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.