Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lutefisk and Minnesota

     A marvelous brass ensemble entertained all during
     the dinner, and were they marvelous!

You know how some things, like salt and pepper, or a horse and carriage, just go so naturally together? Well, lutefisk and Minnesota is like that! This weekend there were lutefisk festivals all over the northern part of the state, celebrations of the state’s rich Norwegian/Swedish heritage.
by Charlie Leck

I did the traditional Minnesota holiday feed yesterday and stopped in at the little Lutheran Church up here on the corner – and had the lefse, lutefisk and meatballs luncheon! I really did! And, oh my, except for the great fun with the folks we joined, I’m not sure I’d do it again.

Pronounce it with a very long ū and with your lips pursed as you do --- luuuuutfisk! The fisk part of the word is barely audible except for the hard k sound at the end.

It’s a great, sentimental and traditional holiday food among elderly and native Minnesotans.

It is a cod that is severely dried and then prepared with things as bad as lye. One begins by soaking the cod in cold water for a matter of days and producing a jellied effect. Then one goes ahead with the lye saturation, making the fish rather acidic. After all this, one has to do something to make the fish somewhat edible and that’s usually another soaking in cold, cold water for a day or so. Then, you might be ready to cook this poor clump of cod fish. Unless you really know what you’re doing, I don’t recommend a beginner try this. It is possible to nurture the fish too long in the lye.

The cooking procedure usually includes a layer of salt spread atop the fish, releasing a good deal of the water with which it has become saturated. Then the salt is rinsed off and one goes to the actual cooking procedure. The fish is usually pan steamed in a very small amount of water (because it still contains a great deal of the water from its soakings). One can also just go ahead and boil it in the same type pan.

    The lutefisk may be awful, and it always is, but the
    happy and loving faces that greet the diners makes
    it all worthwhile.

Warnings about cooking lutefisk almost always contain the caveat that no sterling silver should be used in preparing or serving the fish because it will ruin the silver. Pans used to cook the fish and the plates used to serve it should be washed immediately and completely or they will likely be ruined. Doesn’t that just encourage you to try some lutefisk? Except for the flavorful white sauce that is put on it, the fish itself has very little flavor. However, the treats that come with it, on the side, are what make the whole meal worth dining on – like wonderful Swedish meatballs, creamed herring, hot and fresh vegetables and tasty lefse. A nice ligonberry pie for dessert doesn’t hurt either.

The original Scandinavian settlers in Minnesota would prepare plenty of lutefisk in the late autumn and store it away in cold places so that they could have it as a food staple all winter long (it keeps forever when stored in a very cold place). It was not considered a delicacy, but a food necessity – sometimes meaning that or nothing! Yet, the tradition and legend of lutefisk lingers in Minnesota and great lutefisk and lefse festivals abound across the state at this time of year. The community of Madison, Minnesota has labeled itself the “lutefisk capital of the world.” Madison is out on the western edge of the state, not too far from Madison, South Dakota. And, it’s in the French-named county of Lac Qui Parle. Now, you just know the French wouldn’t ever stoop to eating lutefisk.

I very recently listened to a recording of Garrison Keillor (of Lake Wobegon fame) calling lutefisk a “repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat...”

One of my wife’s Ole and Lena joke books includes this little tidbit: “Well, we tried the lutefisk trick and the raccoons went away, but now we’ve got a family of Norwegians living under the house!”

    The cooks are proud and well may they be! Their lefse,
    rutabaga, potatoes and herring are wonderful! So is
    the cake.

Now that refrigerators are a fact of life and common even in the backwoods parts of Minnesota, there is no real and sensible reason for the existence of lutefisk except for the comedy behind it. You’ll see lots of people at these lutefisk festivals acting like they’re really enjoying the meal, but I am here to tell you, with a rock-solid guaranty, that they are fibbing.

“Hear that gagging sound,” David Fox once wrote on his delightful blog (Globejotting), “It’s Norwegian-Americans attempting to connect with their heritage.”

Someone told me there’s actually a Christmas song called O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk. It’s sung to the tune of Oh, Christmas Tree.
“…You smell so strong, you look like glue,
You taste just like an overshoe,
But lutefisk, come Saturday,
I tink I eat you anyway.”

If you want to try lutefisk, but don’t want to go through the tedious process I describe above, and you don’t want to do it publically because of this gagging factor, it’s actually sold by the Olsen Fish Company here in Minnesota. This is an extremely reputable seller and I’ve bought some delightful products from them, like their pickled herring, but I’ve never had the desire to try their lutefisk. They will ship many of their products long distances – after all, how can you ruin lutefisk?

Well, here’s what I can say about the friendly little gathering at the quaint Lutheran Church on the corner: “I’m still alive and kicking; however, I think that’s because I only sampled the tiniest little bit of the lutefisk. But, my, the meatballs and lefse were wonderful. So was the company!”

    Some of the diners are mighty serious and swear the
    lutefisk is wonderful. I didn't believe them for a second.

    Dinner and entertainment like this for only
    eight bucks a head just can't be beat, even
    if it includes lutefisk!

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