeks. Swedish meatballs, potatoes, gravy, lefse, herring, cookies, coffee bread, and all the other Nordic Christmas staples. And then there is the lutefisk. How does one cook and eat lutefisk?
Well, we have tried a few methods, none of which are successful (if by success you mean an edible product.) Traditionally it is boiled, but you need to be careful because it has a tendency to fall apart into a liquefied mass of goo. Hence, you wrap it in cheesecloth. Now you have an intact liquefied mass of goo. We have baked it. Goo. Microwaved it. Goo. I think the preferred method of late has been the microwave. I’m not sure, I try to avoid this step.
They say if you cook it right, you don’t get the gel-like consistency we have come to know and not love. I guess I have never seen it cooked right. Some people put a white cream sauce over it. We don’t, as it masks the viscous quality of the natural product.
There is a process my brother has perfected. You get some lutefisk on your plate. Mash up some boiled potatoes right next to it. Drench the whole mess in melted butter. It must be REAL BUTTER. Nothing fake to mask the residual lye flavor. Next, salt and pepper. Then you take a bit of potato on your fork, then a bit of fish. They say if you put melted butter over anything it will taste good, but personally I haven’t found this to be true.
When Mom brings out the first plate of lutefisk, you can almost hear the ooo’s and aah’s from around the table. The plate QUICKLY passes by those of us non-believers, patiently waiting for the Swedish meatballs. As it passes from person to person, the omnipresent stench (I mean odor) wafts under our noses like a freight train.
Someone inevitably makes a comment on how well it jiggles this year. Of course, someone also yells out “Where are the straws?” Ok, I’m guilty. That’s usually me. The list of jokes and comments continue, until dinner is over and we are safe for another year.