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Wes' World: Oh Lutefisk Oh Lutefisk.

March 8, 2012

Front and center on my agenda is the Traveling Smithsonian Exhibit “Key Ingredients: America by Food” that is on display here at the Barnes County Museum now through March 11th. Sponsored by the North Dakota Humanities Council this exhibit is touring six communities in ND in 2011 and 2012 and I’ve learned that it will tour another six ND towns for 2012-2014.

These exhibits are specially designed by the Smithsonian Institution for communities under 10,000 who are so easily overlooked or bypassed by such opportunities. This is the third exhibit we’ve hosted here at the Barnes County Museum. The first, in 2004, was “Produce for Victory” the story of the WWII home front effort. The second in 2008 was “Between Fences” talking about land and land usage. This third one “Key Ingredients” is all about American food traditions.

If you want to start up an interesting conversation you might ask someone “What is the most memorable meal you’ve eaten?” There is surely a story to follow as food is so central to who we are as human beings. Food means something to everyone and to ask the question of something that is memorable is to delve into a rich source of information. Food is often associated with ethnic backgrounds, or sometimes economic circumstances. It can be as much as who you are eating with or where as it is what you’re eating. Was it a good, or perhaps less than pleasant, memory?

“Key Ingredients” is designed to allow us to pause for a moment as we look at what food means to people all over our large nation and answer the questions of “how are we similar and how are we different?” Food unites us in many ways. There is also truth in the saying that one man’s meat is another’s poison. This is none so true as when it comes to Lutefisk.

Believe it or not but North Dakota is best known for two foods, Perch and Cream of Wheat. Don’t ask me how but that is what THEY think of us, but who THEY are exactly I don’t know. I don’t have a way of showing perch for the exhibit but I needed a box of Cream of Wheat to display and this meant a trip to the grocery store. I also wanted some locally produced Flax Flour. Furthermore, one of the foods that we should be known for but apparently are not is Lutefisk. That notorious Scandinavian delicacy known to make Norwegians drool at the dropping of its name, I’ve heard it called radioactive Christmas Food and worse. Made from dried and then reconstituted cod fish processed with lye, if it is cured fish you wonder what the disease was. Eating it for Scandinavians must be like the eating of Bitter Herbs to the Jews during Passover. Regardless, it is certainly a holdover from another time and a certain fixture when we talk about local food traditions. Since no one else was going to be brave, I had to take one for the team and buy a bag of the stuff to get the bag to include in the exhibit. This meant that I had to either eat the stuff or use it as brass polish…one of its many OTHER uses. I tried my hand at cooking it Sunday night. I could just see the potential headlines, “Local Museum Curator poisons family with museum exhibit materials!”

I am happy to report that I am alive and well, hale and hearty (so are the folks) and actually have nothing to truly report on the whole experience as it wasn't THAT bad....really!

Wikipedia: “Lutefisk (Norwegian) or Lutfisk (Swedish) (pronounced [lʉːtfesk]in Northern Norway, [lʉːtəfɪsk]in Central and Southern Norway, [lʉːtfɪsk]in Sweden and the Swedish-speaking areas in Finland (Finnish: lipeäkala)) is a traditional dish of the Nordic countries and parts of the Midwest United States. It is made from aged stockfish(air-dried whitefish) or dried/salted whitefish(klippfisk) and lye (lut). It is gelatinous in texture, and has an extremely strong, pungent odor. Its name literally means "lye fish.""

Oh, I've heard the stories and comments all my life about how terrible the stuff made from old cod and lye is and how it will stink you out of house and home, corrode pots and pans to unusability and possibly contaminate the kitchen to the point of needing a similar scrubbing normally associated with nuclear accident cleanup.
The following directions are but one recommendation for the proper preparation of lutefisk:
1. Get the lutefisk
2. Lay it on a pine board
3. Flatten with a meat cleaver
4. Salt and pepper it and pour on butter
5. Bake on board in oven for 30 minutes
6. Remove from oven and allow to cool
7. Throw out the lutefisk and eat the board
I've heard how Uffda is an acceptable response to Lutefisk in about any circumstance....up wind, down wind and even when the wind isn't blowing. I carefully found the smallest bag of it at the store I could get and immediately "Uffda" came to mind. Not so much for the smell hidden within the plastic bag but the price. It seemed a little exorbitant for something once considered to be “poor people food,” but, upon removing the sticker to make the bag ready for exhibition I discovered that indeed it had been on sale and I'd purchased myself some discounted lutefisk. Needless to say I began to have trepidations.

There is the old joke about how a guy walked into a general store once and told the clerk that he was having troubles with skunks living under his porch. The clerk had just the answer. Throw some lutefisk under the porch and the skunk troubles would be over. A few days later the guy came back to the store and the clerk asked if the skunks were gone to which the guy answered that indeed they were and that the lutefisk did the trick, but now he had an even bigger problem as Norwegians had moved in.

I had been wondering exactly how I was going to go about the cooking of this stuff as I was benevolently donating the bag to the museum, but being on the poor side of the economic scale I didn't have the luxury of tossing out the contents of the bag. I do know that when I carefully opened the edge of the bag so as to not damage the graphics of the smiling cartoon fish my nose was hit with a discernibly noticeable smell as I quickly transferred it all into an appropriately sized Ziploc. Uffda indeed! But I was in a hurry since the lady from the Smithsonian was coming and I didn't have time to further go into the olfactory details of lutefisk. I grabbed the now washed out bag and ran off to get it displayed in the pantheon of American eats.

According to Wikipedia “Lutefisk is made from dried whitefish (normally cod in Norway, but ling is also used) prepared with lye in a sequence of particular treatments. The watering steps of these treatments differ slightly for salted/dried whitefish because of its high salt content.
The first treatment is to soak the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish swells during this soaking, and its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent producing a jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) has a pH value of 11–12 and is therefore caustic. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be cooked.”

There is the story of how Lutefisk came about. The Swedes wanted the land of Norway but they didn't want the Norwegians and so went about the process of poisoning the population. Two days later the Norwegians came back to the Swedes wanting the recipe.

Wiki: "The origin of lutefisk is unknown. Legends include the accidental dropping of fish into a lye bucket or sodden wood ash containing lye under a drying rack. Another claims the practice enabled storing fish outdoors. Cold temperature acted as a preservative and the lye deterred wild animals from eating the fish. However, using lye to soften a hard, indigestible base is used to prepare other foods such as hominy.”

Sunday night rolled around and it was my turn to sink or swim in the long line of Lye Fish cooks in my family. My father isn’t big into fish and never has been, but he gets a little misty eyed and wistful when he remembers his mother (Full-blooded Swiss) making lutefisk for her husband (Full-blooded Norwegian) and her family back on the farm during the “Dirty Thirties” of the last Great Depression. He talks about how my grandfather would quickly wolf down his plate and go back for seconds if not thirds. My dad actually LIKES the stuff. I don’t know if it is so much for the nutritional food content or flavor or just that it reminds him of home and the good old days.

There must be something in my ¼ Norwegian DNA that told me how to go about things as I instinctively (or in-stink-tively) knew to wash the stuff off and soak it overnight in salt water and then the next morning wash it again and change the water in the morning, again the same process at noon and once more before patting it dry and putting it in a casserole dish to be baked at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes or until flakey….or something not so much resembling Jell-O resulted.

The first thing I noticed was….nothing….no smell at all! One would think once heat were applied that it would begin to open up its pores and let loose with whatever it was that was going to cause the anticipated eye-watering and reflexive gaging. But nothing came from the oven. Not even when at the end of the requisite 30 minutes I opened the lid to see what was going on. A little jiggle told me that it needed about 10 more minutes. At the end of that time, dinner was served. I made mashed potatoes and, probably against the purists taste, some peas…the greenness of them surely an offense to the idea of everything being as white as possible. I melted the butter and served my dinner.

It wasn’t bad. I mean, I wouldn’t want a steady diet of the stuff (once a decade or so satiates my craving for it) but if I HAD to I could eat it. Dad was in hog heaven and reliving how they used to take and roll it in lefsa. Mom (German/English) wasn’t quite so taken with it and politely mixed it in with her mashed potatoes.

• Quote from Garrison Keillor's book Lake Wobegon Days:
“EveryAdvent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I'd be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.”

So, there you have it. Nothing traumatic or dramatic to report. No frantic calls to 911 or neighborhood evacuations due to my cooking of this most unusual of Scandinavian delicacies. I have cooked and eaten Lutefisk and lived to tell the tale!

1. O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma,
O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma.
You smell so strong, you look like glue,
You taste just like an overshoe,
But lutefisk, come Saturday,
I tink I eat you anyvay

2. O Lutefisk, O lutefisk, I put you in the doorvay.
I wanted you to ripen up just like they do in Norvay.
A dog came by and sprinkled you.
I hit him with my overshoe.
O lutefisk, now I suppose
I'll eat you while I hold my nose.

3. O Lutefisk, O lutefisk, how well I do remember.
On Christmas Eve how we'd receive our big treat of December.
It wasn't turkey or fried ham.
It wasn't even pickled Spam.
My mother knew there was no risk
In serving buttered lutefisk.

4. O Lutefisk, O lutefisk, now everyone discovers
That lutefisk and lefse make Norvegians better lovers.
Now all the world can have a ball.
You're better than that Geritol.
O lutefisk, with brennevin [Norwegian brandy]
You make me feel like Errol Flynn.

5. O Lutefisk, O lutefisk, you have a special flavor.
O Lutefisk, O lutefisk, all good Norvegians savor.
That slimy slab we know so well
Identified by ghastly smell.
O Lutefisk, O lutefisk,
Our loyalty won't waver.

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