Ode to Lutefisk
Date: Wed, 7 Dec 94 23:43:51 PST
Subject: Ode to Lutefisk
Forwarded-by: "email@example.com" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: email@example.com (Clay Shirky)
It is my wont when traveling 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 regions 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 - crescendo 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 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
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 brassiere, and I would order something
tame like reindeer steak, and 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 newfound treat.
Ah, but the best laid plans... My hostess, clearly feeling in a
holiday mood (and perhaps further cheered by my imminent departure as
their house guest) proceeded to order lutefisk 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
"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
"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 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. Its 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
Shortly thereafter the two remaining plates arrived, each containing
the lutefisk itself, boiled potatoes, and a mash of peas from which
all the 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
"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, and 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 traveler lives for is the native dinner where,
throwing caution to the wind and plunging into a local delicacy which
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 ones 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 odiferous 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? Its a bit like describing passing a
kidneystone 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 the time honored phrases like "nauseating sordid
gunk", "unimaginably horrific", "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
"What'd she say?, I asked.
"Oh, she said, 'I never eat lutefisk either. It tastes like python.'"
© 1994 Peter Langston