February 07, 2004


Posted at 07:22 AM Feedback
One of the most popular entries on my site is one of those "stranger to a strange gourmand" stories -- that is, the visitor to a foreign country cajoled into trying the local delicacy. The delicacy in this case is lutefisk.

I'll start with an example of the typical response I write to the feedback that page generates. Following that: a sample of the feedback.

From: Patrick <smile> Oh, I wish I'd written that piece. Actually, since that implies I'd have to have actually *sampled* lutefisk, perhaps it's just as well to allow Clay Shirky the honour of authorship (and the dubious distinction of experience). I've CC'd the unfortunate sot so he'll know his sacrifice is appreciated.

On the other hand, pickled herring I have some fine experiences with, even if it has cost me a friendship or two. Seems not everyone's so fond of the marvelous stuff. Go figure.



Benson, Thomas R., Mr. IMCEN wrote:
> I read your account with equal parts amusement and feelings of ancient
> terror. My grandmother was a 19th-century Swedish immigrant (from
> Varmland, to be exact), and when I was a child, we still crammed all of
> her 9 children and their families into her house or one of my aunts'
> houses on Christmas Eve for a gift exchange and a table full of Swedish
> food. We remember the food mostly because of its color, or rather, lack
> thereof: it was all gray and brown.
> Aside from the pickled herring, or sill, the eating of which remains
> today among my family a right of passage into adulthood and actually
> tastes much better than it looks, the one food I remember not for its
> taste but for its smell is lutefisk. We wondered as children why anyone
> would ever want to stuff such awful-looking, smelly junk into his mouth,
> and the younger children were terrorized by the older ones who swore
> that before a single present was handed out, everyone, even children,
> would have to eat some lutefisk. My opinion hasn't changed.
> Even though I haven't seen a plate of the stuff in 35 years, I still can
> remember the smell. After reading your account, I'm convinced I haven't
> missed a thing. Thanks.
>          Tom Benson
Bo Leuf wrote:

> ...hahaha...
> (http://www.synaptic.bc.ca/ejournal/lutefisk.htm)
> That was an inspired bit of cultural documentary. In Sweden we have
> "lutfisk" as well, a traditional Christmas item, and it is quite true
> that without the potatoes and pepper-gravey, there is precious little
> about it that anyone would want. You didn't _really_ go into any
> great detail about the consistency, which can of course vary somewhat
> depending on various factors, lye and preparation. We don't exactly
> serve it lukewarm, but there is something about the specific heat of
> well-prepared lutfisk which apparently makes it physically impossible
> to retain a temperature in excess of about 30 C outside of the oven.
> In northern Sweden, however, we not only celebrate once a year with
> lutfisk, we also have the midsummer tradtion of "surstr?mming" (i.e.
> fermented herring). This is a rare delecacy indeed, and would be
> rarer still if some would have their way, and has one thing that
> lutfisk can never have -- the smell. This fish is prepared in the
> summer, and sealed into tins to ripen (and I use the work advisedly)
> until the following midsummer. A good year is hinted at by the
> swelling of the tin's top and bottom, which also warns you of the
> fact that there may be considerable pressure involved. Never, repeat
> *never* attempt to pack down a tin or two in your luggage before
> flying home; it is doubtful if your insurance will cover the effects
> on your belongings and those of your fellow passengers.
> How to describe the smell of surst?mming? Bottled gas, sort of, you
> know, the kind with the added sulphate smell for safety reasons. But
> it goes beyond this with a rare and inspired pungency. There was the
> news story some years ago about the Swedish couple living in Berlin
> who decided to have surstr?mming one day. Worried neighbors called
> the fire department and emergency services about a gas leak. When the
> panic eventually settled, the couple lost the contract to their
> apartment and were told never to return.
> They should have known better. Surstr?mming should be partaken of
> only in the great outdoors, in the midsummer evening. There one sees
> in full the potency of nature mixed with culture. The secret of a
> successful surstr?mming party lies in careful preparation: freshly
> boiled potatoes of the season, small and served unpeeled, the special
> white unleavened flat bread baked in stone ovens, real butter, beer,
> and of course, akvavit. The surstr?mming tins are opened far to
> leeward and the "fish" inspected for quality. Usually declared fit
> for consumption, drained, they are then moved to some suitable
> serving platter and taken to the table. The tins and remaining liquid
> contents, and any "unfit" fish, are all left at the opening site and
> there serve the laudable purpose of attracting, stunning and perhaps
> killing off the local flies and mosquitoes, away from the
> festivities.
> Surstr?mming is by preference put whole on buttered flatbread and
> eaten, but may also be eaten on a plate with the potatoes and soured
> cream, garnished with chopped fresh chives. In addition, tradition
> allows several variants of pickled herring to be served, rather
> similar though not fully identical to the Christmas offering. Most of
> this selection also serves as the "backup" in case the year's
> surstr?mming should, oh horrors!, prove totally inedible even to the
> most diehard.
> Between bites, shots of akvavit are drunk, possibly of the variously
> spiced varieties (including St John's wort), each accompanied by a
> short ditty on the theme of strong drink, and chased by moderate to
> copious amounts of beer of varying strengths. And a good time is had
> by all...
> Regards
> / Bo
> --
> Bo Leuf
> The Leuf Project
> http://www.leuf.org/
From: Karen McGann
Sent: Friday, June 04, 1999 8:47 PM
Subject: Lutefisk

> Wonderful story, I know you're not making it up, only someone who has
> had it can talk about it so well!! Being a 1st generation American, of
> Fin Swede parents, Lutefisk was at our table every Christmas eve.
> Though the tradition was dropped several years ago, I still shudder when
> I remember the gelatinous mass covered in white sauce and peppercorns.
> Thanks for the chuckle! Karen
From: Nilsson, Eija
Sent: Saturday, November 27, 1999 3:56 AM
Subject: Food you eat ?

Our family is going to eat LUTFISK today 1999-11-27.
Have you same specially food you eat in Canada , in a
Christmas - time??
Our recept includes a much pepper in white-saus. Whitout
this tastes this fish "nothing".
from Eija Nilsson (Sweden)
[ED: My response to Eija's query: "Mmmm, yes, many things specially around Christmas. My favourite? Shortbread cookies - subtly sweet and velvet on the tongue."]
From: BCCCCH@aol.com
Sent: Sunday, November 26, 2000 10:02 AM
Subject: Lutefisk

It's not such a big deal, it's just fish! My Mom makes it once a year. It's
ok, it could be really good if you eat it right. It must have cooked green
peas. I never make it, I just eat it. Fy bubblan. Ulrika Langels (Swedish
exchange student)
[ED: And to Ulrika: Perhaps some day I'll try it. I am a rather adventurous gourmand.

However, I will take Clay Shirky's advice (the author) and be sure to have plenty of Aquavit before the first attempt!]

From: William C. Case
Sent: Thursday, January 11, 2001 9:44 AM
Subject: lutfisk


As an American living (=gone native) in Sweden f?r 30 years, I can tell you that lutfisk is really not that bad. The description here is a rather more complicated Norwegian restaurant variation I feel. The ordinary Swedish lufisk is just served with ordinary white sauce, admittedly a lot of black peppar, and possibly green peas. No snaps required.

The real Swedish delicacy, from northern Sweden, is surstr?mming. That is, herring allowed to ferment in a tin can. The smell is wonderfull, like when the sewage pipes have been stopped up for a week or so. Has to be experienced, and snaps definitely required.

Otherwise, my previous wife had a great cookbook, "The Princess' Cookbook", with recipes that start like: "Take 28 swans . . .". But my favorite was always: "How to prepare rancid herring." Tells you quite succintly about the hard times in Sweden in bygone days, doesn't it.

William C. Case

From: Bill McFall
Sent: Wednesday, December 19, 2001 11:25 PM
Subject: Tears, etc.


Just finished reading "Lutefisk". Now that I've mopped up the tears from laughing so hard, I'm printing it to take to a weekend Christmas gathering. We all try to bring some narrative that will entertain the group - ages 14-74. "Lutefisk" should do the trick!

For a similar guffaw, search out Russell Baker's "Francs and Beans". It was originally published in The New York Times on Feb. 18, 1975. It is also available in Laughing Matters, compiled by Gene Shalit, which is hysterical throughout.

Again, pass along to Clay Shirky: good piece, well written, very funny,

Bill McFall
New Berlin, Wisconsin

My web source was a link from:


From: "Robert Wood"
Sent: Thursday, December 13, 2001 12:41 AM
Subject: lutefisk

> How true... your words of wisdom... ;-)
> Lutefisk is for the stong of mind and meek of taste, but...
> why not try some of our other national dishes next time you come to
> Norway?
> - Grave salmon (fish tenderized (rotted) for many days in the fridge).
> - Sv?lahode (cooked sheep head (the eyes are sooo delicious).
> Merry Christmas
> Yours faithfully
> Robert Wood
> (Norwegian by birth)

I'll finish this long post with my response to the message above.

From: "Patrick Jennings"
To: "Robert Wood"
Cc: "Clay Shirky"
Sent: Saturday, January 26, 2002 5:06 PM
Subject: Re: lutefisk

Hmmm, suddenly lutefisk is looking somewhat appetizing.

However, you haven't lived until you've tried deep fried scorpion skewers (beijing), roasted widjitty grub (australia) or baked sheep's lung (kashgar.) I saw some barbecued dog's head in Xian, but couldn't quite bring myself to try it, tempting as it was. It never amazes me that foods which sound so bizarre can taste so good (deep fried scorpion!?) while something so delectably described as Lutefisk creates such acutely foul responses!

I've CC'd Clay Shirky, author of the Lutefisk bit. Perhaps there's another story idea for you Clay?


patrick jennings         synaptic :: grey matter media

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