The Mysteries of Making Lutefisk Revealed, 1912
There is a powerful Norwegian-American heritage in North Dakota. In fact, N.D. has been recognized as the most “Norwegian” state in the U.S., having, in 1990, 29.6 percent of its population identifying as “primarily or secondarily Norwegian.”
Along with this proud heritage comes lutefisk, the target of much derision. Lutefisk, as defined by historian Art Lee in his book Leftover Lutefisk, is a “uniquely prepared fish eaten by Scandinavians in general and Norwegians in particular.” The word comes from the “Norwegian words lute
Prior to the days of refrigeration, Norwegians preserved codfish by drying it in the sun, and, after being stored for any length of time, the fish became very hard. To soften the fish, Scandinavians soaked it in lye-water, and then carefully washed off the lye. Lye is a chemical used to make soap and unclog drains, but strangely-enough, it’s also used to make pretzels shiny brown; to cure olives for eating; and to put a gleam on bagels.
After rinsing off the lye, cooks plunge lutefisk into boiling water to cook it into a gelatinous state, then serve it with oceans of melted-butter and plenty of salt.
When Norwegians immigrated to N.D. in the 1870s and onward, they brought the lutefisk tradition along with them.
It was on this date, in 1912, that a Grand Forks grocery-store advertised “Lutefisk . . . fresh soaked” for 5 cents a pound. December brought the “lutefisk season” for the local Norwegians, who could buy – either the dry fish ready for preparation, or the soaked fish, ready to serve in a short time.
The dried fish had to be softened-up, and its preparation took about three weeks. This was considered an art. It had to be saturated in fresh water for four days; then immersed in lye-water for four days, and finally, drenched for four more days in freshwater, being sure to change the water daily, to extract all the lye.
Then came the cooking; and it was wise to open kitchen doors and windows, using a “good breeze and electric fan” to air it out. Even with good ventilation, the kitchen smelled of lutefisk for two weeks.
Why do people still eat lutefisk? Well, it is traditional and truly Norwegian.
Non-Norwegians hold their noses, wondering, and exclaim: Uff-Da!
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “Lutefisk, Fresh Soaked, A Pound,” Evening Times [Grand Forks, ND], December 2, 1912, p. 6.
Art Lee, Leftover Lutefisk: More Stories from the Lutefisk Ghetto (Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications,1984), p. 5, 87-92.
“To Prepare Lutefisk,” Grand Forks Herald, February 28, 1922, p. 20.
“Ludefisk Season Here; Christmas Is Coming,” Grand Forks Herald, December 14, 1912, p. 4.
Erica Janik, “Scandinavians Strange Holiday Lutefisk Tradition,” Smithsonian.com, December 8, 2011, accessed on October 24, 2016.
Brian X. Chen, “Risky Baking: It’s Hard to Make a Perfect Bagel Without Lye,” New York Times, August 22, 2016, accessed at nytimes.com on October 24, 2016.
Odd S. Lovoll, The Promise Fulfilled: A Portrait of Norwegian Americans Today (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), p. 13, 47.