Oh, Lu-te-fisk: The Tradition We Love to Hate

Grandma Hazel Lagerborg, was a formidable woman: sturdy, hard-working, and nearly six feet tall. I might have been frightened of her were it not for the twinkle in her light blue eyes. As a first generation Swedish American married to a first generation Swedish American, and living in a Swedish enclave in Colorado Springs, her holding to Swedish traditions was unquestioned.

And so for many years Grandma Hazel made the Christmas lutefisk the “real way” with a whitefish dried and salted on the porch and treated with lye. The name literally means “lye fish.” Grandma’s variation of the lutefisk, which the dish of honor initiating the Christmas Eve meal, was a fish and rice pudding served with a white sauce: white on white with a fishy smell. They passed the pepper shaker to give it needed zip.

Fast forward through two generations. After the passing of Grandma L., and then of her son Vincent who carried forth the lutefisk preparation (albeit with cod and without lye), her grandsons wavered when the lutefisk brought strong criticism at the Christmas dinner table. “Look, it’s dry and lumpy” or “Eewe, it’s all snotty”  “At least it’s better than last year” or “Do I really have to eat this?”

By this time the Swedish blood around the table had been diluted with that of folks from other places with pickier palates. Lutefisk is, after all, a smelly white-on-white, tasteless fish-rice pudding. And it was Christmas, for Pete’s sake.

My husband is one of those grandsons. My thing about lutefisk (as a non-Swede) is that at all cost I didn’t want it prepared in my kitchen, because of the smell, on Christmas. The “other grandson” had to bring it. But he wasn’t always there. Or forgot. For a string of two or three years it just wasn’t there, and wasn’t missed, I thought. But on the fourth year, our sons, members of the youngest adult generation, complained. “We miss the lutefisk,” they said. “It’s our tradition to complain about it.”

And so, at Christmas dinner this year, the lutefisk again opened the feast. We now have two designated family lutefisk preparers­­, one to fill in when the other can’t attend. Hazel’s great, great grandchildren picked at it and protested. But one daughter-in-law asked for seconds! We assessed, complained, and ended up satisfied. After all, who said that traditions, those elements with which we define our collective identity, have to be things that we love? Sometimes they are things that we love to hate together.

Hazel Lagerborg’s Lutefisk Pudding

Serves 10-12 (actually more)

8 cups cooked fish (lutefisk or cod)

8 cups cooked rice

½ cup sugar

1 cup milk

1 cup canned milk [evaporated]

4 or 5 eggs

1 cube oleo [butter]

A little salt

Bake at 350 degrees. You may want to brown it in hot oven before serving. Serve with cream sauce white sauce. To reheat make holes with a knife and pour a little milk and butter in the holes*.

*In Grandma Hazel’s generation it was a treat to have some left over for another meal.


My own life is the subject of this blog, in the spirit of Me@20 Day, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Association of Personal Historians. I hedged, because of all the years that I wouldn’t want to return to, top of the list is when I was 20.

At 20, in 1969, I was counter-counter-culture in a chaotic world. I kept my distance from the pervasive hippie sub-culture, frightened that my generation was destroying itself with drugs. The war in Viet Nam cast an ominious shadow from Southeast Asia across the lives of the boys I knew, including my brothers. They either enlisted, joined the National Guard, or attended college to avoid the draft. The civil rights movement was at its peak, and I felt guilty, not from prejudice, but because I was afraid of the anger.

The times were depressing, and my personal world was too. I transferred from Colorado College, which I loved, to Kansas State, which I hated (sorry, Wildcats), following a boyfriend who broke up with me soon after I arrived. I had no career goals or ambitions, and no clue as to what I would do after graduation, since I was not going to marry the boyfriend. But I had, as an ad of the times called it, “a restless urge to write.”

What I did have going for me was the underpinnings of a stable, happy Kansas childhood, and a growing Christian faith, kindled by the deserting boyfriend.

My favorite songs were Leaving on a Jet Plane, Oh Happy Day, and Good Morning Starshine. NOT the Beatles. And never Elvis.

I remember this as a troubled, unhappy year—and yet I don’t look unhappy! (Nor like a hippie.) But I was young. Certainly it was a formative time like few others to be a college student in America, and shaped my attitudes about race, war, freedom, rebellion, and the courage it took to fall in love.

What were YOU like at 20? Go back and pry open those times, and see what they tell you about who you were and where you’ve come. Here are some questions to get you started:

Where I lived @ 20:

What I did @ 20:

What I dreamed @ 20: 

My favorite song @ 20:

What I wore @ 20:

Whom I loved @ 20:

What made headlines when I was @20:

Me@20 Day celebrates personal history and the twentieth anniversary of the Association of Personal Historians on May 20, 2015. APH supports its members in recording, reserving, and sharing life stories of people, families, communities, and organizations around the world. www.personalhistorians.org.

For a Me@20 whose husband's love song was from the Beatles, see the eloquent post by Linda Schmidt here.

Click here, to see how Steve Pender honed his artistry at splicing audio tapes, @20.


The Gift of an Interview

In his TED Talk, Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, said, “The simple act of interviewing someone can mean so much to people, particularly to those who had been told their stories didn’t matter.” It doesn’t take long at this work to realize, in awe, that an interview, focused listening, can be a simple, valuable gift.

Early in my venture as a personal historian I responded to a call for writers to interview homeless people in Boulder, Colorado. The project was conceived by a husband and wife team. He, a portrait photographer, took a photo of each person interviewed, giving them an 8x10” matted copy. The wife organized writers who would conduct the interviews. The resulting photo essay book was sold to provide community resources for the homeless in Boulder. The book was titled Until They Have Faces, speaking to the fact that we avoid eye contact with the homeless. As if they don’t have faces—or stories. But of course they did. When I arrived at the community soup kitchen, I found my first assigned interviewee, Gregory, standing under a shade tree on a muggy July day in intermittent rain. His yellow Lab rested peacefully under the tree at his side while Gregory spoke.

Gregory told me his story. When his marriage fell apart, his wife got the house and car, and Gregory got the better deal—the dog, whom he named “Dog,” pronounced “dee-oh-gee.” They hit the road. Greg had been a hard drinker, but gave it up to look after Dog. “I tell people, ‘Dog rescued me,’ and he did. I love him very much. He’s always been by my side.” The two of them walked from Florida to Colorado.

Dog has kept Gregory homeless longer than he might have been. It’s difficult to find a job to which Greg can bring him. Greg’s greatest day-to-day trials are with people who assume that because he is homeless he must be mistreating his dog.

Listening to Gregory gave me the opportunity to affirm the worth of his story, and the great care and responsibility he shows with his beautiful dog. Listening gave me the excuse to look him in the eye. The character I found there was a gift to me.

A couple of years later, I was visiting the home of an elderly couple to capture the story of the wife’s mother. A German immigrant between WWI and WWII, she had been widowed with three young daughters and had run a boarding house on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.   

My client’s husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but was still in relatively good health. As we were talking in the evening, he spoke fondly of his lifetime career in agronomy, experimenting in fields across the country to develop more productive and nutritious strains of corn, alfalfa, fescue, and vegetables. At 84 he was still consulting with seed companies. I asked if I could record his story for his grandchildren, and he seemed delighted to be asked.

The next morning I set up my recorder, and Bill was ready. It was obvious that he had given presentations his whole life. This one had a beginning, middle, and end. It contained the facts and delightful stories. He related his work to his enjoyment of gardening on weekends and summers on a small farm he inherited a couple of hours from their home.

When he finished, the recording totaled just over eleven minutes. “Oh, was it too short?” he asked, surprised at the length. And indeed it must have seemed short to summarize a career life.

“No,” I said. “It was perfect.” It reflected a career in which he drew deep satisfaction, and it will give his listeners a keen sense of who he was.

Bill passed away a couple of months later, and I believe that interview was a gift to him as well as to his children and grandchildren. What a privilege it is to give the gift of an interview!