The history of lutefisk

By Kaare Askildt Formerly known as the Farmer in Training

Lutefisk is a traditional Scandinavian (read Norwegian) meal. The Norwegians claim to have created the dish, as do the Swedes. In any event it was invented during the Viking era. It started with drying the fish to preserve it. First they built racks from birch tree branches, and set them on top of the cliffs facing the North Sea. The fish had to be Atlantic cod fish, which was gutted and split down the middle, with the tail still intact. The fish would be hung on the racks with the meat side out, and would be dried by the sun and the wind. The drying process would cause the meat to shrivel up and turn slightly yellow in colour. In Spain they call this bacalao, and treat it as a delicacy.

Now the historical researchers hit upon a snag, trying to explain how the process of making lutefisk came to be. One theory, and probably the accurate one, is that while the fish was hanging on the racks to dry, the Viking settlement would get attacked by another tribe, and during the attack, the racks with fish were set on fire. Big Atlantic Ocean waves swamped the fires and put them out, leaving the fish to soak in birch ashes and salt water (lye) for months, making the dried meat swell up. The Viking settlement was running out of food during the winter, and one of the Vikings would take the lye-soaked fish, rinse it in fresh water and boil it – voila – creating lutefisk. This is my story and I’m sticking to it!

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The process was subsequently improved upon, specifying the amount of water and using only birch ashes required for perfect strength of the lye. Then the number of rinses required getting the lye out of the fish, and how long to boil it had to be standardized. It has been officially documented that it took many emergency trips to the two-holer outhouse to establish the rinsing sequence, and many of the diners didn’t dare pass gas for at least a couple of days! At around 1349-50 the process became more refined and is the one still in use today for those that enjoy making lutefisk from scratch.

Another theory according to Wikipedia, and I quote, “is that the lack of salt deposits in the area favoured the drying process for the preservation of whitefish – a process known for millennia. The higher quality fish would be soaked in water, then boiled and consumed with melted butter. Lower grade fish would be harder and more fuel-consuming to boil and it has been suggested that adding ash from birch to the boiling water would break down the protein chains and speed up the process. The introduction of lye in the preparation process might therefore have been incidental.”

A recent survey has shown that Lutefisk is more popular in North America than in Norway. From 30 to 40 per cent of North Americans of Norwegian ancestry enjoy a lutefisk dinner at least once each year, whereas the same can only be said of about two to three per cent of the Norwegian population. However, the younger generation has reverted to the more traditional Norwegian dishes, and the Norwegian lutfisk eaters are on the rise.

And finally, I quote the American food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, also known as the man who ate everything, from his interview with Dagbladet, a Norwegian Newspaper: "Lutefisk is not food, it is a weapon of mass destruction. It is currently the only exception for the man who ate everything. Otherwise, I am fairly liberal, I gladly eat worms and insects, but I draw the line on lutefisk."

"What is special with lutefisk?"

"Lutefisk is the Norwegians' attempt at conquering the world. When they discovered that Viking raids didn't produce world supremacy, they invented a meal so terrifying, so cruel, that they could scare people to become one's subordinates. And if I'm not terribly wrong, you will be able to do it as well."

"But some people say that they like lutefisk. Do you think they tell the truth?"

"I do not know. Of all food, lutefisk is the only one that I don't take any stand on. I simply cannot decide whether it is nice or disgusting, if the taste is interesting or commonplace. The only thing I know, is that I like bacon, mustard and lefse. Lutefisk is an example of food that almost doesn't taste like anything, but is so full of emotions that the taste buds get knocked out."