Surviving Lutefisk And Other Hazards Of A Norwegian-American, Midwestern Christmas

This is the time of year when we daydream through the last hours of work, pack up the car and head off to see family and friends for the holidays. No matter where you grew up, going back home can be a bit of a culture shock. (And not just because it’s impossible not to feel 16 in your childhood bedroom.)

Geographically, I still live fairly close to where I grew up, deep in the heart of Minnesota farm country, surrounded (mostly) by the descendants of fairly recent Norwegian immigrants. (My dad’s family has barely been here for 100 years.) But returning home requires me to think, speak and even process the world a little differently.


It wasn’t until I gave my friend Jeni tips on how to eat lutefisk (see #4, below) that I realized how odd some of my family’s traditions must seem. So if you’re going to a Norwegian-American holiday party for the first time this year, here’s a silly guide to what you can expect.

If you grew up in this world (or in the Midwest in general), you might recognize a little bit of your family in these words as well. I’d love to hear about your family’s quirks and traditions too! Feel free to chat in the comments section below the post.

Happy holidays, everybody! Safe travels to you!


Hazard 1: Help! I’m Stuck in Small Talk Purgatory
It never fails. After exchanging hearty Christmas greetings, I will stand in the entryway and, while removing my coat and boots, have a the following conversation with my father-in-law, my grandpa or another Norwegian-American, Midwestern male.
Midwestern Male: “Cold enough for ya?”
Me: “Oh, it’s not too bad.” (I will say this even if it’s -20 degrees outside. We are descended from Vikings. Weakness is unseemly.)
MM: “Supposed to be colder tomorrrow/next week/in January, favorite weatherman/my bum knee/The Farmers Almanac says.”
Me: “Yeah, I heard that.”(It takes all of three seconds for my usual “yeah” to be replaced by a weirdly melodious, multisyllabic “yaaaaaaaah,” that makes me sound exactly like my grandma. I sometimes don’t notice that I’ve lost my Minnesota accent until it comes flying back.)
MM: “Yep.”
Me: “Yep.”
(A long pause. He is formulating something to say. I smile in encouragement. We both nod our heads a lot.)
MM: “Still snowing?”

Your Survival Strategy:
– This conversational loop will continue indefinitely if not interrupted. It helps if you’ve prepared a few epic weather stories (scraping your windshield, getting stuck, sliding off the road etc.) to hold up your end of the conversation. For a truly Midwestern touch, deliver these stories in an understated, almost deadpan manner. The more dramatic the story, the more blasé your tone should be.
– Once you run out of material, find an out. Seek out a female guest, an adorable child, the Vikings game on TV. No need to end the conversation formally, a simple shrug and a helpless, “Well, better go…” will work.
– Know that, despite the baffling nature of this exchange, it actually means the person cares about you enough to keep their nose out your business.

Hazard 2: Someone Says “Pass the Salad,” But There’s Not A Leafy Green In Sight
Don’t panic. Salad means something different in these parts. The magic of refrigeration came late to parts of the midwest and lots of folks (my father-in-law remembers his dad wiring the house for electricity) still celebrate the holidays by throwing together seemingly random sweet and savory items that 50s and 60s housewives wound recognize.

Your Survival Strategy:
Scan the table for any dish that you don’t immediately recognize as food. Zero on on brightly colored Jell-O and anything topped with whipped cream. These, my understandably baffled non-Midwestern friends, are considered salads in these parts.

Itty bitty Mandarin oranges suspended in cherry Jell-O with (dear God, why?!) shredded carrots? Salad. Chopped up apples and Snickers bars in Cool Whip? Salad. Whipped cream, pudding and cookies? Yep. It still (somehow) counts as a salad and is usually served with dinner, not dessert.

Hazard 3: What Is This Weird Flatbread?
It’s very likely that someone will pass you a plate with neat little triangles, squares or rolled up pieces of a soft, thin, white flatbread on it at some point. This is lefse, which my sister-in-law’s boyfriend, a Texas native, once aptly described as a “potato tortilla.”

It’s made from finely riced potatoes and made on a griddle. Back in Norway, it’s eaten with savory foods and meats, but here in the states, it’s usually served with butter, white sugar, brown sugar or jam or jelly.

Your Survival Strategy:
Your host will have demonstrated their (often iron clad) lefse serving preference by placing the desired toppings on the table. If they’ve laid out more than one option, then make your choice, but be prepared to defend it against charges of sacrilege from the other diners at the table.

Expert Tip: Eat more rosettes, less lutefisk

Hazard 4: Why Is This Nice Lady Trying To Serve Me Stinky Fish?
Have you always wanted to dine on a piece of smelly, reconstituted fish prepared with a chemical that can dissolve the human body? If lutefisk is on the menu, you’ll finally have your chance.

If you’re hoping I’m kidding right now, no such luck! Lutefisk a perfectly good salt cod that’s been dried, soaked in lye and cooked until it reeks to high heaven. It has the taste and consistency of fish Jell-O.

Norwegian settlers supposedly ate this on the journey to America and served it during their early celebrations, so now lots of people harbor some serious nostagalia for the holiday memories it evokes. (If you actually like lutefisk, you’ll like my friend Jeni’s take on this fishy dish. She gets my portion from now until the end of time.)

I’m with Minnesota foodie Andrew Zimmern, who thinks lutefisk is one of the nastiest foods he’s ever tasted. (His show is called Bizarre Foods. He knows what he’s talking about, people.) Sorry, ancestors.

Your Survival Strategy:
Mind over matter, my non-Norwegian friend. We all know it’s rude not to try a dish that’s offered to you and as a new person at the table, all eyes will be (discreetly) on you. So let me put my years of work as a shot girl to work for you. If I can survive the horror of imbibing Tequila Rose, surrounded by chanting dude bros, you can survive this.

Step #1: Take the smallest portion you can politely get away with.
Step #2: Drown it in butter. (The fish should look like an island in a sea of butter.)
Step #3: Take a deep breath — but not through your nose because dear, sweet baby Jesus, this stuff stinks — and pop the lutefisk in your mouth.
Step #4: Throw your head back like you’re taking a shot. Lutefisk is slimy and will actually slide down your throat. I feel like it’s only right to prepare you for this ahead of time.
Step #5: Smile through your horror. You have passed the test.
Step #6: Consume all the carbs. You will need to get the creepy lye aftertaste out of your mouth. I recommend loading up on krumkake (a waffle cookie, shown below) and rosettes (the delicate, lacy, deep-fried cookies shown above).

See? That’s better already.


Hazard 5: Conflict! Expressing Dissent, Disagreement And Other Unpleasantness
As the meal comes to an end, someone asks you how you liked the lutefisk. Or a news report cuts into the Vikings game or another visitor (clearly unaware that politics and religion are taboo topics at a Norwegian-American table) brings up a subject that forces the other guests to (horrors) express a possibly divisive opinion.

Your Survival Strategy:
What the rest of the world calls a civil, reasonable debate seems like a fight to peace-loving, conflict-averse Midwesterners. That’s why we prefer to deflect (or ignore) arguments with serene smiles and cloak our feelings in the most demure expressions possible. Here are a few translations to get you going.

That’s ridiculous/stupid/baffling/confusing/enraging: That’s…different. (Feel free to make like a Midwesterner and really draw out the pause to indicate your disdain/horror. The stronger your feelings, the longer the pause.)
Good grief!/Assorted curse words/That’s truly horrible: Uff da. (Pronounced “of dah.”)
What an idiot: It takes all kinds.
I detest that with every fiber of my being/this repulses me: I don’t care for that.

If all else fails, change the subject to something neutral that isn’t going to get anybody riled up. I recommend the weather. 😉

What about you?
What are your family holiday traditions?
Do you have a traditional food you love? (Or one you can’t stand?)

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