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Why Scandinavian-heritage Americans eat lutefisk -- with one exception

Katie Pinke reflects on her family's Christmas lutefisk tradition and the one year they didn't follow it.

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Lutefisk -- dried cod soaked in a lye solution and then rinsed and cooked -- is a traditional Scandinavian-heritage American food tradition, often prepared at Christmas. Pictured is lutefisk prepared for a past family Christmas Eve feast, prepared by Katie Pinke's mom.
Katie Pinke / Agweek
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On Christmas Eve, a platter of what my kids refer to as fish Jell-O will be placed on my parent’s farmhouse table. It’s lutefisk — cod fish preserved in lye, rinsed and cooked. We take a tiny helping, pour melted butter, salt, pepper on it and swallow our annual serving of lutefisk to carry on the old tradition of our ancestors: lutefisk at Christmas.

Why are we eating lutefisk at Christmas?

When 950,000 Norwegians, mostly poor farming families, immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century, they brought their food traditions with them.

Lutefisk connects our cultures of new and old, remembering where we’ve come from and honors the generations before us.

Did my immigrant, widowed great-great grandmother prepare lutefisk for her seven children in their sod house? Yes, and so did every other Norweigian ancestor of my maternal family.

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The Pinke family
Courtesy / Two Pines Photography

These days, more Scandinavian-heritage Americans eat lutefisk than actual Scandinavian citizens, I read recently. The national dish of Norway is Fårikål, a lamb and cabbage stew or casserole, not lutefisk.

Why do Scandinavian-heritage Americans carry on eating lutefisk this time of year? Community and connection. Connection at Christmas celebrates our faith and traditions, lutefisk included.

Across the upper Midwest, churches serve lutefisk suppers. And if you don’t like the fishy glob option, there’s usually a beefy meatball option. My mom serves beef ribs alongside lutefisk on Christmas Eve.

The tradition of lutefisk brings people together as do many food traditions.

Remembering the protein that sustained our ancestors in long winter months is worth preserving, even if it’s soaked in lye, traditionally used in soap making.

Lutefisk on Christmas also represents solidarity with our ancestors. They’re not here but came before us and our lives are far improved because of the sacrifices they made.

One Christmas Eve, lutefisk wasn't served on Christmas Eve to my family.

Roughly 30 years ago, during Christmas Eve church, an unexpected blizzard came upon our little town, long before weather apps and alerts. We went into the one-hour Lutheran candlelight service with sunshine in the late afternoon and came outside to darkness, snow and whipping winds.

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My dad and the train of family cars driving in a caravan together could not find the gravel road turn-off in the blinding blizzard snow and wind on the one-mile stretch of highway we traveled. We all turned around on the highway and stopped at the only farmstead between town and our farm.

No one was home at the lone farmhouse, but they were our neighbors and friends. We expected them soon at their own home and piled inside the farmhouse.

Yes, this would be trespassing — breaking and entering — but farm neighbors understand. More than 20 of us gathered in the small living room, and a cousin played Christmas carols on the piano while we all sang.

The landline phone rang and Betty, the neighbor whose house we were in, said they were staying in town at her mother-in-law’s but she expected someone was stranded at their house. She told my mom there was a cooked turkey in the basement fridge and to please serve it.

On that Christmas Eve night, my mom cut up turkey to stretch it out for the big, stranded group, added it to a creamy homemade gravy, and served it over baked potatoes.

Farm women know how to feed a crowd, without a recipe and in a pinch, and how to create their own Christmas miracles, with or without lutefisk.

To this day, anytime I have leftover turkey, I make cream of turkey over potatoes for my family, reminding me of the Christmas we didn’t have lutefisk but still shared in community and connection.
Merry Christmas, readers and friends. Celebrate your food traditions, even if they seem a little fishy, as they create connection and community we all need.

Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at kpinke@agweek.com, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.

Related Topics: PINKE POSTRURAL LIFE
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