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Lutefisk

Freda Isaksen

If one is a native born Scandinavian, it is possible that when fed lutefisk along with the first food after weaning, one will acquire a liking for this local delicacy. I have never met anyone visiting the northern countries who has a desire to go beyond the first experimental mouthful.

In its natural state lutefisk is a delectable flaky white fish named torsk [cod in English]. It is caught off the coast in cold northern waters, it comes in large and small sizes and is very plentiful, therefore very inexpensive for the consumer and popular as good nourishing food in almost every Scandinavian household. It is especially convenient in the outlying villages where the families are confined to their homes during the severely cold winter months when fresh food is unavailable. Restaurants will also serve lutefisk.

The fishermen catch the fish in abundance during the warm summer months but that season is very short in Scandinavia, so the plentiful fish must be preserved to be eaten in the future when the fishermen cannot venture into the stormy seas. Several methods are used in the homes and by commercial means to keep the fresh food edible until it is ready to be eaten. In the homes it can be buried in the deep snow which will not thaw for several months, or both locally and commercially it can be salted down and later soaked in water to remove the salt. These methods keep the fish delicious and very like the original fresh product. In modern times the freezer is of course used extensively.

Or it can be prepared to become lutefisk, a traditional Scandinavian dish that has been eaten and enjoyed by the populace for many centuries in the old countries.

I have never investigated the exact procedure that is used to turn the cod into lutefisk. Inexpertly I know that the fresh fish is split, boned and filleted, then it is soaked in a solution of lye, yes you heard correctly, the word is lye, spelled l–y–e. Then it is dried in ashes, a local home probably uses the very ashes from their own heating stoves, but that is only my own supposition, where else would a family get the ashes?

After this treatment it becomes yellow, hard and brittle and as stiff as a board. Then the fish will last indefinitely when kept dry. Commercially the process would be similar.

The stocks of food will surely be consumed before the next summer sun appears in the sky when the fisherman will again venture into the seas to earn his living and provide food for his family. Any day of the year or especially at a holiday event or special celebration the fish will be taken from its storage place or purchased at the local market. It will be thawed enough to be cut into serving pieces then cooked in boiling water. But the cook must be experienced, for if the fish is cooked too long it will disappear in the water, in other words it will melt away. When the fish is carefully removed from the cooking utensils there is a proud look on the cook’s face because the finished product indicates proficiency and success.

When the lutefisk is placed on the serving dish it looks white and slippery and somewhat translucent, like jelly. It is usually served with melted butter and boiled potatoes.

After what I have described about its preparation if you have the inclination to take that first bite, unless you are a dyed in the wool Scandinavian you will probably be horrified for it tastes the same as you would imagine after being soaked in lye. Yuck! And Ugh! Even after many years of absence from his native country a true Scandinavian will forever crave his lutefisk and have the commercial product imported to his present home especially for Christmas dinner.

As the Swedes and Norwegians say, “God appetite and takk for mat.”


Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at math.wayne.edu.

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