Sunday, January 6, 2008

Are You Experienced?

When on the road I heartily embrace a gastronomic philosophy of, "When In Rome...". Such a worldview has served me well, resulting in meals of Haggis and whiskey in Scotland, Hot Browns and Bourbon in Louisville, roast pig haunches and Alt beer in Düsseldorf, salmon and pinot noir in Portland, Pike Quennelles and Viognier in Condrieu, and beer accompanied by more beer in every part of Australia. But never in my travels have I anticipated encountering a regional culinary specialty as I have that quintessential Norwegian delight: Lutefisk. On our recent family vacation to Minnesota, home to many an expatriated Norsemen (and Norsewomen) I finally had the opportunity to experience my first plate of Lutefisk.

Fret not, dear reader, if Lutefisk - both the name and the food - is unfamiliar to you. Here below is a fairly accurate description of this delicacy, courtesy of Wikipedia:

"Lutefisk is made from air-dried whitefish (normally cod, but ling is also used), prepared with lye, in a sequence of particular treatments. The first treatment is to soak the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish will swell during this soaking, attaining an even larger size than in its original (undried) state, while its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, producing its famous jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) has a pH value of 11–12, and is therefore caustic. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be cooked."

A bit clinical, yes. Perhaps Minnesota's favored son, Garrison Keillor captures the real essence of Lutefisk when he wrote:

"It looks like the dessicated cadavers of squirrels run over by trucks...It can be tasty, but the statistics aren’t on your side. It is the hereditary delicacy of Swedes and Norwegians who serve it around the holidays, in memory of their ancestors, who ate it because they were poor. Most lutefisk is not edible by normal people. It is reminiscent of the afterbirth of a dog or the world’s largest chunk of phlegm."

Having now been armed with both a technical and cultural understanding of Lutefisk, how could anyone NOT want to tuck into a heaping plate of it? So it was last Thursday afternoon that I looked forward to lunch with Amie's family at Paul Pearson's Restaurant in Edina, MN. Pearson's is to Lutefisk as Weiner's Circle in Chicago is to hot dogs, as The Carnegie Deli in New York is to a Pastrami sandwich, as Geno's in Philadelphia is to the Philly Cheesesteak. It's a foodie's Mecca, serving up the definitive example of that food product for which said establishment is best known.

It's cozy and quaint inside Paul Pearson's. Think your family's basement rumpus room, circa 1972. Dark wood paneling, brass chandeliers, weathered Formica and lots and lots of brown. Don't get me wrong...I liked the place. Amie's grandmother, Doris, herself of sturdy Scandinavian stock - her maiden name is, after all, Olsen - extolled the virtues of Pearson's yummy squash. When Doris' sister, Evie heartily seconded the squash, I was fixed on my side-dish. Soon Amie asked if I'd decided on my lunch selection, I smiled and said, "Of course...I have to get the Lutefisk." This was met by somewhat surprised looks from not only my lovely wife, but also Doris and Evie...ladies who knew far more about Lutefisk than I, in that they'd actually had eaten it before. Perhaps they knew something I didn't.

Their nearly simultaneous queries of, "You're really getting the lutefisk?" were met by my stating, "Well, ladies, when in Rome..." I placed my order with our waiter with sufficient airs (or so I thought) of someone who knew exactly what he was getting into. As a fallback measure, I also placed a side order of a Swedish Meatball. Soon before me was a platter that looked for all the world something more akin to baby food than anything else:
Certainly, the yellow squash helped to reinforce the baby food idea. The fish-shaped serving platter did its very best to remind me that what I was about to partake in was once fish-related. But what I had expected (namely, a lump of grilled fish meat that smelled vaguely of lye) was replaced by what looked like cellophane noodles that had been over-boiled and puréed. Turns out that that's pretty much what Lutefisk tastes least to me.
Having finished my first Lutefisk, I can attest that it was a somewhat anti-climatic experience. It didn't taste bad...but then again, it really didn't taste like anything at all...and certainly not like fish. I've read that some first-time imbibers are put off by Lutefisk's texture (phlegm-like, to paraphrase Mr. Keillor). I didn't find that the case, but then again, I'm one who absolutely adores raw oysters. I've also heard tell that the small fish bones can be off-putting. I did encounter two small, hair-like bones...not nearly as bad as some pan-fried trout I've had.

Would I order Lutefisk again? Nope. But, if faced between starvation and Lutefisk, I'd have no problem with more of it. Perhaps that's how Lutefisk became a staple of The Great White North...there wasn't much of anything else to eat.

Oh, and Amie's grandmother Doris was right...the squash was really good!


Jack said...

This is the funniest thing I've read all day!
Only you would ear Lutefisk!

mrviognier said...

Well, my mamma only gave me one rule when it came to food: never eat anything bigger than your head!