phpOk8lr6From Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land

by Kathleen Stokker

“Fasting and Lutefisk”

As new customs arise, older ones disappear. Such has been the fate of Advent fasting. Instituted by the patriarchs around the year 480 to underscore the significance of Christ’s birth and to ensure celebrants’ spiritual preparedness, the custom of fasting came to Norway with Christianity. Long after Norway had adopted Lutheranism as its state religion in 1537, Norwegian peasants continued to reduce their food intake during Advent, the better to appreciate the rich yuletide fare to come.

Though fasting itself has disappeared from today’s Norway, a significant feature of this centuries-old practice remains: the pre-Christmas lutefisk dinner. Few Norwegians may associate this dish with their country’s pre-Reformation Catholic past, but during the weeks before Christmas, Norwegian restaurants report record consumption of the gelatinous white cod. They encourage this phenomenon by sponsoring special lutefisk nights.

In the period of Norwegian history known as the Catholic Middle Ages (about 1000-1537), lutefisk figured prominently as a fasting food, and Scandinavia’s last Catholic archbishop, Olaus Magnus, described its preparation as a well-established practice in his History of the Nordic People (1555). Prescribing a two-day lye soaking for the toughened cod that had dried for weeks outdoors on wooden racks, the archbishop recommended following the soaking by a fresh water rinse the day before the fish was to be boiled and served with butter. The lye or lute (potassium carbonate), from which the dish gets its name, was most commonly obtained by boiling the ash of deciduous trees in water for fifteen to thirty minutes.

Why lye? Legend attributes this to the Vikings. What is no doubt an apocryphal account reports that while raiding a certain fishing village, the Vikings burned down some wooden racks on which cod was drying. When one of the inhabitants poured water over the fire to douse it, the fish was left soaking in a solution of ashes and water–that is, lye. Poking through the ashes days later, villagers noticed that the once dried and hardened fish now appeared fresh. Rinsing and boiling it, they discovered that–at least by some accounts–it was edible.

Actually the method did not come out of nowhere. The Norwegian ethnologist and food chemist Astrid Riddervold, who has written most knowledgeably about the delicacy, points out that seventeenth-century cookbooks in Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany cite soaking fish in lye as a well-known preparation method. She also notes how little modern preparation methods for lutefisk differ from the description Olaus Magnus wrote down in the Middle Ages: The cod–still air-dried on the distinctive wooden frames seen in Norway’s Lofoten Islands–is first soaked in fresh water for several days to restore its original consistency, then treated for three days with the lye solution (said to be “strong enough to strip paint”).  A thorough three-to-four-day rinsing with either running or frequently changed fresh water follows. Finally the cook poaches the fish for fifteen to twenty minutes in salt water and serves it steaming hot, drizzled with melted butter and accompanied by crisp flatbrød (an unleavened crisp bread).

Chemically, the process of soaking the fish in lye breaks down the protein to amino acids; this gives the fish its jellylike consistency and produces a readily digestible food of high nutritional value. The process also results in controversy: people either love lutefisk or they hate it. There is no middle ground.

Norwegian Americans have a long tradition of proudly and painstakingly preparing lutefisk for Christmas and other special occasions while simultaneously cultivating entire joke cycles that resoundingly disparage the dish. In Norway, however, the lutefisk tradition had made little stir, being faithfully kept by some and simply ignored by others. Then toward the end of the 1980s, broadcast and print media began bombarding the public each autumn with brochures, interviews, advertisements, and programs highlighting both the cultural-historical background and the nutritional value of lutefisk. Occasionally this media blitz even revealed the whimsical humor characteristic of the way Norwegian Americans view lutefisk. This resemblance was by no means coincidental, for the Norwegian lutefisk campaign had followed American marketing methods. The ads aimed to confer upon those who ate the fish a group identity as “lutefisk lovers,” a status which also implied enhanced sexual prowess: “Lutefiskelskere: elsk igjen” (Lutefisk lovers last longer). Norwegian sales of lutefisk soared, and lutefisk became in Norway, as it long had been in America, a cherished badge of Nordic identity–and a great source of fun.

Though today’s Norwegian lutefisk lovers eat from a plate with a knife and fork and usually accompany the fish with flatbread, boiled potatoes, mashed peas, and perhaps a tangy mustard or bacon sauce, their ancestors placed the fish right on the flatbread, which they ate with their hands. Plates and forks did not arrive in rural Norway until the twentieth century. Even after these urban amenities had spread to the countryside, the custom of placing lutefisk on the handheld flatbread persisted, being replaced in some areas (notably Gudbrandsdal) by wrapping it in lefse (a rolled thin, tortilla-like soft bread). Adherents of the latter method placed the lutefisk on the lefse with some butter and salt, then rolled the lefse around the fish, securing the flaps in a usually vain attempt to keep the butter from running out. The resulting roll–looking not unlike a burrito–they then ate with their hands.

I include these historical facts to end rife speculation among Norwegian Americans that the lefse-wrapped method of consuming lutefisk arose among their misguided relatives in the United States; history establishes the custom’s pedigree as originally Norwegian. Norwegian Americans may also be reassured to know that, just as in this country, controversy about which is the “right” way to eat lutefisk (including “not at all”) characterizes these Norwegian meals. Meanwhile a growing export market for the dried, unsalted fish from which lutefisk is made provides the basis for increasingly numerous gourmet dishes in Italy, a country suffering no lack of good things to eat.