Tag Archives: lutefisk

Call me a man of the world

This was the weekend of the annual Festival of Nations at the River Centre in St. Paul. And so I was there, but with an abbreviated schedule. I’ve noticed in the past that I’ve always come down sick shortly after this worldly debauch, and I’ve started to suspect that it’s not good for me to spend four long days in a basement. I’ll see if this works better.

Business-wise, it was pretty good. On Saturday I sold a whole lot of books. Sunday was slower, but OK. Things were probably slowed some by the fact that there was a hockey game in the same facility that day, and parking prices got hiked.

I often ponder during those long, long days whether “multicultural” events like this actually do anything to promote their advertised purposes. Certainly I encountered nice people of many colors and tongues, and a wide variety of costumes. But to be honest, most of the costumes made me grateful I’d come as a Viking. They tended to inflate my low, reflexive feelings of cultural superiority. Continue reading Call me a man of the world

Eat like a Viking, regurgitate, repeat

In case you’re wondering how I’m doing on the Virtual Book Tour I’ve been working on for my publisher, I think I can say it’s been going well. I’ve finished one blog post and several interviews for various literature-related blogs. And yes, I’ll let you know where to look for them, once they appear (assuming I find out myself).

I’m nearly finished with the first batch of interviews. I understand more are coming. Today the publicist asked me how I felt about writing a food-related post for a blog that talks to authors about their favorite recipes.

Now on the surface that doesn’t make much sense, me being a certified microwave-dependent bachelor (though I do make a mean scratch chocolate chip cookie when the fit is on me). But the idea of writing about Viking food, and relating it to West Oversea (buy it here) is intriguing. I’ve decided to do it, and I’ve made arrangements to borrow a recipe from a reenactor friend.

(And yes, in case you wondered, I will give her credit for it.)

I feel confident I can produce a post unlike any this particular blog has seen before. A hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners exposé of genuine Viking cuisine, featuring such delights as rotten shark (a delicacy in Iceland which reportedly made that Chef Gordon Ramsey throw up), and sheep’s head (also popular in Iceland. The eyeballs, I’m told, are especially relished). Many is the joke that’s been made about lutefisk over the years, but the Norwegians’ beloved lutefisk is just a pale, ghostly remnant of the true Nightmare On Elm Street mealtime horrors of the Scandinavian past.

Because we’re talking about a marginal economy, where taste places a far distant second to survival.

People sometimes ask me whether I wish I had been born in the Viking Age.

My answer is no, for three reasons.

One, I was a sickly child who would in all probability have been exposed on a hillside for the wolves at birth.

Two, the plumbing was awful.

Three, the food was inedible to the modern palate.

I’ve written a time travel book (still unpublished at this date) in which a father and daughter get the opportunity to go back to Viking Age Norway and stay there. She points out that if they did, they’d never get to eat chocolate again.

I call that an excellent point.

Not without honor in my own city

Today provided another of those little rewards that make being an author almost worth the trouble. I spoke on the phone to a lady from Ingebretsen‘s Scandinavian store.

If, for some obscure reason, you don’t live in the Minneapolis area, you probably don’t know about Ingebretsen’s. It’s a community institution. It started (if I have the story right) as a neighborhood grocery on Lake Street, catering to Scandinavian immigrants, back in 1921. The neighborhood remains an immigrant center even today, except that the immigrants now tend to be Mexican and Sudanese. But through all the decades, Ingebretsen’s has remained on the old corner, faithful to the neighborhood, dispensing lutefisk, flatbread, goat cheese and herring to a small but grateful public.

Somewhere along the line they expanded to include a Scandinavian gift shop, and they’re the best and most successful brick-and-mortar enterprise of that sort in the metropolitan area. I make a pilgrimage every Christmas season, and it’s usually a long walk from wherever I can find a place to park. Before stepping inside to join the throng, I have to make a conscious effort to abandon all concept of personal space.

I wrote to Ingebretsen’s, along with a couple other midwest dealers in the same sort of line, after West Oversea came out. I enclosed copies of reviews and a free copy of the book. The lady at Ingebretsen’s told me she’d read the book and enjoyed it, and had added it to their winter catalog (which I knew about) and to their web site (which I didn’t).

Don’t mess with me. Among Minneapolis Norwegians, Danes, Swedes and Finns, I now have street cred.

Lutefisk Lament

It all changed today.

Yesterday it was just cold. Today it’s Father Christmas Land. We have a nice carpet of snow on the ground, and we’ve also got that photogenic ice-coating over all the tree branches, making everything look like crystal. Wonderful to look at, as long as the powerlines don’t get overloaded, plunging you into a blackout.

First it rained. It rained pretty hard, which isn’t a bad thing after our dry fall (except for what it does to the street surfaces).

Then it turned to snow. Big, clotted flakes, like crumbled Styrofoam dropped out of a sack. That went on for a while, then diminished and stopped. We’re supposed to get a few more inches in the next few days.

Almost like the movie “White Christmas,” except that it didn’t happen on Christmas Eve. Pretty close though. I haven’t polled any children, but I suspect they’re pleased.

I’m going to talk to you about lutefisk.

The legend of lutefisk is that it’s an inedible Scandinavian delicacy, deadly to smell and disgusting to eat. Sort of comparable to 100 Year Old Eggs and live monkey brains.

This is an example of Scandinavian overcompensation. Lutefisk really isn’t that bad. It’s a product made of dried codfish, rendered in lye and washed in water, then boiled for eating. It has a strong, fishy smell when you cook it, and tastes extremely bland when you eat it. Its consistency, if cooked right, is closer to jello than anything else I can think of. It’s an odd food, and most people who didn’t grow up with it don’t care for it much. It helps to eat it with plenty of melted butter (for Norwegians) or cream sauce (for Swedes). But all the moaning is highly exaggerated.

I don’t care much for it myself, but my dad loved it, as did his parents and grandparents. Sometimes we make it for Christmas just for the sake of tradition. I doubt if the next generation will eat it at all, after we’re gone.

My favorite lutefisk tribute is the following poem. It can be found in a number of places on the internet, and most of the sites attribute it to either Boone & Erickson (a team of Twin Cities radio announcers who recorded it years back) or “Anonymous.” The actual author is a man named Dan Freeburg, who copyrighted it in 1978 but seems to have given up on enforcing it. Well, he’ll get credit here, by golly.

LUTEFISK LAMENT

‘Twas the day before Christmas, with things all a bustle.

As Mama got set for the Christmas Eve tussle.

Aunts, uncles, and Cousins would soon be arriving,

With stomachs all ready for Christmas Eve dining.

While I sat alone with a feeling of dread,

As visions of lutefisk danced in my head.

The thought of the smell made my eyeballs start burning.

The thought of the taste set my stomach to churning.

For I’m one of those who good Swedes rebuff,

A Scandahoovian boy who can’t stand the stuff.

Each year, however, I played at the game,

To spare Mama and Papa the undying shame.

I must bear up bravely. I can’t take the risk,

Of relatives knowing I hate lutefisk.

Then out in the yard I heard such a clatter.

I jumped up to see what was the matter.

There in the snow, all in a jumble,

Three of my uncles had taken a tumble.

From out in the kitchen an odor came stealing,

That fairly set all of my senses to reeling.

The smell of the lutefisk crept down the hall,

And wilted a plant in a pot on the wall.

Uncles Oscar and Lars said “Oh, that smells yummy,”

And Kermit’s eyes glittered while he patted his tummy.

Mama announced dinner by ringing a bell.

They rushed to the table with a whoop and a yell.

I lifted my eyes to heaven and sighed,

And a rose on the wallpaper withered and died.

Then Mama came proudly with a bowl on a trivet.

You would have thought the crown jewels were in it.

She set it down gently and then took her seat.

And Papa said grace before we could eat.

It seemed to me, in my whirling head,

The shortest of prayers he ever had said.

Then Mama raised the cover on that steaming dish,

And I had to face the quivering fish.

The plates were passed for Papa to fill,

While I waited in agony, twixt fever and chill.

He dipped in the spoon and held it up high,

As it oozed to plates, I thought I would die.

Then it came to my plate, and to my fevered brain.

There seemed enough lutefisk to derail a train.

It looked like a mountain of congealing glue,

Yet oddly transparent and discolored in hue.

With butter and cream sauce I tried to conceal it,

I salted and peppered, but the smell would reveal it.

I drummed up my courage, tried to be bold,

Mama reminds me, “Eat before it gets cold.”

Deciding to face it, “Uffda,” I sighed.

“Uffda, indeed,” my stomach replied.

Then summoning the courage for which we are known,

My hand took the fork as with a mind of its own.

And with reckless abandon the lutefisk I ate,

Within 20 seconds, I’d cleaned up my plate.

Uncle Kermit flashed me an ear-to-ear grin,

As butter and cream sauce dripped from his chin.

Then to my great shock, he spoke in my ear,

“I’m sure glad that’s over for another year.”

It was then that I learned a great wonderful truth,

That Swedes and Norwegians from old men to youth,

Must each pay their dues to have the great joy,

Of being known as a good Scandahoovian boy,

And so to tell you all, as you face the great test,

“Happy Christmas to you, and to you all my best.”