The Ghost of Norwegian Christmas Past
o lutefisk, o lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma
Some months ago, I found myself in a traditional Norwegian restaurant against my better judgment.
Our train had pulled into drizzly Bergen just in time for dinner. Despite my warnings, Nick was intent on trying the local fare—my ancestral cuisine—so we ducked into an ancient-looking building on the harbor, and a stout waitress handed us menus of whale steaks and boiled sheep’s heads. I was perusing mine for something edible when I saw her—my grandmother, who had hair the color of moonlight and gave hugs you could sink into like a goose down pillow. She was right there on the page, in the form of her signature Christmas dish: lutefisk.
No sooner had I read that word than I was spirited away to a cold porch, where I huddled with my parents under the rainbow glow of holiday lights. The door flung open to reveal Grandma on the threshold, her smile turning her eyes into jolly little slits, a gaggle of aunts, uncles, and cousins behind her. They all had to sing We Wish You a Merry Christmas before we could be let into the house, which was trimmed with red painted dala horses and wooden candle carousels, just like the ones in the shop windows of Bergen.
Grandma was supposed to be there, in Norway, sitting next to me. I’d upheld my end of the bargain. I had eaten her godforsaken lutefisk every year, and she promised me.
You see, friends, Grandma was a fanatic for tradition. Every Christmas Eve, she served all 30 of her progeny the same Norwegian poor man’s meal our forebears had eaten since settling the Minnesota Territory. She wanted to make us hearty like they were, and to remind us where we came from—which is to say that our Christmas dinner was not meant to be enjoyed, it was meant to build character. And uff da (as they say in the Upper Midwest) did that meal ever build character. It was completely unseasoned and one hundred percent beige, a sad mess of boiled potatoes, creamed corn, and lefse. But the coup de grâce was the lutefisk, a skinned, deboned filet of cod soaked in lye for up to a year, a preservation technique once used on Viking ships.
Friends, where do I begin to describe the atrocity that is lutefisk? It’s a pile of translucent, gelatinous flesh, a sort of seafood Jell-O. It used to jiggle on the platter as Grandma paraded it to the table, at which time we were all obliged to sing O Lutefisk (to the tune of O Christmas Tree):
O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma,
O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma.
You smell so strong, you look like glue,
You taste just like an overshoe,
But lutefisk, come Saturday,
I think I’ll eat you anyway.
As the song suggests, lutefisk has no flavor, just a vague fishiness. But what it lacks in taste it more than makes up for in smell. It stank up Grandma’s entire house for the 24 hours before Christmas Eve, when she would soak it in her kitchen sink to remove the lye. Still, the lutefisk remained so caustic it once ate through tin foil wrapping. It was so vile it became a punchline: when I was little, my mother had a sweatshirt with an illustration of Vikings piled in the back of a longship, their weight lifting the prow out of the water, and the phrase some of us will have to sit up front with the lutefisk! printed below.
Because the lutefisk was so unappetizing, our Christmas menu grew over the course of generations to include Swedish meatballs (added by my great-grandmother so my grandfather wouldn’t starve) and ravioli (an all-out rebellion by my Sicilian father, which ended up sticking because ravioli is scrumptious). The purest traditionalists, including Grandma, would eat neither of these deviant dishes. She checked each plate like a detective looking for blood at a crime scene. If yours lacked color, you were a good, compliant Norwegian; if it had red tomato sauce on it, you were deemed an insubordinate hedonist. She could forgive you your hedonism, though, as long as you ate your lutefisk. Everyone had to have at least one bite. No exceptions.
“One day,” Grandma would say each year, “I’m going to take you all to Norway, but only the ones who eat their lutefisk!”
I loved the idea of going to Norway even more than I hated lutefisk, so I would do my duty with the tiniest speck of fish I could manage. I would inevitably gag and spit the first morsel into my napkin, but then I would grit my teeth, take a second forkful, and swallow as fast as I could without chewing. This is who you are, I told myself. This is how you get to Norway.
Grandma died before making good on her vow. The last time I visited her, in the gray memory care facility I sarcastically called the looney bin, the gap between her thighs had grown so wide she could have straddled a watermelon with her knees touching. Though she looked like a ghoul, she was jovial that day; she kept rubbing the fabric of my corduroy pants between her bony fingers and telling me how smart they looked, and I felt certain that somehow, impossibly, she still knew me. Then, as I walked out the door, I heard her whisper to my uncle, she’s so beautiful, who is she?
There was no lutefisk on the table that Christmas. It vanished with her, as if a spell had been broken.
“So, are you going to have some?” Nick joked at our candlelit table in Bergen.
Could I work an act of magic and conjure my grandmother from a plate of stinking cod? All those years of spitting into napkins, of dutifully taking my medicine, and still there I was, in Norway, without her. I missed the rap of her nails on her lacquered kitchen table and how her eyes disappeared whenever she laughed, swallowed up between high Scandinavian cheekbones and prominent lids. It wasn’t the lutefisk I missed.
“I’ve paid my dues,” I said, closing my menu. “I want to eat something Norwegian and enjoy it for once.”
I ordered the grilled filet of reindeer, and friends, I cleaned my plate. It was like a prime cut of beef, juicy and perfectly charred, pink on the inside with just the right marbling of melty, buttery fat. The bed of asparagus was tender and well-salted, the lingonberry garnish a welcome dash of acidity. If only I’d known sooner my heritage could taste so good!
“I see you didn’t like it.” The waitress deadpanned when she came to clear the table. Then she cracked a smile, and her eyes disappeared beneath her high, plump cheekbones. It was the look of another Norwegian who loved me—one who, I now see, was always bound to be with me when I made it to the motherland.
I hold her oath fulfilled.