Local Lutefisk Lovers Try To Save The Fish Dish Most People Love To Hate
What was it about Vikings that struck fear into the hearts of their enemies? Was it their willingness to brave the frigid elements? Their skill at piloting longships resembling dragons in battle? Their ruthlessness in conquering neighboring villages? Or was it something else, something they ate?
These famous warriors dined on one of the most fearsome foods known to humanity — lutefisk.
The Nordic delicacy translates to lyefish in Norwegian and what its name promises, it delivers. Lutefisk is dried whitefish reconstituted in a solution of water and lye, a metal hydroxide that's often used to make household cleansers, cure olives and dissolve bodies. The fish soaks in the lye liquid until it turns into a quivering gelatinous hunk. No wonder it's pronounced lewd-eh-fisk.
One theory claims lutefisk was a retaliatory dish, created by victimized villagers to poison the invading Vikings' stockfish reserves after dousing them in caustic lye water. The plan failed and no Vikings were harmed. The villagers, however, seemed to develop a taste for the dish.
This epic tale of tainted stockfish is apocryphal (read: probably made up) but, as time marched on, lutefisk became a holiday tradition that's still celebrated, even thousands of miles from its Norwegian homeland.
The Sons of Norway, Norrona Lodge #50, in Van Nuys, is one place where Norskis (slang for a Norwegian or Norwegian-American) and Norskis at heart flock for a lutefisk feast every winter.
"We've been doing lutefisk dinners for 35 years," says Barbara Appleton, a lodge member who oversees the kitchen. "I've been trying to get out of it for 10 years so someone younger can do it."
As a bonafide lutefisk lover, I decided to join them as they prepared their annual feast, held the second weekend of November.
I love lutefisk because of its distinct flavor, which I'd describe as a fishy ammonia. I also like the singular texture of wet gelatin. But for some reason, I can't seem to find dining partners for this one-of-a-kind feast. I've invited friends and family, some of whom are of Scandinavian heritage, and still, no takers. A few gourmands quote food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, also known as "The Man Who Ate Everything." He once said, "Lutefisk is not food, it is a weapon of mass destruction." So much for eating everything.
Unfashionable Fish Dish
At the height of its popularity, in 2008, the Norrona Lodge served half a ton of reconstituted Icelandic cod to approximately 1,300 guests at its holiday lutefisk dinner. In recent years, the number has plummeted to less than half that amount and only 500 or 600 guests.
Some lodge members see lutefisk consumption as a form of paying dues, a hazing ritual to prove they're made from solid Scandinavian stock. Others choke it down with a generous drizzling of clarified butter then move on to more palatable items, like meatballs smothered in gravy or the anise-flavored rye bread known as limpa. Still others, especially younger guests, skip the lutefisk course entirely.
Traditionally, lutefisk is cod, haddock or pollock that's hung to dry in the open air for preservation then stored for eating during the winter. The dried stockfish becomes as thin and stiff as a piece of wooden board. When reconstituted with a lye-water solution, it can inflate up to eight times its dried weight, a time-consuming process that requires at least a week to complete.
SoCal's local Sons of Norway lodge purchases pre-reconstituted fish from Olsen Fish Company in Minnesota and prepares it in their commercial kitchen. The fish is cooked in hot water at 135 to 150 °F for approximately 15 minutes, before it literally dissolves. (They don't need to use lye because it has already reconstituted in a lye solution at Olsen.) The lutefisk is then ready to serve.
The result is a fish fillet that's flaky yet viscid and more gelatinous around the edges. The flavor is a faint fishiness with a note of ammonia. Dash on the butter and it becomes poor man's lobster. That's my opinion as a certified lutefisk lover but most people call it "slimy and stinky."
The Old Guard
People who grew up eating lutefisk often have mixed feelings about it. It's not a meal most of them look forward to, it's more of a duty. That goes double for people who have never tried it.
"It's like a rite of passage," says Helen Hawkins, a college student who's eating lutefisk for the first time. "I don't mind it. I finished one piece. I don't need to try it again."
Herein lies the reconstituted cod quandary. How do you solve a problem like lutefisk when nobody wants to eat it?
"The older generation of Norwegians were the ones who kept it going for decades. Now they're in their 90s or dying off but few of the younger people are keeping it going," says Ryan Ole Hass, a realtor and long time lodge member.
"This lodge tries to involve the young people. They're trying to pass it on to the next generation so it doesn't die out," says lodge volunteer Steve Rudolph, who wears a t-shirt that reads "Lutefisk: The Norwegians Attempt at Conquering the World."
That hasn't made lutefisk more appealing to the under-70 set.
One of the tween-aged servers at the Sons of Norway dinner tells me, "I love the lutefisk dinner." When I ask what he likes about lutefisk, he says, "I don't eat the fish. I love the meatballs."
A New Generation
"About 10 years ago, after attendance began to dip, we started to see the room change," said Ole Hass. "There were guests who were not Norwegian or Scandinavian coming to eat lutefisk. Mostly by word of mouth, people were finding out about us."
An episode of Visiting with Huell Howser, shot at the Norrona lodge in 1999, helped.
"For a few years now, a Chinese group would come in a tour bus for the dinner. It was a big group," Ole Hass says.
These new faces rekindled his hope that the lutefisk dinner might extend beyond lodge members, especially since revenue from the event helps pay the organization's taxes.
I know why I enjoy lutefisk but I was curious to find out what other people outside of the Sons of Norway liked about it.
I sat down for the Saturday dinner and waited for the arrival of the Chinese lutefisk aficionados. I waited and waited but they never showed up. Maybe the Daughters of Iceland had started throwing a competing Hakarl Dinner. I have no idea.
However, another group of diverse, non-Scandinavians showed up — college students from Cal State L.A.
Steve Paulson, a professor of communication disorders, led the group. Paulson's mother is Norwegian and his father is Swedish. Every year, he treats his students, who come from all sorts of backgrounds, to the Norrona Lodge's lutefisk dinner.
One of his colleagues, Chandon Suresh, who is Indian, says, "Steve was talking about lutefisk since day one. I think it's a very strong taste and smell." But he keeps coming back. His wife, Arleth, who is Filipina, has also become fond of lutefisk. "It's good," she says. "I like it. It's like regular fish."
CSULA student Jacquelyn Lopez, who is Mexican-American, says, "I heard it's an interesting taste." Her friend Benny Hinojos adds, "I thought it would smell pretty bad. I had to cover it in gravy. It was very gelatinous, like fish jello, but it was a very light fish flavor. I don't hate it."
Sam Soudah, who hails from Jordan, is less enthusiastic: "I don't like the fish. I like the meatballs."
"It's not as bad as described," says Julia Ritter, who's half-German and half-Korean. "But I'm not a fan. The texture turned me off."
It's not looking too good for lutefisk. However, I eventually find like-minded fans and, like me, they happen to be Chinese.
Kaycee Chan has subjected herself to lutefisk dinners for five years straight and it was not love at first bite.
"First time, I was like 'It's okay' and now it's a tradition. People are scared of the strong taste but when you really taste it, it's not bad. Tastes like seafood and jello," she says.
Eric Wu, another Chinese-American, is a lutefisk virgin. "I didn't know what to expect. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's like fish jello." Wu was methodical in his approach, each time he ate a piece, he did it differently. "First I ate it with nothing. Then with butter. Then with gravy. Next time, salt and pepper." Wu consumed a total of five fillets.
Lodge member Barbara Appleton emphasizes the social aspect of the dinner, "It's family style. People sit together at a table and get to know each other. They learn about the food and about each other."
Chan reinforces this idea. "It's grown on me. The food, the stories, the tradition. I like these. It's the whole package."
Professor Paulson agrees, "I do it for the students. I like sharing experiences and culture," he says. But, he also admits, "I like scaring them too."
As for me, it's my fourth lutefisk dinner at the Norrona Lodge. I power down six pieces plus all the fixings. There's one fillet left and all the wives and daughters and of the Sons of Norway are looking at me to polish off the platter. I can't eat another bite, so novice lutefisker Janet Lucas suggested a take-out box.
"I'm not sure it'll be good later," I say. She replies, "Well, what good do you see in it now?"
I get why the Vikings had to be so tough.