Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Lutefisk is made from air-dried whitefish (normally cod), prepared with lye, in a sequence of particular treatments. The first treatment is to soak the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish will swell during this soaking, regaining a size even bigger than the original (undried) fish, but the protein content paradoxically decreases by more than 50 percent, causing its famous jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish is full of lye, has a pH value of 11-12 and is poisonous. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days (and nights) of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be used for cooking.
In Scandinavia, the "season" for lutefisk starts early in November and is typically served throughout Christmas. Lutefisk is also very popular in Scandinavian-American areas of the United States, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Lutefisk is usually served with a variety of side dishes, including, but not limited to, bacon, goat cheese, green pea stew, potatoes, meatballs, gravy, mashed rutabaga, white sauce, syrup, and "old cheese". Especially in the US, it is usually eaten with lefse. Even if the common denominator is lutefisk, side dishes vary greatly from family to family and region to region, and is a theme of recurring controversy when different "traditions" of lutefisk-eaters meet and eat together.
Nowadays, akvavit and beer often accompany the meal due to its use at festive and ceremonial occations (and most eaters, regardless of side dish preferences, will argue that these beverages complement the meal perfectly). This is a recent invention however; due to its preservative qualities, lutefisk has traditionally been a common "every day" meal in wintertime.
The dish has sometimes subjected Scandinavian-Americans to jokes about the personality traits suggested by serving chemically-treated white fish with a white sauce. It is somewhat notorious for its intense odor, even within Scandinavia. But lutefisk has its fair share of devotees: during 2001 Norwegians alone ate a total of 2055 tonnes of lutefisk in their homes and approximately 560 tonnes in restaurants.
The issue of how lutefisk first was created, is as controversial as the fish itself. Some stories tell about fish accidentially dropped in a washing bowl containing lye, and because of poverty the fish had to be eaten nevertheless. Yet other stories tell about fires of various kinds, because ashes of wood combined with water will create lye. A possible scenario is that drying racks for stockfish caught fire, followed by days of rain, and again, because of poverty, the fish still had to be picked from the ashes, cleaned, prepared and eaten.
Traces in literature
When people first started eating lutefisk is controversial. Some enthusiasts claim the tradition goes back to the age of vikings, other and contrasting views claim that the meal has 16th century Dutch origins. Despite this, it is somewhat commonly agreed that the first written mention of the phenomenon "lutefisk" traces back to a letter from Swedish king Gustav I in 1540, and the first written description of the preparation process is in Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus's (1490-1557) personal writings from 1555. When it comes to Norwegian traces, author Henri Notaker (in the encyclopedia "Apetittleksikon") claims that the first written traces in Norway dates to the south-eastern parts of Norway in the late 18th century. Additionally, a classic Norwegian cookbook ("Hanna Winsnes") from 1845 tells about how to make lye for lutefisk from a combination of birch ash, limestone, and water.
Lutefisk eaters thrive on quotes from skeptics of lutefisk comparing it to everything from rat poison (which has a hint of truth to it, because of the traces of unnatural amino acid lysinoalanine found in lutefisk due to the reaction with lye) to weapons of mass destruction. Here are a a few examples:
- Quote from Garrison Keillor's book Lake Wobegon Days:
- "Every advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and Iíd be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot."
- Interview with Jeffrey Steingarten, author of The Man Who Ate Everything (translated quote from a 1999 article in Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet:)
- - Lutefisk is not food, it is a weapon of mass destruction. It is currently the only exception for the man who ate everything. Otherwise, I am fairly liberal, I gladly eat worms and insects, but I draw the line on lutefisk.
- - What is special with lutefisk?
- - Lutefisk is the Norwegians' attempt at conquering the world. When they discovered that viking raids didn't give world supremacy, they invented a meal so terrifying, so cruel, that they could scare people to become one's subordinates. And if I'm not terribly wrong, you will be able to do it as well.
- - But some people say that they like lutefisk. Do you think they tell the truth?
- - I do not know. Of all food, lutefisk is the only one that I don't take any stand on. I simply cannot decide whether it is nice or disgusting, if the taste is interesting or commonplace. The only thing I know, is that I like bacon, mustard and lefse. Lutefisk is an example of food that doesn't taste anything, but is so full of emotions that the taste buds get knocked out.
References and external links
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