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Lutefisk, and Other Childhood Traumas

John Moe

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Mmmm! Lutefisk!
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For most American families, Christmas dinner means ham, potatoes, pumpkin pie. But my mother and my late father are immigrants from Norway, so getting ready for Christmas means a trip to Olsen's Scandinavian Deli. The place is packed this time of year. I went there with my mom.

"Do you have lutefisk?" she asked.

"Yes," said owner Anita Endreson, "Fresh all the way to Christmas Eve."

Lutefisk. Dried cod soaked in lye. Then served. To humans. When I was a kid, I wouldn't go near it or any Norwegian dish. Too fishy, too gelatinous. But I'm older now. I have a son of my own, who hates trying new food. And I wonder about the heritage that I've become so distant from. I don't speak the language, don't think of myself as Norwegian. But maybe if I try these foods, I can see if my taste buds have changed and I've secretly become more Norwegian.

So that's why my mom and I were at Olsen's. "It's too bad they don't have blood pudding anymore," she said as we walked the aisles. More on that in a minute. Back at her house, we unpacked the "feast."

We had to boil the lutefisk before eating it. (Dried fish soaked in lye and then boiled.) This was going to be a flavor bonanza. While we waited, we had some pink, gooey caviar from a tube as is the custom in Scandinavia. The caviar's served with cheese. That's the thing with this type of food. It's always served with other strong foods to mask it: Caviar goo with cheese. Pickled herring with onions. Lutefisk with bacon, peas and both liquor and beer. It's like the food is ashamed of itself. Onward to that pickled herring. Fish soaked in brine, onions are added, so is salt, so is grossness. No, stop that. Give it a try.

I don't know if I was dreading eating it because it was gross, or dreading eating it because I decided it was gross. Finally, after stalling along with self-conscious thoughts like that for a while, I ate some. I can't say I liked it. But it wasn't the toxic, poisonous monster I still, after decades, suspected it would be. Just tasted like fish. I was holding up okay as the lutefisk boiled ominously in the kitchen.

Onward to mackerel in tomato sauce from a can. A product that has somehow never caught on in the States. Again, palatable but barely. Next: sylte. Pork and beef rolled up with spices and pressed with heavy stones. Neither of us knew what all was in there. "The white bits are probably just fat?" I offered.

"Probably," she said. "I don't know what the black ones are."

Not terrible but nothing I'd ever purchase for non-journalistic purposes. The lutefisk was almost done, but I had to ask about that blood pudding, no longer available in local stores. It's worth mentioning that Mom was a young girl in rural Norway during World War II.

"At home we always made it out of, you know when we had slaughtered the sheep, then you took the blood."

"Why would you eat the blood of a sheep?" I asked/shouted. "What's wrong with you?"

"And you made pancakes. Blood pancakes. And you made the pancake batter and instead of putting milk and stuff in it, you put blood in it."

"This isn't a result of some sort of postwar trauma, that you were all so psychologically damaged that you thought eating sheep blood was a good idea?"

"People loved it."

Finally, it was lutefisk time. You know, I never wanted to try it when I was a kid, but now that I try it, it's some of the most disgusting food I've ever had. It's like if you ground up a bunch of Styrofoam and put oil on it. And then sat down and ate it.

I left Mom's house neither converted nor incapacitated. I was glad I tried it, at least until it started mixing around down there, but I don't feel like I ever need to try it again. I'll tell my son about it. Over pizza.


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    By Kenneth Brennen

    From Zimmerman, 12/24/2009

    I'm with you. When I moved to Minnesota years ago I wanted to explore the ethnic cuisine. I bought some lutefisk at the local grocery, all nicely laid out in an aluminum foil pan, and popped it in the oven per instructions. As it heated up a truly fetid odor started creeping through the house. Without waiting for the lutefisk to finish baking I hustled it to the trash bin, outside. I was annoyed because I had been sold rotten fish, and later flabbergasted when one of my new work colleagues told it was supposed to smell that way.

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