If you’ve lived in the Midwest for any period of time, chances are you’ve tasted the culinary gift that is lutefisk. Lutefisk is made from dried whitefish – normally cod – and tastes a little bit like salted soap flavored jello.
If I’m being honest, I have never really enjoyed this traditional Norwegian treat. Its texture coupled with its taste makes it one of my least favorite meals. Still, it remains more popular in the upper Midwest than where it was invented, created or mistaken for food by Norwegians.
Much of the salted soap taste that accompanies lutefisk comes with its preparation. Lutefisk is made by soaking cod in lye – used to clean out your drain when you’ve clogged it with hair and toothpaste – and served with a pile of salt. If you aren’t satisfied with keeping your serving plain, no worries, traditionally some goat cheese is added and melts over the top of the translucent slice of fish.
There are a select few in this area who really love the flavor of lutefisk and defend it vehemently. The anti-lutefisk corner stand firm in their equally strong convictions.
The question is why Lutefisk remains such a popular traditional dish here in the Midwest. The answer lies in the question, says Nelson Walstead in an interview with Smithsonian News about the Madison, Minn. lutefisk buffet.
“I like lutefisk! It tastes good to me,” says Walstead. “It makes me feel good to know we are keeping the tradition alive, and that we’re passing this on to the next generation.”
Lutefisk continues to be a holiday tradition if for no other reason than because it is a tradition. It’s a rite of passage for young Minnesotans to attend a lutefisk dinner and eat “just a little.”
As Garrison Keillor says, “I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I'd be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.”
Really, if lutefisk is prepared correctly it isn’t as bad as it seems. With a big hunk of butter melted over the top it is at least edible. And, some people really enjoy the meal and look forward to eating it every December.
Minnesota is the capital of benefit dinners where you can try ‘exotic’ hot dish or attend an all you can eat fish fry, but if you stick around long enough – or at least can make it to the winter – you’ll probably run into an all you can eat lutefisk lunch. If you’ve never had a bite I encourage you to give it a try. All you can eat might turn into all you can hold down, but at least you can say you’ve had some of that infamous lutefisk of the Midwest. And, chances are you’ll get to enjoy some lefse with your lutefisk – and lefse is one thing the Norwegians got right.