Vintage Eats: Fish Feasts on Holiday Menus

By / Photography By Rob Gustafson | November 02, 2013
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Forget turkey, ham, or even the traditional goose. For many families, the holiday season is not complete without lye-soaked cod drenched in melted butter. Every December diners decked in colorful patterned Nordic sweaters line up at St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church in the Town of Ashippun, one of the oldest Norwegian Lutheran churches in the state, to indulge in the annual lutefisk feast.

“Oh, the lutefisk dinner is so fun!” Elaine Monis exclaims. “We have families that come every year. I think it helps them feel a connection to their heritage.”

Monis’s grandfather came to Wisconsin from Norway around 1912. She grew up eating lutefisk on Christmas Eve, and has attended and volunteered at St. Olaf’s dinner for 48 years.

That descendents of the Vikings, perhaps history’s greatest tough guys, would celebrate holidays with a food prepared in a caustic substance seems hardly surprising. Lutefisk – codfish (fisk) preserved in lye (lut) – is both a delicacy and a tradition among Scandinavian-Americans who serve the chemical-soaked, gelatinous fish with a warm and friendly smile. While lutefisk, or lutfisk in Swedish, is a traditional dish in Norway, Sweden, and parts of Finland, it tends to be more commonly associated with Norwegians in the United States – perhaps due to their vigorous promotion of it at community and church events.

The lutefisk dinner is an annual fall and winter tradition (save for the February dinner at Wind Lake’s Norway Lutheran Church) at scores of Lutheran churches and Nordic fraternal groups throughout the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest — really anywhere with a large Scandinavian-American population. And with nearly as many Americans with primarily Norwegian heritage as there are people in Norway, about 4.5 million people, the custom lives on.

“These dinners represent important traditions in both families and communities, and for some, they are a valued connection to their ancestors,” says Carrie Roy, creator of the documentary “Where the Sacred Meets the Quivering Profane: Exploring the Public and Private Spheres of Lutefisk.” “While the food tradition certainly originated in Scandinavia, the immigrant communities – especially their churches and cultural heritage lodges – have played a major role in developing the phenomenon of lutefisk dinners.”

“While the food tradition certainly originated in Scandinavia, the immigrant communities – especially their churches and cultural heritage lodges – have played a major role in developing the phenomenon of lutefisk dinners.” – Carrie Roy

Lutefisk starts as cod, traditionally caught in the cold waters off  Norway. It’s then dried to the point that it becomes leathery and rigid. Water alone can’t reconstitute the dried fish so it’s soaked in lye. Yes, lye, the industrial chemical used to unclog drains and dispose of murder victims. Incidentally, it’s the same ingredient that gives pretzels that deep, glossy brown and what makes bagels shine; these foods just don’t advertise this fact like lutefisk does. After soaking, the fish is repeatedly rinsed before cooking and eating. But it’s still so close to toxic that the state of Wisconsin passed a law specifically exempting lutefisk from being a legally toxic substance (you can find it buried in Section 101.58 (2)(j)(f)).

Lutefisk is far from the only holiday fish dish. On Christmas Eve, southern Italians celebrate the Feast of Seven Fishes; Poles consume a meatless Wigilia of fish, soup, sauerkraut, pierogi, and noodles; carp and herring often appear on German tables; and many Mexicans and Spaniards eat the salted cod known as bacalao. These holiday fish feasts are products of both faith and geography.

Early Christians took the fish as both symbol and food because of its frequent mention in the Gospels and its primacy in the diet. In Matthew 14:17, Christ multiplied two fish and five loaves of bread, and in Mark 1:17, Jesus said he would make his followers into “fishers of men.”

Abstaining from meat on holy days remains one of the most recognizable markers of Catholic identity.

Technically, the Catholic Church defines meat as the flesh of warm-blooded animals. Fish are among many cold-blooded animals, though the Christian world never really developed an appetite for snakes. But fish have been associated with sacred days even before Christianity. It wasn’t just Friday. Wednesday, Advent, Lent, and other holy days were also abstaining holidays. As the number of meatless days on the Christian calendar multiplied, people’s hunger for fish grew, which in turn helped fuel the global fishing industry.

Herring first whet the religious appetite. But despite its abundance in European coastal waters, herring had the disadvantage of becoming tasteless when smoked or salted. Before refrigeration, there was no efficient way for fresh fish to reach consumers so preservation was a must. Cod eventually supplanted herring because it lasted longer and, more importantly, tasted better.

The Vikings excelled at preserving cod. Dried, salted cod sustained them on their journeys from Iceland to Greenland and Newfoundland. That route also just so happens to align with the natural range of the Atlantic cod. Some historians have suggested that European exploration of the New World was in pursuit of better fishing waters. By pushing the borders of the known world, the Friday abstinence from meat may even have remade the map of the world.

No one is quite sure where and when lutefisk originated, though it likely dates back to the Vikings with their talent for preservation. Both Swedes and Norwegians claim it was invented in their country. A common legend goes that Viking fishermen hung their cod to dry on tall birch racks. When some neighboring Vikings attacked, they burned the racks of fish but a rainstorm soon blew in from the North Sea, extinguishing the fire. The remaining fish soaked in a puddle of rainwater and birch ash for months before some hungry Vikings discovered the cod, reconstituted it, and had a feast. Another story tells of St. Patrick’s attempt to poison Viking raiders in Ireland with the lye-soaked fish. But rather than kill them, the Vikings relished the delicious fish and declared it a delicacy. It makes for a great story, never mind the fact that Patrick lived centuries before the Vikings attacked Ireland.

Scandinavians have eaten lutefisk for centuries. Preserved cod provided protein during the long winter months for generations of families in a part of the world with a strong tradition of fishing. This food of poor Scandinavians came to the United States with immigrants. Lye was an essential household tool, used for making soap and preserving food in many cultures. It was easily prepared in the kitchen by boiling wood ash from beech or birch in water and straining the result. Lutefisk first appeared in Norwegian literature in 1555 in the writings of Olaus Magnus who describes its preparation and proper serving method: lots of butter.

Lutefisk is a polarizing dish, even among those at the dinners.

“People that like it really like it, and those that don’t… well, they really don’t,” says Monis with a laugh. She counts herself in that elusive middle ground. She eats it but doesn’t crave it. She’d happily stick to the lefse, the Norwegian potato flatbread similar in appearance to a tortilla.

“Lutefisk is the substance you love to hate,” describes Roy. “It’s a rich substance for jokes, and for these reasons, it holds an interesting spectrum of appeal that varies from the cherished to reviled.” 

For the haters, there are usually meatballs, a hand-rolled peace offering for mixed marriages of Scandinavians to spouses of different ethnic heritages.

Lutefisk has a reputation for its noxious smell, though it has improved in recent years. Modern processing methods, including enclosed commercial kiln driers and the refinement of lye, make for better smelling – or at the very least, less smelly – fish. Even so, many churches coat their walls in plastic to help contain the odor.

Melted butter, per Magnus’ recommendation, is still the most popular way to eat lutefisk, though other dinners feature a mustard (more common in Chicago) or cream sauce. Monis says one man used to bring his own mustard to St. Olaf’s dinner.

The fish itself is flaky and a slightly translucent white in color. While still firm in places, the fish tends to be slippery and a little squishy, and the whole platter quivers a bit as it makes its way down the table.

Lutefisk is not the only way Wisconsin Norwegians consume cod. Milwaukee’s Norway House holds torsk (Norwegian for cod) suppers on select Saturdays from September through May. Cooked fresh or from frozen fish, torsk at this supper is boiled in salted water with no other seasonings. Boiled cod, and cod itself, is so common and abundant in Norway that it is often called the “poor man’s lobster.”

Between 150 and 300 people attend each of Norway House’s torsk suppers. Lodge member Heidi Strom thinks torsk tastes much better than lutefisk.

“No one is asking for lutefisk at our meals,” she says.

She remembers going to torsk suppers with her grandparents as a kid, and has been getting more into her heritage by attending the suppers in the last few years. 

As at lutefisk dinners, diners at the torsk supper douse their fish in butter or cream sauce. Both meals also tend to feature a fairly standard slate of starchy seasonal fare: potatoes, coleslaw, green beans, and a big bowl of mashed rutabagas that can be nearly indistinguishable at quick glance from the mashed potatoes (they tend to be yellower). A pile of rolled lefse often sits in the center of the table beside sticks of butter and bowls of sugar, lefse’s usual accompaniment.

Whether lutefisk or even torsk tastes good is beside the point, however. Questions of taste fall by the wayside when a dish can transport diners back to a heritage, a homeland, and their family. And for many people, that’s really the point of the holiday season and the holiday feast. 

Other Fish Feasts

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Served in Italian-American households on La Vigilia (the vigil, or Christmas Eve), the Feast of the Seven Fishes features course after course (sometimes seven but sometimes more) of seafood dishes. The tradition is most popular among southern Italians but fish is commonly found on the Christmas menu all around Italy.

The number of courses, reason for the number, and type of fish served is open to interpretation. Some have suggested that the number seven stands for the seven sacraments and others say it refers to the number of days it took God to create the universe. To make it more confusing, some families insist on 13 courses, for the 12 apostles and Jesus. Odd numbers are important, though, as they are thought to bring luck in the Christian faith.

Polish Wigilia

Christmas Eve, or Wigilia, is a meatless meal that often includes mushroom soup, potatoes, pickled herring, fried fish, pierogi, sauerkraut, fruit compote, and assorted pastries, candies, and cakes. Like the Italians, Polish holiday feasts feature an odd number of dishes often seven, nine, or eleven.

Traditionally, before sitting down to the table, everyone breaks the traditional wafer, or oplatek, and exchanges good wishes for health, happiness, and wealth. The thin, unleavened wafer is often stamped with figures of Jesus, Mary, and the holy angels.

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