Well, I'm just about to start out again. To commemorate the event, Gayla
provided this little tidbit of culinary travel. My immediate response
was, VEGEMITE!!! A most foul concoction but one that, I believe, may finally
have met its match on the planet's topside, at least as Clay Shirky tells
It is my wont when traveling to forgo the touristic in favor of the
real, to persuade my kind hosts, whoever they may be, that an evening
in the local, imbibing pints of whatever the natives use as intoxicants,
would be more interesting than another espresso in another place called
Cafe Opera. Chiefest among my interests is the Favorite Dish: the plate,
cup, or bowl of whatever stuff my hosts consider most representative
of the regions virtues. As I just finished a week's work in Oslo, this
dish was of course lutefisk.
(snd f/x: organ music in minor key - crescendo and out.)
The Norwegians are remarkably single-minded in their attachment to
the stuff. Every one of them would launch themselves into a hydrophobic
frenzy of praise on the mere mention of the word. Though these panegyrics
were as varied as they were fulsome, they shared one element in common.
Every testimonial to the recondite deliciousness of cod soaked in lye
ended with the phrase "...but I only eat it once a year."
When I pressed my hosts as to why they would voluntarily
forswear what was by all accounts the tastiest fish dish 364 days a
year, each of them said "Oh, you can't eat lutefisk more than once
a year." (Their unanimity on this particular point carried with
it the same finality as the answers you get when casually asking a Scientologist
about L. Ron's untimely demise.)
Despite my misgivings from these interlocutions however, there was
nothing for it but to actually try the stuff, as it was clearly the
local delicacy. A plan was hatched whereby my hosts and I would distill
ourselves to a nearby brassiere, and I would order something tame like
reindeer steak, and they would order lutefisk. The portions at this
particular establishment were large, they assured me, and when I discovered
for myself how scrumptious jellied fish tasted, I could have an adequate
amount from each of their plates to satiate my taste for this newfound
Ah, but the best laid plans... My hostess, clearly feeling in a holiday
mood (and perhaps further cheered by my imminent departure as their
house guest) proceeded to order lutefisk all round.
"But I was going to order reinde..."
"Nonononono," she said, "you must have your own lutefisk.
It would be rude to bring you to Norway and not give you your own lutefisk."
My mumbled suggestion that I had never been one to stand on formality
went unnoticed, and moments later, somewhere in the kitchen, there was
a lutefisk with my name on it.
The waitress, having conveyed this order to the chef, returned with
a bottle and three shot glasses and spent some time interrogating my
host. He laughed as she left, and I asked what she said.
"Oh she said 'Is the American really going to eat lutefisk?'
and when I told her you were, she said that it takes some time to get
used to it."
"How long?" I asked.
"Well, she said a couple of years." replied my host.
In the meantime, my hostess was busily decanting a clear liquid into
the shot glass and passing it my way. When I learned that it was aquavit,
I demurred, as I intended to get some writing done on the train.
"Oh no," said my hostess, donning the smile polite people
use when giving an order, "you must have aquavit with
To understand the relationship between aquavit and lutefisk, here's
an experiment you can do at home. In addition to aquavit, you will need
a slice of lemon, a cracker, a dishtowel, ketchup, a piece of lettuce,
some caviar, and a Kit-Kat candy bar.
Take a shot of aquavit.
two. (They're small.)
Put a bit of caviar on a bit of lettuce.
the lettuce on a cracker.
Squeeze some lemon juice on the caviar.
some ketchup on the Kit-Kat bar.
the dishtowel around your eyes.
If you can taste the difference between caviar on a cracker and ketchup
on a Kit-Kat while blindfolded, you have not had enough aquavit to be
ready for lutefisk. Return to step one.
The first real sign of trouble was when a plate arrived and was set
in front of my host, sitting to my left. It contained a collection of
dark and aromatic food stuffs of a variety of textures. Having steeled
myself for an encounter with a pale jelly, I was puzzled at its appearance,
and I leaned over to get a better look.
"Oh," said my host, "that's not lutefisk. I changed
my mind and ordered the juletid plate. Its is pork and sausages."
"But you're leaving for New York tomorrow, so tonight is your
last chance to have lutefisk this year" I pointed out.
"Oh, well," he said, tucking into what looked like a very
tasty pork chop.
Shortly thereafter the two remaining plates arrived, each containing
the lutefisk itself, boiled potatoes, and a mash of peas from which
all the color had been expertly tortured. There was also a garnish of
a slice of cucumber, a wedge of lemon, and a sliver of red pepper.
"This is bullshit!" said my hostess, snatching the garnish
off her plate.
"What's wrong," I asked, "not enough lemon?"
"No, a plate of lutefisk should be totally gray!"
Indeed, with the removal of the garnish, it was totally gray, and
waiting for me to dig in. There being no time like the present, I tore
a forkful away from the cod carcass and lifted it to my mouth.
"Wait," said my host, "you can't eat it like that!"
"OK," I said, "how should I eat it?"
"Mash up your potatoes, and then mix a bit of lutefisk in, and
then add some bacon." he said, handing me a tureen filled to the
bacon bits floating in fat. I began to strain some of the bits out
of the tureen. "No, not like that, like this" he said, snatching
up the tureen and pouring three fingers of pure bacon grease directly
over the beige mush I had made from the potatoes and lutefisk already
on my plate.
"Now can I eat it?"
"No, not yet, you have to mix in the mustard."
"And the pepper" added my hostess, "you have to have
lutefisk with lots and lots of pepper. And then you have to eat it right
away, because if it gets cold, it's horrible."
They proceeded to add pepper and mustard in amounts I felt were more
appropriate to ingredients rather than flavors, but no matter. At this
point what I had was an undercooked hash brown with mustard on it, flavored
with a little bit of lutefisk. "How bad could it be?" I thought
to myself as I lifted my fork to my mouth.
The moment every traveler lives for is the native dinner where, throwing
caution to the wind and plunging into a local delicacy which ought by
rights to be disgusting, one discovers that it is not only delicious
but that it also contradicts a previously held prejudice about food,
that it expands ones culinary horizons to include surprising new smells,
tastes, and textures.
Lutefisk is not such a dish.
Lutefisk is instead pretty much what you'd expect of jellied cod;
it is a foul and odiferous goo, whose gelatinous texture and rancid
oily taste are locked in spirited competition to see which can be the
more responsible for rendering the whole completely inedible.
How to describe that first bite? Its a bit like describing passing
a kidneystone to the uninitiated. If you are talking to someone else
who has lived through the experience, a nod will suffice to acknowledge
your shared pain, but to explain it to the person who has not been there,
mere words seem inadequate to the task. So it is with lutefisk.
One could bandy about the time honored phrases like "nauseating
sordid gunk", "unimaginably horrific", "lasting
psychological damage", but these seem hollow when applied to the
task at hand. I will have to resort to a recipe for a kind of metaphorical
lutefisk, to describe the experience. Take marshmallows made without
sugar, blend them together with overcooked Japanese noodles, and then
bathe the whole liberally in acetone. Let it marinate in cod liver oil
for several days at room temperature. When it has achieved the appropriate
consistency (though the word "appropriate" is somewhat problematic
here), heat it to just above lukewarm, sprinkle in thousands of tiny,
sharp, invisible fish bones, and serve.
The waitress, returning to clear our plates, surveyed the half-eaten
goo I had left.
She nodded conspiratorially at me, said something to my host, and
"What'd she say?, I asked.
"Oh, she said, 'I never eat lutefisk either. It tastes like python.'"