Preparing lutefisk, then and now

February 4, 2012

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Unless you are a Norwegian bachelor farmer or a thrill-seeking foodie, you probably have not eaten lutefisk.

That’s because this traditional Scandinavian delicacy made from dried cod regularly makes it onto the “most disgusting eats” lists of gourmands and food bloggers alike. In some cases I’ve seen it listed up there with balut – duck fetus still in the egg shell - or live, wriggling octopus tentacles.

Having never eaten any of those things, I don’t think lutefisk sounds as bad as say, balut. But what makes this dish so unforgiving is the way it’s prepared. Blogger Dave Fox, a humorist of Norwegian descent, describes it this way:

“To make lutefisk, catch yourself a cod. Take out the bones, skin it, salt it, and hang it out to dry for several weeks until it hardens and smells like a dumpster.”

It gets better. The next step involves soaking the dried fish in lye, or another extremely caustic toxic solution.  

Multiple water baths get rid of the lye, but the chemical treatment pulls apart the protein bonds in the fish. Thus the final product, after cooking, is a kind of fish Jell-O — if you do it right. If you cook it too much, you get a kind of fishy puddle. Too little and you’re left with fish that’s cold and jiggly.

Can’t you just see why Swedes and Norwegians would eat this dish for Christmas Eve supper?  “A century ago, lutefisk really was a staple in the Norwegian diet,” Dave Fox writes. “Also a century ago, a lot of Norwegians fled the country.”

Wisely or not, some younger Scandinavian-Americans are now taking an interest in lutefisk. This includes Carrie Roy, an aspiring PhD who has participated in, and volunteered at, a number of traditional lutefisk dinners in the upper Midwest. These community meals are usually held in churches, or in Sons of Norway lodges, which are a kind of Scandinavian Knights of Columbus.

In December, Roy gave a talk on her lutefisk research to the Culinary Historians of Chicago. And in honor of the occasion, moderator Catherine Lambrecht, herself an ambitious foodie, tried to prepare traditional lutefisk to serve at the lecture.

It turned out to be surprisingly hard—tracking down two quarts of maple and oak ash hard. Lambrecht describes her cooking ordeal in the audio above. As you’re listening, try to picture the crowd of brave souls gathered there about to eat what she's describing, albeit with a lovely assortment of traditional side dishes Lambrecht also prepared: lefse flatbread, boiled potatoes, pureed peas and a Béchamel sauce with Dijon mustard and brown sugar. Bon appetit!

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Catherine Lambrecht spoke at an event presented by Culinary Historians of Chicago in December of 2011. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.