I grew up in Minnesota with my mother's side of the family, all Norwegian, going back for ever. We lived in Minneapolis, the big city, but some weekends, every holiday, and often in the summer we'd pile into the family sedan and drive a couple of hours southeast, down along the Mississippi River to Winona, an old river town, where my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and a whole slew of cousins lived. Come Christmas we'd have a rather large horde at my grandparents house for Christmas Eve dinner, our big celebration, the adults all gathered round a huge dining room table, the young adults in the next room at two or three card tables pulled together, and the younger kids in the basement running amock.
And we always had the same meal, the special meal eaten by Norwegian immigrants in the 19th century when they came to the prairies. Here it is:
· herring and flat bread crackers with Rullepolse (a type of spiced meat roll)
Fruktsuppe (fruit soup), made from pearl tapioca, cinnamon sticks, water, and dried fruit, mostly prunes and raisins and served hot, Norwegian style
· Lutefisk (in Minnesota Cod is used)
· boiled potatoes
· drawn butter (for the potatoes and Lutefisk)
· Lefse (potato flatbread, not unlike a tortilla) with butter. (No brown sugar on your lefse at this meal, that was only for fun times in the summer)
· Flatbread (Flatbrod)
· steamed cranberry pudding with hard sauce (but not with liquor in it)
· Romegrod, rice pudding with brown sugar and real cream (I remember eating it for Christmas Eve diner, my sister doesn't)
And, the cookies:
· Sprutbakkels (Spritz) made in shape of the letter S for the family name, "Stenehjem"
Coffee, always coffee
Now lutefisk was the center of this meal, the crowning glory. It is not the kind of thing that one eats easily, however. You pretty much have to be born into eating it.
Lutefisk is reconstituted dried cod that was brought on the long voyage over by Norske immigrants and not forgotten once more edible fair such as pork became plentiful. Smelly and gelatinous when wrongly cooked, it is smelly and lightly flakey at it's best. It is always served with drawn butter, but the Danes seem to think that it is best eaten with a mustard sauce. Which, of course, is sacrilege where I come from.
My grandparents got the lye dried cod and then soaked it for days in the washtubs in the basement. My sister and I don’t remember the actual process (the lye, the rinsing of the fish, etc), but we do remember watching them go downstairs twice a day to change the water. We were young and didn't realize we were watching a form of culinary alchemy, something that we would need to pass on to future generations.
And, of course, the nice thing about making Lutefisk in Minnesota at Christmas is that after dinner you could put it in a kettle and put the kettle in the garage where it would stay perfectly cold, even frozen. That way it didn’t smell up the refrigerator.
To speak to the popularity of this fish delicacy, I am 61 years old and I have only found one person younger than I that will eat the stuff. And he is 54.
Lutefisk recipe: Go to a store that carries the freshest of fish and seafood. They probably won't have it. Ideally, you would get the Lutefisk that they pull out of a barrel like in the old days. But more likely you will find Lutefisk skinless and "trimmed" and packaged in a plastic and possibly in the frozen fish section. If you can't find your lutefisk nearby try this spot on the internet:
Purchase the Lutefisk a day before you want to serve it. You wont be finding it dried and in a barrel anymore. Rather it will be in the cooler or freezer of a grocer. Take it out of the plastic bag (it's usually in plastic these days, for fear of the smell), put it in a large bowl, and cover with ice water. Change this water two to three times and keep in the refrigerator (if your family will let you). This firms up the fish.
How to cook Lutefisk:
Put the Lutefisk in a glass baking dish and season with salt. Cover it with aluminum foil. Put in a preheated oven at 375 degrees F. for 25 to 30 minutes. The fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork. Do not overcook it or it will look like whitish slimy Jello! It will be not brown.
In Minnesota, we figure a good pound of lutefisk per person, served with hot melted butter.
Douglas Padilla, artist, curator, arts activist, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
(with assistance from my sister Doreen Padilla Hyde, Austin, Texas, USA)
(© Douglas Padilla)