When I was very young, every Christmastime Grandma’s house (in Minneapolis) seemed like little Sweden. Of course they had a Christmas tree and a visit from Santa Claus, but on Christmas Eve they always served lutefisk and korv. We kids always ate korv (Swedish potato sausage) The adults ate lutefisk.
Lutefisk is codfish that is caught during the summer, dried, preserved in caustic soda (or potash, maybe), and kept for winter consumption. Urban Swedes think it’s peasant food. In its preserved state it is literally hard as a board. Preparing it for eating takes over a month, and the preparers really have to know what they are doing.
While being heated for eating, lutefisk stinks. One urban legend swore that while the lutefisk was being prepared, “da rooses on da vallpaper curled up and died.” (credited to Boone and Erickson, ‘The Lutefisk Lament’)
It was mandatory for all ‘good Swedes’ not only to eat lutefisk, but to (a least) pretend to like it. Guests would loudly proclaim how great the fish was and the great job the cook had done in preparing it.
At one Christmas Eve dinner, my cousin Joan Olson was sitting next to her uncle Gilbert Riesberg. As the huge bowl of quivering white fish was being carried into the dining room, shaking like jelly, Gilbert leaned over toward Joan and whispered, “I’d give ten dollars if this was over.”
Nonetheless, lutefisk lovers were legendary. One such legend was my uncle Elmer Johnson. A family ritual was for Elmer to overeat on lutefisk each year, and for my Dad to express his dismay at Elmer’s gluttony.
74 years old and dying of stomach cancer, uncle Elmer hadn’t been able to take solid food for three months. Dad and mom planned to visit us in Australia for Christmas, but delayed departure because Elmer was so grave. Yet, he hung on to life.
At the family lutefisk dinner Christmas eve, Elmer ate three helpings of lutefisk over boiled potatoes, with cream sauce and butter on top. That night he got the best sleep he had had in months.
Dad expressed his dismay at Elmer’s eating habits as usual and decided that he and mom should get to Australia on the next available flight. Elmer looked like he could live for months yet.
Just after they arrived at our house in Sydney Dad got a telephone call that Elmer had died.
Well, he died happy, with a belly full of lutefisk.