As Christmas approached in 1978, I was living in Oslo, Norway, and a friend invited me to her house for a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner.
Hungrily, I surveyed the table, festively decorated and laden with ribbe – pork ribs – potatoes and red cabbage. I saw lefse and krumkaker and fairly swooned.
But something was missing: a dish that had been part of nearly every Christmas of my youth. My father, after all, was Norwegian-born. My mother – just a generation removed from the immigrants – was an exceptional cook and locally famous for producing traditional Scandinavian delicacies.
“Where’s the lutefisk?” I asked.
Sidsel gave me a look of abject scorn. “Lutefisk!” she snorted. “We don’t eat that stuff anymore. We have refrigerators now, and we thought you did, too!”
Yes, it’s lutefisk season, marked annually by brave cafés and churches throughout Scandinavian America. The blended aromas of simmering meatballs and gravy, savory side dishes and cardamom-scented cookies can’t cover the distinct … fragrance? … of boiling lye-soaked cod being transformed from frozen-solid planks to gelatinous fish mush in the church kitchen.
That’s not fair. It’s not always gelatinous. But the word has come to stick to lutefisk like a sea lamprey to lake trout.
Cue the jokes:
Diner in a restaurant: “Waiter, what is a fly doing on my lutefisk?”
But here’s the deal: While some hardy sons of Norway swear that they “like” lutefisk, that they consider it a delicacy, most of us who trace our line to the Old Country celebrate it as a connection, a bond with the immigrants. Cheap, basic, filling food, storable over winter – that’s what lutefisk was, along with potatoes, flour and maybe fresh cream and a pig for lard and a little ham or side pork at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I’ve had bad lutefisk, still smelling of the chemicals used to preserve it and lacking any texture, and I’ve had good lutefisk, firm and flaky, doused in drawn butter and tasting of the sea. Even at its best, it fails to crack my list of Top 50 Favorite Meals, but I can picture my mother setting a steaming plate of buttery lutefisk before me on her Christmas table, and I can imagine my Norwegian grandmother doing that for my father before he set off for America at 18.
And while my friend Sidsel bragged that night long ago that Norwegians had moved past lutefisk, the meal has made a comeback there among families who celebrate tradition and culture. “Some people like it,” Nordmanns Forbundet reported in its online newsletter recently, “but one rarely eats it more than once a year.”
Much more popular, of course, are the baked goods of a Scandinavian Christmas, including krumkaker – literally, “crumb cookies” – though disagreements over filling have led to fistfights. In our house, we never filled our krumkaker, either because we couldn’t afford whipped cream and strawberries or because Dad said that was for snooty Swedes. Krumkaker need no embellishment, especially when they come still warm from the iron, soft and chewy.
Other foods passed down by the immigrant generations also relied on relatively cheap ingredients that could be preserved over winter: smoked and dried meat and fish, pickled herring, flour and lard for “fattigman” – poor man’s bread – and what many Norwegian-American kids called “cannon balls:” kumla, or klub, the name depending on where your people came from in Norway. These flour-and-potato dumplings featured a square of salt pork in the center and were boiled in a ham bone stock.
“That’s been our Christmas Eve dinner for 70 years,” a friend told me recently. “With a little luck, it makes it out of the digestive system by New Year’s.”
Klub was best the next day, when mom sliced the baseball-sized dumplings to fry in butter. My brothers and I tried a couple times to recreate the magic of our mother’s klub, but we made such a mess that we were banned from my sister-in-law’s kitchen. I think she feared we might try lutefisk next.
But my son, Pete, and granddaughter Emma, 9, surprised me during the recent cold snap by finding a recipe and making a roiling pot of klub from scratch. It took me back, as it always does. And Pete knew to make enough for me to take some home for the next day.
“Is this the Norwegian version of pierogi?” a friend who grew up in Wisconsin asked. Sort of, I said. I suspect that pierogi, dumplings with a sweet or savory filling, serve the same connecting purpose for people whose ancestors came from Central and Eastern Europe. But krub is blander – and often as dense as cannon balls. If throwing a pierogi at someone were a misdemeanor, tossing a kumla would be a felony.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He now writes for the Sunday edition of the Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.