Editor’s note: Best-selling author Nickolas Butler is among local writers who will be contributing to The Country Today.
Was I kidnapped and forced into attending a lutefisk supper because of peer pressure? Partly, sure.
I married into a family that brags of 100 percent Norwegian ancestry. I love my in-laws in spite of their goofily ornate sweaters, their bland food and their inability to curse or show intense emotions. What they’ve nailed is a sense of family. Because none of them display their darker emotions, there aren’t the familial fractures that other families endure. Everyone just happily gets along.
They laugh together, watch sports together, drink together, even work together, and when I was recently invited to eat lutefisk with no less than eight of my wife’s relatives, I thought, “We’ve been married 13 years. It’s probably about time.”
I wasn’t prepared for the pomp of the supper. To be fair, we’d bought tickets to what I’m told is one of the finer area lutefisk suppers, but still. We were ushered into an ancient Lutheran church and filed into pews, there to listen to the minister tell Ole & Lena jokes and collectively sing along to the Great American Songbook.
I suspect that tens of millions of Americans living in our coastal metropolises might find what I’m describing to be impossible in 2019. Yet, there I sat, laughing and singing with a bunch of blissed-out cottontops eager to get their lutefisk on. In fairness, there were a couple handfuls of us under the age of 40. But not many. And yet, it was the most wholesome fun I’d had perhaps all year.
In the basement of the church, we sat in close confines, elbow to elbow. Tempting slabs of pie already awaited us on the table and because I still had trepidations about the dinner course of the upcoming meal, I dug into the pie. Coleslaw, chutney and lefse were soon delivered to the table, and I dug into those, before rising to serve myself mashed potatoes, mashed rutabagas (or, rutabaggies), gravy and meatballs.
Then, the lutefisk arrived.
Honestly, even as a giant dish of it landed at our table, I can’t say that I would have identified it as food, necessarily. It sort of looked like a giant helping of clear, translucent snot. But I was encouraged to drown the fish (ha!) in melted butter and then liberally salt and pepper. I was happy to follow these orders.
There really is no way to prepare yourself for the texture. The taste is recognizable — cod, or whitefish — you can wrap your head around that. But the texture is mostly gelatinous, and even those treasured pieces of lutefisk identified as “firm” are covered in a fish-jelly that sort of sloshes inside your mouth as if you were gargling algae, perhaps, or fish flavored Jell-O left in the sun and mostly liquefied.
I proceeded to eat what I deemed to be a “more-than-polite-amount” of lutefisk. Two helpings, I’d say. I was acutely aware that as I ate, I was being watched (no, evaluated) as if I were a dignitary from a totally alien culture presented with a fine delicacy. There were moments in the meal, I must admit, when I closed my eyes and shuddered as cod-jam squirted through my teeth. When the meal concluded I heard some criticism that I hadn’t eaten enough. Friends, I remain quite proud of my lutefisk-eating effort, thank you very much.
Why do we eat lutefisk? Why, do we still eat lutefisk when, by all accounts, Norwegians living in Norway would NEVER eat it. A cynic might say we’re shackled to lutefisk by nostalgia. We’ve romanticized the old days and old ways. Maybe.
But I have to say that there is some virtue in doing a nice-turn for another person’s benefit, and in the case of that particular Saturday afternoon in which I endured lutefisk, I could see that my wife’s grandmother, the matriarch of her sprawling family, was beaming with pride that we’d accompanied her to that beautiful country church. And, if perpetuating that tradition on into the future is the function of a disgusting fish-dish like lutefisk, then, well, I think it’s worth it.
It’s also useful to reflect on the ways in which those of us as fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, or even seventh-generation Americans cling to our ancestral traditions. While it’s OK for some to celebrate their heritage, we demonize others for their cultural pride. Look no further than the national news or social media: Some angry person on a subway or in a restaurant yelling at some other person who they deem as “foreign,” yelling at them to speak English, or worse, American. Or spraying hateful graffiti on a mosque or temple. We all at times grasp for the familiar, and that’s understandable. But more important is reaching for the unfamiliar with a welcoming hand and open mind.
Even if the unfamiliar is lutefisk.
To see photos of the lutefisk meal in question, follow Butler on Instagram at: @wiscobutler