Lutefisk…and the Odor of Christmas

I grew up in a Norwegian household.  My father’s mother was born in a sod house in the Dakotas, one of the first generation to be born in the United States. In my father’s home growing up, his parents still spoke some Norwegian…and he spoke some while I was growing up. I don’t know any Norwegian…although I did try and listen .

One of the Christmas traditions that we had during the holidays, along with lefse and swedish meatballs and a whole bunch of different kinds of Christmas cookies, was my parents cooking and eating lutefisk.

Lutefisk is a Norwegian delicacy.  I wish that I didn’t know that…it speaks volumes about the Norwegian culture.  It makes me question a lot about a culture when some of their favorite foods have any of the strange attributes that lutefisk has. Norwegians can be quiet…and weird (it takes one to know one, you know?)…and this lutefisk thing is a good example.  Maybe it’s like getting a tribal tattoo …some stoic Viking holdover…a strange display of fortitude…”look what I can swallow!!!” …or, to be more in line with the Norwegian inflection, “look what I can swallow.”  I’m not really sure.

Back in the days when refrigeration was non-existent, cod was hung out to dry for a couple of weeks…and then reconstituted in a lye based solution to finish out the process.  It is then purchased by a Norwegian, brought home, and cooked as a special holiday treat.  It is a gelatinous meal…one that I’m told doesn’t have a whole lot of taste except for the butter that you pour over it.

My parents would wrap the lutefisk in cheesecloth so that it would hold together while it was being boiled.  The kitchen would be full of the aroma of potatoes cooking, swedish meatballs…peas…and the overpowering (thanks to the lutefisk) stench of vomit. Not to take away any of the appetizing potential of a big tray of lutefisk or anything….but it really does smell like vomit.

Ho, Ho, Ho…and Merry Christmas. It wasn’t intentional child abuse on my parents part…it was just part of the celebration of a longstanding cultural heritage…but from here on out , whenever I smell someone’s stomach distress, part of me wants to look around for the lutefisk and expects to see Santa just around the corner, ringing a bell in front of a little red cauldron.

I’ve heard that our sense of smell is one of the most powerful “memory triggers” that we have.  What a powerful trigger lutefisk is. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forget it.

My parents are both gone now…we haven’t had lutefisk for a long time.  Maybe it’s a Christmas tradition I need to start in my home?  Cook up some lefse…break them all in with something delicious…and then hit them hard with something strange like lutefisk. If I can get them all to keep their noses pinched, they’d never see it coming. That’s what parents do…help build memories,right?


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About Peter Rorvig

I'm a non-practicing artist, a mailman, a husband, a father...not listed in order of importance. I believe that things can always get better....and that things are usually better than we think.

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