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Lutefisk is a holiday tradition for many South Dakotans of Scandinavian descent.
Lutefisk is a holiday tradition for many South Dakotans of Scandinavian descent.

Our Office Lutefisk Party

 

The brown-jacketed deliveryman brought a package to our office door and said, “I think it’s lutefisk. Do you want me to set it outside?” That’s when we knew we were in for an adventure.

Although our staff always enjoys exploring the culinary culture of South Dakota, back in 2006 we realized that many of us at South Dakota Magazine had never tried one of our state’s most infamous holiday dishes. That’s especially surprising because our most senior staffer, Alma Korslund, is an experienced lutefisk chef.

Lutefisk is air-dried codfish that has been rehydrated by a soaking in lye and water, hence the name, lute (lye), fisk (fish), or “lyefish.” Whether lutefisk originated in Norway or Sweden is apparently a fishbone of contention. With all the bad press, it’s a mystery why either country wants to claim it. According to an old Norwegian-American saying, “Half the Norwegians who immigrated to America came in order to escape the hated lutefisk, and the other half came to spread the gospel of lutefisk’s wonderfulness.”

Alma grew up in a Danish household (the Hansens) in the Irene/Viborg area. Her grandparents were Danish immigrants. “We’re Danes, not Norwegians, but we like lutefisk,” she says, “I guess we made it for the Norwegian in-laws.” She was eight when she first tried lutefisk. Her sister didn’t care for the taste, but Alma liked it immediately. “I think it had something to do with all the butter we used,” she admits today.

The Hansens enjoyed lutefisk every Thanksgiving. As the rest of the holiday feast was being set out, the lutefisk was finally put on the stove to boil. Melted butter and the fish were the last things brought to the table.

Lutefisk is traditionally served with mashed potatoes, green beans or creamed peas, lefse and butter — ­lots of butter. Swedish meatballs were often added to the menu for the faint of stomach.

Although lutefisk can be made in the microwave or oven, Alma still cooks it on the stove, just the way her mother taught her. Here’s how the Hansens did it:

  • Cut large lutefisk filets into portion-sized pieces.
  • Soak in salt water for a few hours before cooking.
  • Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil.
  • Drop fish pieces into boiling water.
  • Wait for water to come back to a boil.
  • Poke with fork — fish will slide off easily when ready. 

The fork test is important. “When it slides right off the fork, it has to come out of the water and to the table,” insists Alma. Overcooking lutefisk produces a quivering gelatinous mass, something akin to fish jello.

Lutefisker Alma Korslund in the kitchen.

 

The lutefisk that arrived via our deliveryman came from Olsen Fish Company of Minneapolis, the world’s largest processor of lutefisk. They produce over half a million pounds of the fragrant fish a year. Approximately 25 tons of that comes directly to South Dakota. Olsen’s even has a Lutefisk Hotline (800-882-0212) to call if you don’t understand the fork poke.

Lutefisk can be purchased fresh or frozen, with skin or without. We received it frozen skinless or kettle ready. “This is a very nice piece of fish,” Alma said, “Sometimes you have to remove the skin.”

When Alma prepared the lutefisk for our magazine staff, the meal was met with some trepidation; the fish doesn’t come without a reputation, after all. But everyone tried it. “They were all good sports,” Alma said. Comments from the diners ranged from, "How do you say ‘ugh’ in Norwegian?” to “Way better than I expected, it reminds me of artificial crabmeat.” Even our editor’s dog, Yeller, ate some. But, he also chews on whatever he finds in the backyard.

 Alma concedes that lutefisk may be a dying tradition. “My children can do without it, but they will try it,” she says. “My grandchildren don’t like it at all.” So she often prepares it just for her husband, Dale, and herself — their own little Danish feast.

 

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the November/December 2006 issue of  South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.

 

Comments

12:26 pm - Tue, November 27 2012
Stuart Surma said:
As my late Grandma Loise Olson- the only Lutefisk cooker in our family would say, Uff Da"!! The only reason we tolerated the Lutefisk was to get to her delicios lefse!! Stu Surma
04:00 pm - Tue, November 27 2012
There's a wonderful book....The Last Word on Lutefisk....written by my friend Gary Legwold...and his companion book....The Last Word on Lefse...More information is available at www.lutefisk.com Nice article Ruth...Thanks.
10:39 am - Fri, November 30 2012
Ruth said:
Thanks, Grant, glad you liked it. Alma has been helping out through the holiday season here at the magazine. We've been reminiscing and chuckling about that lutefisk office party.
11:21 am - Wed, December 5 2012
Elayne said:
Being 99.999999999% Norwegian, of course I've been around lutefisk all my life. "Back in the day" my family cooked it to the gelatinous state, so no wonder I didn't want anything to do with it until well into my adulthood; my grandma made THE best Swedish meatballs for us kids. Now I can't wait for the first church's lutefisk fundraiser, where I usually have 2 or 3 helpings, enough to last until next year.
05:25 pm - Wed, February 6 2013

Lutefish is one of my favorite food at Christmas, as I was going up on the home farm in Grant County, SDak, we alway had lutefish and mincemeat pie for our xmas eve supper. It was the best in the world.
08:05 pm - Thu, March 7 2013
JANEY MILSTEAD said:
The Sons Of Norway lodge in a suburb of Los Angeles, Calif. makes the best lutefisk I've ever tasted for their annual three day feed. It's flaky and tasty and a far cry from the ghastly messes I encountered growing up in South Dakota (Aberdeen). I always opted for the meatballs and the one time my mother cooked lutefisk, I ran around the house with a clothespin on my nose for laughs and then ran out of the house, period. It got that bad as she cooked it to LePage's Glue proportions. It smelled frightening, looked frightening and was. I loved the part of this article that encourage quick removal of the fish ere it turn into fish jello. By the way, Sons of Norway orders their delicious lutefisk from Olsens in Minneapolis, proving that it's all in the cooking.

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