By RuthAnn Wilson
Seeing all the local flyers around town, advertising church lutefisk dinners, reminds me of the lutefisk tub my Aunt Esther Bakke stored in her basement for many years. This note is on the inside lid of the tub:
“Lutefisk was shipped to Westby’s Storbakken grocery in this tub. In the early 1960s Edwin Storbakken told his good friend, Victor Bakke, that the suppliers were going to stop using wooden tubs; so he should take this one home and save it. Victor took it home and Esther, his wife, kept it until 2000. Her father, Peter Flugstad, repaired a couple of the wooden staves. Esther gave this tub to Karen Hankee while “downsizing” in 2000, thinking it should be rosemaled. Karen realized Esther’s health was declining, so she rosemaled the lid and took it back to Esther in 2007. Esther did not want to keep the tub, so Esther and Karen decided that this tub should come to the Westby Historical Society.”
Lutefisk dates back to the 16th century or earlier, although it’s not known for sure how it first originated. Remember there was no refrigeration, so fish and meats were dried to preserve them. In Norway, many kinds of fish were used, especially codfish. The process has not changed much over the centuries, and is still done today. The fish is cleaned and hung from wooden racks and dried in the open air. Once dried, it is stacked like firewood and stored indefinitely. Norway exports tons of dried cod to other parts of the world, especially Mediterranean, Caribbean, and African countries.
To make lutefisk, the dried fish is soaked for several days in a solution made of water and lye. In fact, the term 'lutefisk' comes from the Norwegian word ‘lute’, meaning to wash in lye solution, and ‘fisk, meaning fish. Once the fish has been soaked in the lye solution, it is immersed in water for several more days. After it is rinsed the 'luted' fish is ready for cooking. Do you suppose the lye was used to make it juicy and tender?
This yummy 'delicacy' came to America during the mid-1800s when many Norwegians immigrated to the United States with the dry-preserved, hard slabs packed in their immigrant trunks. Norwegian families continue to look forward to feasts of lutefisk and lefse, especially at this time of year. It's estimated that one million pounds of lutefisk are consumed in the United States each year. For those of us who enjoy lutefisk, it is mostly the fond memories that keep us coming back for more!
In many Scandinavian homes, this is the traditional dinner served on Christmas Eve with boiled potatoes, melted butter and a white cream sauce with a vegetable, usually carrots and peas and lefse, and at my house, meatballs. You may notice that the foods are either all white or are covered with a white sauce! To add color to the plates, I serve cranberries or lingonberries.