Let Us Now Praise Stinky Foods: Lutefisk at Christmas

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White fish on a white plate on a white tablecloth, but wait till you see what it tastes like!

Yesterday, the subject of Let Us Now Praise Stinky Foods (with apologies to James Agee) was durian. Not to be outdone, lutefisk now claims a place in the odiferous queue.

When I was a small child in Minneapolis, a harbinger of Christmas was lutefisk, and my Norwegian and Swedish pals always talked about it with a thumb and forfinger pinching their noses.

Lutefisk is made with stockfish like cod or hake, though nowadays it's more likely to be pollack. The filets are dried in the sun, heavily salted, retaining their bone-white appearance and becoming oily and flaky. These salted filets are soaked months later in plain water for a week, and then in lye, a powerful allkali derived from potash, for two days. One makes them into lutefisk ("lye fish") by steaming or poaching, after which the fish is sluiced in butter.

Via this process, lutefisk develops the most stinky taste imaginable--something like the smell outside a seafood resetaurant after the garbage is put out on the hottest day of summer. Why would anyone eat it? Long ago. preserving fish by salting was the only method available, and in the depth of winter, stockfish was one of the few foods eaten by Scandinavians, along with that other winter-spanning stalwart, potatoes. It wasn't like anyone had much choice as to what they ate in the winter, so the taste was begrudgingly accepted.

Nowadays, Scandinavian-Americans still eat lutefisk to remind themselves of their ancestry, but the practice is fast disappearing. But I bet if you went to Minneapolis today, you'd still be able to get a taste.

Not going to Minneapolis anytime soon? You can get lutefisk locally at Nordic Delicacies in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.


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