Reflections on Creamed Herring

In Thinking About Food on July 27, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Week 23, part ii
Creamed Herring-Induced Nostalgia

When I told my parents that The Husband and I had recently ordered a Scandanavian-themed appetizer platter that included creamed herring, their reactions were nearly identical. Both shuddered; both curled their lips. My mom, who’s Austrian and German, swallowed hard and put her hand to the base of her throat — the universal symbol for “I almost just threw up in my mouth” — then darkly muttered something about her childhood. My Swedish dad put his hands on his hips and asked two shockingly good questions, the first of which was: “Now why would anyone pay to eat creamed herring?”

The second — and the one that really got me thinking — was this: “How can a Scandanavian seafood platter not include lutefisk?”

Lutefisk, as best as I can tell, is both a serious tradition and a running joke. It’s a dish that you hear a lot about — at least in the Upper Midwest — but don’t actually see all that often. Maybe that’s because it’s dried whitefish that’s been reconstituted in lye.

Yeah, you heard me.

To be fair, the lye gets rinsed out of the whitefish before it’s cooked, but still: it’s lye, people.

Here’s a Swedish lutefisk joke for you: “We had a family of raccoons living under our porch. We put some lutefisk under there and the raccoons went away. But now we’ve got a family of Norwegians living there!”

There were two fiercely Swedish teachers at my high school: Mr. Erikson and Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson, whom everyone just called “Swede,” was probably best known for his reaction when a fellow science teacher hit a deer on the way to school. Upon hearing the news, Swede bolted out of the science office, to return thirty minutes later with the deer attached to the grill of his truck. He strung the carcass up on a tree that was right outside my physics classroom’s window. And later that afternoon, students in his Environmental Awareness class, in a consummate example of experiential education, learned how to skin, gut and butcher a deer.

Mr. Erikson, who taught history, was no less hands-on. He was fond of his garden; even more accurately, he was fond of bringing in vegetables from his garden that looked like past presidents and displaying them in the history hallway. He also liked teaching etymology, especially the etymology of words that were carved into or inked onto desktops. You’d be walking by his empty classroom and see him, hands on hips, shaking his head at a desk. If he saw you, he’d grab your elbow, haul you into the classroom, point to the graffito and say, “Look at this! Look at this! Do you know what this word actually means?” (Usually, you’d choose to treat this question as a rhetorical one and let it slide by unanswered.) He’d haul out a dictionary and look up the word, then point to it with a mixture of indignation and excitement. “Look! Look at this. This word is derived from the German ‘fokken: to breed, especially cattle.’ Do you think this is what the author meant to say? Do you think we have legions of young bovine genetics enthusiasts roaming our halls?”

Aside from their respective venison and linguistic obsessions, Swede and Mr. Erikson also loved Swedish food. Once or twice a year, they’d put together a smorgasbord in the history office, annouced both by its odor and the presence of a Swedish flag hanging in the doorway. It always included lingonberry jam, creamed herring, limpa, lutefisk, and a bumper sticker centerpiece that claimed, “When lutefisk is outlawed, only outlaws will have lutefisk.”

Lutefisk’s presence was enough to drive me far, far from the madding crowd around the banquet table; Garrison Keillor once described it as a “dread delicacy,” and said that “eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.”

Some fun facts about lutefisk:

When properly prepared, its texture should be like jelly.

If left in the lye too long, it’ll turn into what the Finnish call saippuakala, or soap fish.

When serving lutefisk, one should allow at least a pound per person.

Sterling silver should never be used in the cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk, which will permanently ruin silver.

Left overnight, lutefisk becomes virtually impossible to remove from dishes.

Lutefisk season starts in early November and runs through Christmas.

In the 1980s, the Wisconsin legislature voted to exempt lutefisk from toxic substance disclosure laws.

Though aquavit and beer are traditional accompanying beverages, lutefisk can also be enjoyed with a glass of cold milk.

Looking for help with your lutefisk recipe or smorgasbord? The Olsen Fish Company, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has a Lutefisk Hotline. You can call them at 800-822-0212.

  1. History has come to portray Vikings as sea-farers in search of new lands to conquer and villages to plunder. In fact, they were merely off in search of an edible AND enjoyable cuisine. (It was, of course, an ill-wind that brought them to England and Ireland!)

  2. I’m marrying into a Scandinavian family (mom is Norwegian, dad is Swedish). You’re not helping w/ my freak out factor….:-)

    • Congrats! Here’s hoping there won’t be a lutefisk buffet at the wedding reception. On the bright side, there are about six million delicious Swedish and Norwegian things to eat, so the odds are in your favor.

  3. I’m not that weirded out by lye-soaked fish, after all, olives are soaked in lye as a first stage in their curing process.

  4. Fair enough — although olives don’t have a jelly-like texture and won’t ruin your good dishes.

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