The Power of Lutefisk

"Lutefisk" is an infamous Norwegian dish composed of fish soaked in lye. Want to know more?

From: (Clay Shirky)
Newsgroups: alt.folklore.urban
Subject: Ode to Lutefisk (Long)
Date: Sun, 04 Dec 1994 09:11:19 -0500

It is my wont when travelling to forgo the touristic in favor of the real, to persuade my kind hosts, whoever they may be, that an evening in the local, imbibing pints of whatever the natives use as intoxicants, would be more interesting than another espresso in another place called Cafe Opera. Chiefest among my interests is the Favorite Dish: the plate, cup, or bowl of whatever stuff my hosts consider most representative of the region's virtues. As I just finished a week's work in Oslo, this dish was of course lutefisk.

(snd f/x: organ music in minor key - cresc. and out.)

The Norwegians are remarkably single-minded in their attachment to the stuff. Every one of them would launch themselves into a hydrophobic frenzy of praise on the mere mention of the word. Though these panegyrics were as varied as they were fulsome, they shared one element in common. Every testimonial to the recondite deliciousness of cod soaked in lye ended with the phrase "...but I only eat it once a year."

When I pressed my hosts as to why they would voluntarily forswear what was by all accounts the tastiest fish dish since pussy 364 days a year, each of them said "Oh, you can't eat lutefisk more than once a year." (Their unanimity on this particular point carried with it the same finality as the answers you get when casually asking a Scientologist about L. Ron's untimely demise.)

Despite my misgivings from these interlocutions, however, there was nothing for it but to actually try the stuff, as it was clearly the local delicacy. A plan was hatched whereby my hosts and I would distill ourselves to a nearby brasserie, and I would order something tame like reindeer steak, while they would order lutefisk. The portions at this particular establishment were large, they assured me, and, when I discovered for myself how scrumptious jellied fish tasted, I could have an adequate amount from each of their plates to satiate my taste for this new-found treat.

Ah, but the best laid plans.... My hostess, clearly feeling in a holiday mood (and perhaps further cheered by my immanent departure as their house guest), proceeded to order lutefisks all round.

"But I was going to order reinde..."

"Nonononono," she said, "you must have your own lutefisk. It would be rude to bring you to Norway and not give you your own lutefisk."

My mumbled suggestion that I had never been one to stand on formality went unnoticed, and, moments later, somewhere in the kitchen, there was a lutefisk with my name on it.

The waitress, having conveyed this order to the chef, returned with a bottle and three shot glasses, and spent some time interrogating my host. He laughed as she left, and I asked what she said.

"Oh she said 'Is the American really going to eat lutefisk?', and, when I told her you were, she said that it takes some time to get used to it."

"How long?", I asked.

"Well, she said a couple of years", replied my host.

In the meantime, my hostess was busily decanting a clear liquid into the shot glass and passing it my way. When I learned that it was aquavit, I demurred, as I intended to get some writing done on the train.

"Oh no," said my hostess, donning the smile polite people use when giving an order, "you must have aquavit with lutefisk."

To understand the relationship between aquavit and lutefisk, here's an experiment you can do at home. In addition to aquavit, you will need a slice of lemon, a cracker, a dishtowel, ketchup, a piece of lettuce, some caviar, and a Kit-Kat candy bar.

1. Take a shot of aquavit.
2. Take two. (They're small.)
3. Put a bit of caviar on a bit of lettuce.
4. Put the lettuce on a cracker.
5. Squeeze some lemon juice on the caviar.
6. Pour some ketchup on the Kit-Kat bar.
7. Tie the dishtowel around your eyes.

If you can taste the difference between caviar on a cracker and ketchup on a Kit-Kat while blindfolded, you have not had enough aquavit to be ready for lutefisk. Return to step one.

The first real sign of trouble was when a plate arrived and was set in front of my host, sitting to my left. It contained a collection of dark and aromatic food stuffs of a variety of textures. Having steeled myself for an encounter with a pale jelly, I was puzzled at its appearance, and I leaned over to get a better look.

"Oh," said my host, "that's not lutefisk. I changed my mind and ordered the juletid plate. It is pork and sausages."

"But you're leaving for New York tomorrow, so tonight is your last chance to have lutefisk this year" I pointed out.

"Oh well," he said, tucking into what looked like a very tasty pork chop.

Shortly thereafter, the two remaining plates arrived, each containing the lutefisk itself, boiled potatoes, and a mash of peas from which all color had been expertly tortured. There was also a garnish of a slice of cucumber, a wedge of lemon, and a sliver of red pepper.

"This is bullshit!" said my hostess, snatching the garnish off her plate.

"What's wrong," I asked, "not enough lemon?"

"No, a plate of lutefisk should be totally gray!"

Indeed, with the removal of the garnish, it was totally gray, and waiting for me to dig in. There being no time like the present, I tore a forkful away from the cod carcass, and lifted it to my mouth.

"Wait," said my host, "you can't eat it like that!"

"OK," I said, "how should I eat it?"

"Mash up your potatoes, then mix a bit of lutefisk in, and then add some bacon." he said, handing me a tureen filled to the brim with bacon bits floating in fat.

I began to strain some of the bits out of the tureen. "No, not like that, like this", he said, snatching up the tureen and pouring three fingers of pure bacon grease directly over the beige mush I had made from the potatoes and lutefisk already on my plate.

"Now, can I eat it?"

"No, not yet, you have to mix in the mustard."

"And the pepper", added my hostess. "You have to have lutefisk with lots and lots of pepper. And then you have to eat it right away, because if it gets cold, it's horrible."

They proceeded to add pepper and mustard in amounts I felt were more appropriate to ingredients rather than flavors, but no matter. At this point, what I had was an undercooked hash brown with mustard on it, flavored with a little bit of lutefisk. "How bad could it be?" I thought to myself, as I lifted my fork to my mouth.

The moment every traveller lives for is the native dinner, where, throwing caution to the wind and plunging into a local delicacy that ought by rights to be disgusting, one discovers that it is not only delicious but that it also contradicts a previously held prejudice about food, that it expands one's culinary horizons to include surprising new smells, tastes, and textures.

Lutefisk is not such a dish.

Lutefisk is instead pretty much what you'd expect of jellied cod; it is a foul and odoriferous goo, whose gelatinous texture and rancid oily taste are locked in spirited competition to see which can be the more responsible for rendering the whole completely inedible.

How to describe that first bite? It's a bit like describing passing a kidney-stone to the uninitiated. If you are talking to someone else who has lived through the experience, a nod will suffice to acknowledge your shared pain, but, to explain it to the person who has not been there, mere words seem inadequate to the task. So it is with lutefisk. One could bandy about time-honored phrases like "nauseating sordid gunk", "unimaginably horrific", and "lasting psychological damage", but these seem hollow when applied to the task at hand. I will have to resort to a recipe for a kind of metaphorical lutefisk, to describe the experience. Take marshmallows made without sugar, blend them together with overcooked Japanese noodles, and then bathe the whole liberally in acetone. Let it marinate in cod liver oil for several days at room temperature. When it has achieved the appropriate consistency (though the word "appropriate" is somewhat problematic here), heat it to just above lukewarm, sprinkle in thousands of tiny, sharp, invisible fish bones, and serve.

The waitress, returning to clear our plates, surveyed the half-eaten goo I had left.

She nodded conspiratorially at me, said something to my host, and left.

"What'd she say?, I asked.

"Oh, she said 'I never eat lutefisk either. It tastes like python.'"

Clay "I think my mistake was in using the dishtowel: you need
to drink enough aquavit so you can't tell the difference between
caviar on a cracker and ketchup on a Kit-Kat with your eyes open" Shirky