Off the Press
January 31, 2012
By Bob Taylor
Joys of eating lutefisk — there’s none for me
My last name might fool you. Actually, I am half Finnish and darn proud of that heritage.
The half comes from my mother’s side of the family, or as she always said “my best half.” Her father, Peter Kopra, came over from Finland in the late 1890s in hopes of striking it rich in the gold fields. Grandpa Peter never found gold, but he did discover the United States was a land of opportunity.
After securing a job down in California, he saved enough money to bring over Grandma and the rest of the family, which at the time included two boys. He also purchased a farm in Southwest Washington.
It was on this farm where my mother was born. It was later on a section of the farm, which my parents purchased from one of my uncles, where I was raised.
In this community, the last name Taylor was unique because most families were Finns, Swedes and Norwegians. However, I grew up proud of most Scandinavian traditions.
But there was one tradition I could never partake in — eating lutefisk.
Dave Niehaus, the late Seattle Mariners’ broadcaster, had the perfect description for lutefisk — “the stank!”
Next to the potent smell of the paper mill down in Camas, which we sometimes got a whiff of when the wind was blowing wrong, nothing else rivaled the pungency of lutefisk (pronounced lewd-uh-fisk). Finns call it livekala.
Lutefisk is dried cod that has been soaked in a lye solution for several days to rehydrate it. According to the Finnish recipe, burnt birch ashes are used in preparation of lutefisk. Since we never had birch trees on our farm, my guess is that mother used an old Norwegian recipe.
After the lutefisk has gone through its bathing period, a layer of salt is spread over the fish an hour before it is cooked. Then, when it is ready for cooking, the salt is rinsed off.
Lutefisk is then boiled or baked, or in today’s modern age, microwaved, and served with butter, salt and pepper. It has the consistency of Jello. However, I would recommend lime or orange Jello over lutefisk. Usually lefse is served with lutefisk. I like lefse. In fact, I like most Scandinavian delicacies. Lutefisk, however, is not a delicacy.
Lutefisk is usually served during the holidays. My mother often cooked up a pot of this stuff even in February. She never had to call her neighbors and friends to let them know about the lutefisk feed. They showed up like bloodhounds tracking down a scent.
Often, she tried to get me to try lutefisk. However, one look at this fish Jello and there was no way it would ever reach my lips.
Over the years, I have talked to numerous second- and third-generation Scandinavians and asked their opinion of lutefisk. To date, the results of my unofficial survey is 98 percent against.
I think Garrison Keillor, in his book Pontoon, probably best describes lutefisk – “it looks like the desiccated cadavers of squirrels run over by trucks.” Keillor also adds that “It can be tasty, but the statistics aren’t on your side.”
Jeffrey Steingarten, author of “The Man Who Ate Everything,” says “Lutefisk is not food, it is a weapon of mass destruction.”
The history of lutefisk apparently dates back to the Vikings — no not the NFL team. According to a legend, the Vikings had burned a village. Returning villagers found wooden racks of drying cod. They poured water on the racks to put out the fire. Then, they buried the fish in the ashes. They later rinsed the fish and boiled it. One brave villager tasted the fish and declared it “not bad.”
Finns, Norwegians and Swedes all brought their favorite recipes for lutefisk to the United States.
Surprisingly, there are people in the nation who love lutefisk. In fact, there is a song dedicated to lutefisk. I have even heard that some grocery stores in the Midwest actually sell lutefisk TV dinners. I will stick to fish sticks.
Bob Taylor: 392-6434, ext. 236, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.