It has been said that lutefisk is an acquired taste. For those of you that do not know what lutefisk is I will tell you. It is a gelatinous Norwegian/Swedish fish specialty made of white fish. To make lutefisk you take air-dried or salt-dried fish and soak it in water for six days, changing the water every day. You then soak the fish in a mixture of lye and water for two more days without changing the water. This helps to dissolve the bones and diminishes the protein content in the fish, turning the flesh gelatinous. Lye is very “basic” (opposite of acidic) with a PH well over 10, making the fish caustic. Sounds good so far, doesn’t it? Well after the lye, you soak the fish in water once again for another four to six days, changing the water daily. Needless to say, I have never made lutefisk from scratch in any adult cooking class. I have never even made it for myself. I’m not sure it’s even legal to make it in the States without first meeting HAZMAT criteria.
Cooking lutefisk brings challenges, too. You have to be careful when you cook it so that it doesn’t fall apart or turn to total mush. Lutefisk soup is not good, no matter how much Aquavit you may have had. Baking it is one good method of cooking it, as is gently steaming it with a splash of water. My Grandma Peterson cooked it every Christmas Eve by simmering it in almost boiling water, until it was just done, slightly gelatinous, but still with some of the nice-sized flakes of fish flesh. The best part of eating lutefisk is the garnish. Melted butter. You just pour it onto the fish, right on your plate! As a kid, that meant I could have butter with everything: mashed potatoes (who needs gravy when you have melted butter?), peas, Swedish meatballs and the ultimate Norwegian flatbread sauce-mop, Lefsa.
The aroma of lutefisk is unmistakable. It is actually a smell, and I have even heard people say it stinks. There is nothing dainty about it. You know when lutefisk is being cooked. As far as I am concerned, lutefisk is not an acquired taste. You either like it or you don’t. You may like it for any number of reasons. Both of my Grandpas, all my uncles and my Dad liked lutefisk. So I had to like it. It was like being part of the club. I still like it as it is a way of sharing another meal with them all. I still prepare lutefisk as part of my traditional memory-filled Christmas celebration. I don’t always have it when we have a houseful of people, but I do make sure I have it.
During my children’s summer International Cooking Camp I include a day devoted to Scandinavian food. As a way to get the kids to think about food and dining, I will ask them one of the mornings before class about their favorite foods, as well as the worst food they have ever tasted or eaten. It amazes me that some kids do not have an answer for me. I have toyed with the idea including lutefisk in my Scandinavian menu, just to give these kids an answer to that question.