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“Lutecorn,” “lutecream,” and “lutefish”… The Myth of the Lye-processed Cod fish is exposed bathed in butter

by Carsten Smith

It is Lutefisk Tasting Day at Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian Gifts. Customers who come in for Swedish meatballs and bakery products cautiously accept a sample from Diane Noble, an Ingebretsen’s employee in a traditional Swedish costume. They take a sample in a small paper cup and stab the white fish in butter with a toothpick. Gingerly nibbling, they gradually realize that they are not dealing with a biohazard or toxic substance. “That’s not bad. What is all the fuss about?” is the usual response. Some customers decide to buy some lutefisk and take it home. Others are content to know what the food that is often the butt of jokes really tastes like.

Lutefisk means “fish in lye” and for generations of families in the Scandinavia, it was a steady supply of protein during the long winter months. In the United States, it is a Christmas tradition for many Scandinavian-Americans. But since the lutefisk tasting at Ingebretsen’s didn’t result in people running screaming from the store, why all the jokes and reputation so bad that Andrew Zimmern filmed an episode of Bizarre Foods at the store?

“To be fair, the way lutefisk was processed years ago smelled pretty bad,” says Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Foods in north Minneapolis. Olsen Foods is the largest lutefisk processor in North America, making and selling 500,000 pounds a year. A large portion of that goes to Ingebretsen’s. The traditional method was to catch cod in nets from February to April. The fish were then skinned, deboned, and hung outside on racks to dry. The combination of cold air and bright sun were just right for quickly drying fillets and preserving them to a board-like consistency. People were then able to safely keep the fish for months and insure a steady supply of protein for their families. When a cook was ready to use the fish, it had to be reconstituted. Because soaking in water alone wouldn’t soften the fish, lye was added to the process.

This is the point in food history where people often shrink back in alarm. Lye? Isn’t that poisonous? Why such a powerful chemical? Doesn’t that leave an awful flavor on the fish? One shocked question at a time: Lye was the Ancient Householder’s best friend. Created by taking ashes from the fireplace and running water through them, lye was used in soap making and food preservation in many different cultures. Hominy, pretzels, olives, and even ice cream utilize lye in the processing. These foods just don’t advertise how they are made by their name, unlike lutefisk, so current generations aren’t as acutely aware of the role lye plays. In the case of lutefisk, a special food-grade lye in dilute form is used to quickly soften the fish. Olsen Fish Company thoroughly rinses the lye-soaked cod for ten days in water that is just a few degrees above freezing. By the time the lutefisk arrives at Ingebretsen’s, not a trace of the chemical remains.

The process has changed somewhat and now the cod are caught on long fishing lines, which reduces the amount of bruising that occurs. Most cod are dried inside vast commercial driers, which processes them in three weeks instead of eight months. These new practices, along with the refinement of food-grade lye, make the fish smell better than it did in days of yore. But scent is an important part of memory, so some customers want the more pungent, older-style fish. Olsen Fish Company also sells these, both to the descendents of Scandinavian immigrants and to a new market of recently arrived Nigerian immigrants, who miss a similar type of air-dried fish that is a staple food in their home country.

As for the often-repeated jokes about the fish’s texture, if it is mushy or slimy, it is not cooked right. That isn’t a critique you want to offer at the Christmas Eve dinner with the entire family in attendance, but properly cooked lutefisk is firm and flakey. As for all fish recipes, properly cooked means lightly cooked. This brings us back to the Ingebretsen’s Lutefisk Tasting Day. How did Diane Nobler prepare so many fish just right? “Whether you bake it or heat it in the microwave, keep the fish moist and the cooking time short.”

Lutefisk Tasting

October 23 Noon to 2:00 pm

Lutefisk tasting October 23, 12 noon to 2:00.

Ingebretsen’s was featured on one of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods shows when he came here to taste lutefisk and other things.

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