March 17, 2020 — The origins of lutefisk go back ages and ages ago to the Vikings. As they sailed to unknown territories to maraud and plunder, they needed food. What Norway had in abundance was cod, so cod it was. They caught thousands of them and hung them on poles to dry in the wind. For the three weeks it took the fish to dry, it didn’t smell so good.
Dried cod wasn’t very easy to eat out at sea, so the Vikings had to soak it in water to make it edible. (Why they didn’t just catch fresh fish is something of a mystery – but Norwegian minds are special, and maybe they shouldn’t be questioned about such things.)
Anyway, legend has it that some poor sailor accidentally spilled some ashes in a barrel of soaking cod, and it wasn’t discovered until much later. By that time, the ashes had turned to lye – you know, the stuff that burns holes in things. But when the accident was finally discovered, a miracle had taken place. The fish was almost back to its original undried condition... and lutefisk was born.
Now... there’s a different version of that story, one that author Francie Berg discovered while writing her book, “Ethnic Heritage in North Dakota.” After some investigating, Berg learned from the Bismarck Sons of Norway that centuries ago there were a lot of Norwegians living in Ireland during the famine. The only available foods were fish and potatoes (this was probably the period of time when all Norwegian food became white).
Well, the Irish were getting a bit upset, because the Norwegians kept grabbing up the potatoes to make lefse. Then, the Norskes started going after perfectly good fish, drying them up, and then trying to make them wet again in barrels of water. It was crazy. Why couldn’t they just eat them when they caught them, like normal people?
Some Irishmen got together in a pub one night and decided to spoil the smelly barrels of fish by dumping lye into them. But to their chagrin, the Norwegians thought the resulting blubber was delicious and decided to make it their holiday favorite. The Irish didn’t know how to handle people who thought like that, so they decided to call on St. Patrick, who had had some success with some snakes awhile back. St. Patrick was up for it, and he drove the Norskes out of Ireland so the Irish could have their potatoes back, and there was a great celebration throughout the land.
We may never know which of these stories is true, of course. We do know that Norwegians send back to the old country for tons and tons of lutefisk every November and that it arrives in bundles that look a lot like roofing shingles. Then, all over the state, lutefisk suppers break out, and even the Swedes get involved. In towns like Almont, for example, about 800 pounds of reconstituted cod is served every year. But a lot of these supper promoters have wised up and also offer Swedish meatballs for those who are smart enough to avoid the lutefisk.
Both sides of the fence agree on one thing, though – the smell of cooking lutefisk, whether it’s boiled or baked, leaves a lot to be desired. Don Freeburg put it well in his poem, Lutefisk Lament:
From out in the kitchen, an odor came stealing, that fairly set my senses to reeling. The smell of Lutefisk creeped down the hall, that wilted a plant in a pot on the wall... The scent skipped off the ceiling and bounced off the door, and the bird on the Cuckoo Clock fell on the floor.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.