Not long ago I had a cryptic phone message from Cheryl at Bookworks in Whitefish. She had a book for me to pick up. She thought I’d really enjoy it; that was it.
I stopped at the bookstore the following Saturday morning, and sure enough, she’d left me a book — but not just any book. There before my wondering eyes was the most beautiful children’s book I’ve ever seen, titled “Real Norwegians Eat Lutefisk,” and written by first-generation American-Norwegian Rose Marie Meuwissen. Each page is beautifully bordered with Norwegian rosmaling, the iconic Scandinavian decorative painting.
This random act of kindness nearly brought tears to my eyes. The story is written in both English and Norwegian, and is the tale of how a little boy, curious about the white, gelatinous fish his family is making for Christmas, is determined to try the delicacy and learn to like it because “Real Norwegians Eat Lutefisk.”
I’ve expounded upon the many redeeming qualities of lutefisk in past columns, but for those who don’t know — like my editor who inquired “How do you pronounce it? Loot-fish? What is it?” — it’s cod that has been soaked in lye. Yes, lye, that delicious industrial chemical used in drain cleaner. Of course “Real Norwegians” know enough to rinse off the lye, which incidentally does render the fish into Jell-O-like white stuff.
The children’s book duly notes page after page this refrain as it describes lutefisk: “White, wiggly, jiggly Jell-O.” I can’t wait to read it to my granddaughter!
Unless one is blessed with Scandinavian heritage, people just don’t know what to make of this curious dish.
An article on the Smithsonian magazine website by Erica Janik interestingly points out that the same chemical used in lutefisk is used to cure fresh olives and give pretzels and bagels that shiny glow. “These foods just don’t advertise this fact like lutefisk does,” Janik notes. She also points out that lutefisk is “still so close to toxic that the state of Wisconsin specifically exempts lutefisk from classification as a toxic substance … in laws regulating workplace safety.” Hmmm, good to know.
I also learned that Scandinavian cultural scholar Carrie Roy has produced a film that explores the cultural significance of lutefisk among American Scandinavians. It’s aptly titled: “Where the Sacred Meets the Quivering Profane: Exploring the Public and Private Spheres of Lutefisk.”
Anyway, back to “Real Norwegians Eat Lutefisk,” the book is wonderfully illustrated by Minnesotan and half-Norwegian Kelly Frankenberg, who has painted every character in different versions of the iconic Norwegian sweater. The picture of the blond, blue-eyed young lad as he’s tasting it for the first time is priceless.
“I will close my eyes,” the boy says. “Maybe it tastes like fish. But you cannot fool the mouth. It was not fish, but Jell-O. White, wiggly, jiggly Jell-O.” Spoiler alert: the boy passes the test of consuming lutefisk and becomes a “Real Norwegian.”
There’s just no logical explanation why American-Norwegians still crowd into church basements to gorge themselves on the fish slathered with melted butter. Apparently the novelty of lutefisk has worn off with actual Norwegians and other Scandinavians. They reportedly rarely eat it these days.
But for me, a second-generation American-Norwegian, one smell of lutefisk cooking brings me back to every single Christmas of my childhood. And for the record, I love the stuff.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.