The Dallas Morning News
Blaine Harden – The New York Times
Thursday, December 26 2002, Page 13A
The Call and the smell of the north: lutefisk
Those who enjoy reconstituted dried cod seem to be drying out
MINNEAPOLIS – Allen Vevang, an undertaker of Norwegian descent, does not like to lunch alone, especially during the holidays.
If Charlotte, his wife of 30 years, would join him, he says he would be filled with joy. But she refuses, as long as he insists on eating lutefisk.
So it was in Christmas week that Mr. Vevang found his solitary way to Pearson’s Restaurant, a Minneapolis institution that caters to the seasonal cravings of Scandinavian-Americans. His lunchtime plate was piled high with mashed potatoes, creamed squash and the translucent, lye-soaked cod that reliably causes his wife (of German descent) to eat elsewhere.
“Some people say lutefisk has a very fishy taste and an unpleasant smell,” said Mr. Vevang, 61, looking doleful as he chewed his gelatinous fish, which he had anointed, in the Norwegian way, with copious amounts of melted butter. “To me, it tastes like Christmas. My present to myself is to come to this restaurant and eat it, even if I have to do it alone.”
All along the lutefisk zone – a vast swath of the United States stretching from Chicago to Seattle – it is again the season to rejoice in and quarrel over a food that stinks up hundreds of Lutheran church basements and injects menu-planning torment into hundreds of thousands of mixed marriages.
On one side of this tormented mix are Scandinavians like Mr. Vevang who lunched alone. Their mothers raised them to believe in lutefisk (pronounced LOOT-uh-fisk) as the quivering embodiment of the holiday spirit. On the other is a restive horde of spouses, children and in-laws (a surprisingly large number of whom have Scandinavian blood). They never eat lutefisk, object raucously to its odor and rarely allow themselves to be mollified by the inevitable peace offering of Swedish Meatballs.
1 Million pounds
Notwithstanding the familial tension, exerts say that by New Year’s Day, Americans will have cooked and eaten more than 1 million pounds of lutefisk.
To locate the fish schism, one needs to look no farther than the restaurant that on Monday sated Mr. Vevang’s hunger for tradition.
“I serve it, but I won’t eat it,” said Carrie Cooney, the waitress at Pearson’s who carried lunch to Mr. Vevang.
“My wife is Norwegian, but we got the rules straight when we were married – no lutefisk,” said Larry Nelson, the manager at Pearson’s.
“I am not comfortable with the color texture,: said Maureen Pearson, wife of the restaurant’s owner. Her husband declined to say if he ate lutefisk.
“I refuse to comment on the grounds that it might be bad for business,: said Marston Pearson.
He did say that the lutefisk trade has increased splendidly in his restaurant in recent years. The principle reason, he said, is the apparent reluctance of lutefisk eaters (and haters) to stink up their own kitchens.
The odor of cooked lutefisk-an enduring aroma that melds the rankness of overripe fish with the industrial-strength stench of a soap factory – is something of an obsession in better homes throughout the lutefisk zone.
In The Minneapolis Star Tribune this month, a reader from Milaca, Minn., offered her favorite solution. It was AtmosKlear, a fragrance-free odor remover available at hardware stores. As interesting as the reader’s cure was her description of how it saved the spirit of Christmas.
“I was able to eliminate the smell of the lutefisk I prepare each year, while maintaining the vibrant odor of our fresh Christmas tree,” the reader wrote. “Nobody smelled that terrible odor in my home ahead of time.”
All this carping about odor is disproportionate and unfair, said Roger Dorff, the recently retired president of Olsen Fish, a company based in Minneapolis that processes about half the lutefisk eaten in North America.
“You know, if I boil shrimp at home, it also smells,” said Mr. Dorff, who this year handed the presidency of Olsen Fish to his son, Chris.
The lye method
Rather than talk about the smell, Mr. Dorff preferred to talk about tradition and purity in the processing of lutefisk. He explained that lutefisk literally means lye fish. It is an ancient Norwegian method of preserving the summer’s catch, and it was widely practiced by poor Norwegians, many of whom ended up migrating to the United States.
The fish is cod or lingcod caught in the North Sea. It used to be hung in the sun on racks, but now it is dried in Kilns, which keeps birds from pecking at it and defecating on it. Once dried, cod becomes stockfish, a whitish or yellowish substance with the texture of leather and the rigidity of cardboard.
Olsen Fish imports its stockfish from Norway and begins soaking it in September. It receives alternating baths of fresh water, lye water and fresh water. When it is rinsed of lye and rehydrated to plumpness, lutefisk is vacuum-packed for church suppers and Christmas dinners. (Lye leaves a distinctive ashy taste, which many people find offensive and which can cause heartburn.) The traditional way of preparing lutefisk is to boil it. But boiling it too long turns it to fish water, so many modern cooks steam it or bake it.
About two-fifths of the lutefisk consumed in the United States and Canada, Mr. Dorff said, is put away at church suppers and gatherings of Scandinavian-dominated fraternal groups like the Sons of Norway. The rest is eaten at home.
“The big eaters are the ones at the church suppers,” Mr. Dorff said. “They will eat a pound or two of it at a sitting and they often go to several church suppers during the lutefisk season, which begins in late September.”
But the big eaters, who end to be Scandinavian men on the high side of 60, are disappearing.
“When an old guy dies, then you lose 8 to 10 pounds of lutefisk consumption per year,” said Mr. Dorff, who is 64. “Younger people are not as interested and they certainly don’t eat that much lutefisk, although we are attempting to appeal to them.”
That attempt includes hot, buttery lutefisk giveaways at summer gatherings of young people in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which are the premier lutefisk states. The others in the lutefisk zone are Illinois, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Montana and Washington.
There is also the Lutefisk TV dinner, a mass-marketing ploy invented by Mike’s Field of Mike’s Fish in Glenwood, Minn., and imitated by Olsen Fish.
Believing that there are a substantial number of Norwegians who would eat lutefisk year round, Mr. Dorff made a sizable wager on TV dinners four years ago.
Olsen Fish bought 1,500 cases of microwave-safe plastic packs, each containing 12 segmented dinner plates. His employees filled a few hundred of them with mashed potatoes, peas and six ounces of lutefisk. The frozen vacuum-sealed dinners were distributed to select supermarkets in Minnesota, where, for the most part they did not sell.
“Each year, it has gone down, down, down,” Mr. Dorff said, speaking of TV dinner sales. That is not the case, though, with the overall lutefisk market. “It is holding steady at about a million pounds a year,” Mr. Dorff said. “And if it snows early in the season, sales pick up. People like to eat lutefisk when there is snow on the ground.”