Friday, December 10, 2010

The lutfisk has landed... hold your nose.

O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma.
O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma.
You smell so strong, you look like glue,
You taste yust like an overshoe,
But lutefisk, come Saturday,
I tink I eat you anyvay.
--Author unknown, tune "O Tannenbaum"
Like most Americans, I am a hardy mutt who comes of mixed ethnic stock. My family tree, at last count, has strong elements of Swedish and Dutch ancestry (hey, you ain't much if you ain't Dutch), and further additions of English, Scotch-Irish, possible German, European Jewish and a sprinkling of the ubiquitous Cherokee Indian DNA. But my family's strongest cultural ties make themselves known around the end-of-year holidays. Most of our family's Christmas traditions originate in Northern Europe -- specifically, from the aforementioned Sweden and the Netherlands. (You can see this partly reflected in our Christmas tree as seen in an earlier post, which has a definite Swedish flavor.)

Starting around December 1 and running all the way through January, we celebrate a series of Advent- and Yule-related holidays, and almost all of them are marked by the making and eating of familiar foods. On the morning of December 6, Miss V woke to find a wealth of goodies in her shoe, left by Sinterklaas. On December 13, if I remember to plan ahead this year, we will celebrate St. Lucia Day by making and eating saffron-laced lussekatter with hot chocolate. At least once during this month, I will serve my great-grandma's recipe for spiced tomato soup with meatballs and barley. On New Year's Eve, my mother often makes oliebollen as a sweet farewell to the old year.

And of course, a few days before Christmas, my mother and other family members work like dogs for several days to put together the grand high cornucopia of gustatory pleasures that is known as the holiday smörgåsbord. (Technically, what we create is called a Julbord, but most people are more familiar with the year-round term for a Swedish full-service hot and cold buffet.) The bounty represented in this annual food bacchanal puts the traditional American Thanksgiving feast to shame. In my not very humble opinion, if you have never experienced the many and varied joys of a true Swedish smörgåsbord, you are not allowed to call yourself a gourmand.

The photograph of this groaning Julbord easily could have been taken in my mother's home, right down to the tomtar-covered tablecloth. There are several different kinds of bread, of course, and knäckebröd, and butter, and many varieties of cheese. There are all sorts of cold fish dishes: smoked salmon, kippers, oysters, eels, cod roe, pickled herring, creamed herring, herring in mustard sauce. There are numerous cold cuts, fanned out in decorative patterns. There are sometimes cold jellied salads and cold beet salads, there are preserved lingonberries, and there is always a dish of pickled cucumbers. Then come the hot dishes: ham or roast pork with prunes, sausages (homemade potatiskorv, Prinskorv, fläskkorv), hot fruktsoppa, boiled red potatoes or rotmos, Swedish meatballs with cream sauce, and a handful of casseroles (possibly including Janssons fristelse if I remember to make it this year). Finally, the desserts, which you would be a fool to pass up -- especially if my cousin Tom has come bearing his mother's recipe for bullar, drizzled with icing and filled with sweet marzipan. Other usual suspects include Aunt Anna's almond cookies, pepparkakkor, spritz, and half a dozen other tempting goodies. The proper way to handle this dizzying wealth of food is to take very small servings of only the things you enjoy -- and also to invite everyone you know to come and partake.

There is one particular item you will not find on our groaning board, however hard you may look, and that is lutfisk. All the years my grandfather prepared and served his family the smörgåsbord, and all the years my mother has continued the tradition, it has never been given place at our Christmas feasts. Because -- and I know I will invite slurs and catcalls from those who consider themselves loyal children of Scandinavia -- lutfisk is a culinary abomination.

Really, it is. Read this description and dare to disagree with me. A perfectly good whitefish first drowned in water, then cured in lye (yes, the highly caustic stuff used to make many palatable treats such as, oh, I dunno, SOAP) until the poor former fish is as stiff and hard as a board. The lutfisk must be soaked in many changes of cold water for 4 to 6 days before it is safe to cook, and is then steamed and baked -- preferably by cooks with no sense of smell -- before being covered with a white sauce and served forth. Several schools of thought exist regarding its edibility at this point in the process; my particular school of thought holds that the diner would be better off scraping the lutfisk directly into the trash and enjoying the white sauce alone. It is evil stuff. Some even say my grandfather came to America not because he sought a better life, nor to fight the Nazi menace, but merely to escape the specter of having to eat lutfisk.

I am certain that in the dark days before refrigeration, when those living close to or above the Arctic Circle ran the very real risk of starvation every winter, highly preserved foods such as lutfisk had their purpose. Even then, that purpose was keeping body and soul together, NOT enjoying the questionable meal that made it possible. With so many other traditional foods and recipes well worth keeping alive, why would anyone in her right mind choose to focus her attentions on a gluey, lye-cured cod that discolors cooking vessels, sticks to the serving plate like concrete, and reeks like a putrefying corpse?

The doggerel song that starts this post (unknown author, although I strongly suspect Harry Stewart, aka "Yogi Yorgesson," author of many novelty songs including "Who Hid the Halibut On the Poop Deck?") has several verses extolling the joys(?) of lutefisk (the Norwegian spelling), including having to defend the plank that stank from passing dogs who wish to piddle on it, and managing to choke down a serving accompanied liberally by brandy. In the spirit of the original, then, I offer this response:

I like bullar and stollen and sweet oliebollen,
But lutfisk I need like my head needs a hole in.
So putrid and vile that all nations reprove it --
The urine of canines could only improve it.
So I'm taking a stand, and I hope you'll concede it,
For I'd rather stand on this lutfisk than eat it.


Fenchurch said...

I have to admit that when I finally got to try lutefisk, it surprised me by not being as bad as I expected. It's not that I actually like it, but I don't particularly dislike it, either.

BTW, there are some photos of your family's Julbord from last year over in an entry on my Livejournal.

Soozcat said...

Oh yeah, I remember those! Thanks.