The Fish That's Not a Food
Olsen Fish Company
815 N. Fifth St., Mpls; 332-3533.
Pearson's Edina Restaurant
3808 W. 50th St., Edina; 927-4464.
Let me pile up my credentials in a big Christmassy heap here: I've watched lutefisk-eating contests. I've followed lutefisk humor on the Web and in books and booklets. I've tried lutefisk, four times--the first time after a veritable culinary lynch mob of Minnesota ladies wearing Norwegian-flag earrings and puffy-paint sweatshirts surrounded me and forced me to swallow a shot of the goo. I've microwaved lutefisk in my very own microwave. I've interviewed lutefisk lovers. I've been told libelous things about lutefisk by those lutefisk lovers that I had to promise were absolutely not for publication, and then published them anyway. Now, to top it off, I've toured the world's largest lutefisk factory. So when I tell you that lutefisk is not a food I'm not saying it lightly. But first let me tell you about the lutefisk factory, which was so cool.
Imagine a series of half a dozen rooms holding pyramids of 30-foot-long, 3-foot-deep metal vats all holding cod fillets rehydrating in either water or lye. Imagine 100-pound bales of dried cod the color of golden taffy glowing from wooden pallets. Ceiling-high stacks of lingonberries. Two hundred 25-pound drums of herring fillets arranged wall-to-wall in a warehouse like spools of thread in a jam-packed sewing basket. Giant conveyor belts convey gray rivers of herring hither and yon. Brine sluices like the movement of low tide across the concrete floors toward the floor drains. Acetic-acid crystals mass like snow on any metal that's not stainless steel. Women in hair nets mix cream sauce by the bathtubful with palettes the size of record albums. A man feeds a mountain of onions, naked and spherical as cue balls, into slicing machines. Hmong women in colorful shawls roll herring fillets around pickles and pack the "roll-ups" decoratively into jars. In the front office, phones ring constantly as orders pour in from San Antonio, Boston, Miami, Seattle, and San Francisco--America's Scandinavians need herring and lutefisk for Christmas. Meanwhile a cheery blue-eyed order-taker explains how he's constructed a virtual air-lock on his house so that when he goes home he can leave his stinky fish clothes several sealed doors away from the rest of his life. (It's not that bad, deadpans someone as they pass; sometimes I don't even shower until I've opened my mail.)
So where is this hubbub of fishy activity? On a wharf in Norway? Off of New York's famous Fulton Fish Market? Nah, it's right where you'd think the biggest lutefisk factory in the world would be, hiding in plain sight in downtown Minneapolis. If you're on foot, head west from the Loon and in about 10 minutes, on North Fifth Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, you'll smell what seems like a thousand open jars of herring. You've arrived. Though there's not really any reason to go there; there's nothing to see except warehouses and empty lots and trucks carrying herring, lefse, lingonberries, and, of course, lutefisk to the four corners of the country.
Certainly there's nothing indicating lutefisk isn't a food. Unless you ask Alex, who's been working with lutefisk for eight seasons in shoulder-length gloves, knee-high boots, and a full-length rubber apron beneath a mural of eye-washing-technique posters. Has he tried lutefisk yet? "No way." Or consider Dan, the production manager. "Oh, I love it. I love lutefisk. I must have it three or four times a year." Then Dan confesses he also loves pizza: "I must have pizza three or four times a week."
Lutefisk is simply dried cod rehydrated with lye and water. It tastes like fish Jell-O with a bleachy, ammonia aftertaste. If this is news to you, you obviously don't have any Scandinavian ancestors, and you obviously don't spend Christmas dinner with a bowl of cream-sauce-slathered lye-fish (the literal translation) in the center of the table, which maybe one person eats, and maybe none do. But it sits there, as a reminder of where you came from (Norway or Sweden), what your ancestors used to have for their Christmas dinner (anything they could get their hands on), and perhaps most potently, it sits there and acts as an icon of thankfulness, reminding you of how good you've got it now. Even when you make fun of it, it still sits there reminding you: There but by the grace of god sits my dinner.
But that doesn't make it food. Foods are things that people eat for sustenance or pleasure and which most people agree are edible. If you eat a pencil every Christmas because your grandmother used to eat a pencil every Christmas that still doesn't make it food.
So what is lutefisk if not a food? It's a memory, a secret handshake, an inside joke, an umbilical cord to a whole host of vaguely defined but keenly felt cultural touchpoints, an invisible web connecting digital kids with preindustrial, pre-success Norway and Sweden; it's one of Proust's (more gelatinous) madeleines connecting people not with their own childhoods but with the harsh and romantic time before their birth. It's an heirloom quilt that can be bought for a pittance every Christmas and thrown away at the end of the meal.
But it might not always be this way. Roger Dorff, president of Olsen Fish Company, confesses that his firm is growing only because they're able to geographically expand their market year by year--lutefisk consumption seems to go down around 5 percent every year in saturated markets, but it's offset nowadays since you can get Olsen lutefisk in Phoenix and Santa Fe, and other places you wouldn't expect to find cod imported from Ålesund, Norway, and rehydrated in downtown Minneapolis.
You might expect to find lutefisk in Edina, and boy would you be right. If you show up at Pearson's Edina Restaurant in the next few weeks you can get a big hunk of the gelatinous goo prepared expertly, drizzled with butter and dusted with paprika, and served with a ramekin of hot buttery dill cream sauce. The lutefisk meal ($11.95) comes beside a mound of mashed potatoes formed into a well and filled with brown gravy, and when they offer you a choice of vegetable try to go with something light-colored like corn, so as not to jar the eyes. I don't think I can honestly recommend ordering this, but I can truthfully say I don't think you'll get a more perfect rendering of this dish on this continent.
The experience is endlessly enhanced by the pristine 1973 western-rivets-and-shiny-brass-chandelier decor, by the individual Christmas trees on every table, by the Swedish knickknacks on the knickknack shelves, and by discrete details like the stack of Xeroxes at the front door that provide such "Facts about Christmas in Scandinavia" as "In Sweden the tree is divested of what goodies it still has; leftover holiday foods are eaten up; decorations stored away and then the bare tree is thrown out the window." At Pearson's you can also have Swedish meatballs ($9.35), wild-rice chicken casserole ($8.10), and a blast from the more-recent past, Mrs. Pearson's Swedish Hotdish ($7.30), a "delicious combination of elbow macaroni, ground beef, bacon, celery, and mild [fear not!] onions." Who knows? Maybe the Pearson folks are on to something. With all the hot-dish humor around these days and the decreasing number of people who actually cook, maybe our great-grandchildren will keep a symbolic bowl of holiday hot dish on their Christmas tables the same way we keep hot little bowls of lutefisk.
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