Ask any St. Olaf student what they think of lutefisk and, after Christmas fest weekend, they’ll have quite a few opinions on the matter. St. Olaf College tries to mimic the traditional Norwegian dinner that most churches offer during this time of year. It is seen as a chance for people in the community to “reconnect” with their culture and ancestors. Typical dishes include lutefisk, of course, but also range from mashed potatoe to meatballs, fruit soup, krumkaker (a pizzelle type cookie), rosettes and lefse.
However, what most St. Olaf students and a lot of American-Norwegians don’t realize about lutefisk is that it’s a tradition no longer practiced in Norway. To understand why, we must delve into the history of lutefisk. This all begins with a story passed down by word of mouth from generations of Scandinavians.
A long, long time ago when Vikings were pillaging Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, a fisherman in Scandinavia left his fish out to dry in the heat of the sun when neighboring Vikings attacked his village. They burned most of the village to the ground, engulfing the fish in ash and smoke.
After the attack, the fisherman tried to salvage the fish by rinsing off the ash, but to no avail. Another villager suggested he boil it to rid the fish of the toxins. The fisherman proceeded to boil the fish and, once done, it looked safe to eat. One brave soul from the village, having all of his food burned, or stolen, proceeded to take a bite. To his amazement, the fish did not taste too bad. After careful observation for a couple days afterward, the village doctor deemed him still healthy, and lutefisk was born.
“Lutefisk has never been a luxury dish or a sought-after food in Norway. It was what people ate when they were poor and had nothing else left, which was the situation most Norwegians found themselves in when the immigrated to the United States.” – Elie Nederloe ’21
Interestingly, “lut” in Norwegian actually translates to “lye,” which is now used in the more modern way of making lutefisk that came about after the original discovery of lutefisk.
Since then, lutefisk has never been a luxury dish or a sought-after food in Norway. It was what people ate when they were poor and had nothing else left, which was the situation that most Norwegians found themselves in when they immigrated to the United States.
Taking that into consideration, it makes a little more sense why lutefisk in the United States is seen as a delicacy that reminds Norwegian-Americans of their cultural heritage. Lutefisk is part of a preserved culture of Norway that existed from 1825-1925 that contributes to how we celebrate Norwegian culture with lutefisk dinners in Lutheran churches and lefse at every holiday meal.
What we don’t see in the United States is an evolution of culture with the increasing diversity of Norway and the realization that lutefisk is not an enjoyable meal.