By my third year in college, as will be learned a little later, I had committed my life to cuisine and had temporarily forsaken chemistry, piano, and organ. My father did not express his dismay. Instead, he told me to follow my passions. I will never forget that advice, and I respect him enormously for it.
In fact, my father would tell people that he got me into cooking when he bought a year’s subscription to Gourmet several years before I was born. As graduate students at the University of Michigan, he and my mother enjoyed interesting food, and Gourmet provided a window into a world that wasn’t so common in the Midwest.
Of course, like many in the middleclass, the word cuisine meant more a socioeconomic separation from the “lower orders” than a love of cooking as a representation of human culture. Even the word culture gets mixed with socioeconomic ill intentions.
My mother had a copy of the Joy of Cooking, the classic that represented the cuisine of the 1930s. But Gourmet represented the aspirations of the working classes to become middle class, possible thanks to the Keynesian spending that made possible the growth of suburbs, the sales of automobiles manufactured in Detroit, and the excitement of living in your own house purchased with someone else’s money.
My parents ordered a case of gourmet goodies from the magazine, including lutefisk. This is the food that separates real Swedes and real Norwegians from their American-born progeny whose old-world character has been watered down by Jell-O and other forms of culinary sacrilege.
Lutefisk is quite literally, “lye-washed fish.” Traditionally made on the Lofoten islands in northern Norway and similar areas in Sweden, ling cod is dried in air that is not so cold as to freeze the fish but not so warm as to permit rotting. Once dried, lutefisk could be stored at room temperature for years, and so it provided a fantastic nutritional source that could be transported worldwide.
The dried fish is similar to wood. It can be sawed, drilled and hammered. Unlike a 2X4 made of pine, this “wood” don’t split. A Norwegian version of Hansel and Gretel might feature a witch living in a sumptuous lutefisk home. Ha.
To revive the fish’s edibility, the wood-like fillets are soaked in water, then lye—a solution of sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide and water—for 8 to 10 days. Finally, the fish is soaked again in water.
The lye causes the fish proteins to open up and allow penetration of water. Once soaked, lutefisk takes only 10-15 minutes to steam. It is served either with a white sauce or Sauce Béchamel or with a black butter sauce or Beurre Noir. The result is quite literally fish Jell-O™.
To me, Lutefisk is heaven. I can close my eyes and imagine the slithery flakes of cod awash in gluey white sauce, slowly making their way down my gullet. Sheer hedonism. About as powerful a comfort food as you can find. For, despite its fishy, gluey, jelly-ness, Lutefisk makes me feel young again, as in singing Christmas songs and enjoying the magical time of the year. It also represents a link to the past—to the crusty north of Scandinavia. I’m proud to love lutefisk; and I love it with all my heart.
When the box of Gourmet goodies finally arrived, they separated the excelsior from the items and took the box to the cellar. Checking against the order sheet, they found that the lutefisk hadn’t made it into the box—until it occurred to my mother that there had been two blocks of wood at the bottom of the box. Lo and behold: the lutefisk. It had to be soaked in lye and water for the two weeks before achieving palatability.