Monday, December 04, 2017

O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk ...


Sometimes, in this season of holidays, I feel like a stranger in a strange land down here in the south of Iowa where familiar culinary landmarks are absent --- like lutefisk. And lefse, mashed potatoes, plenty of butter, meatballs on the side, canned corn perhaps, rommegrot, "fruita soupa" and a big platter of desserts that includes, at the least, rosettes, kringla and krumkake.

I blame Lucas County Swedes for this. Descendants of the hundreds of immigrants from Sweden who settled here between the 1870s and early 1900s, unlike the Norwegians of the North, have frittered away their Scandinavian heritage. Even though as late as 1951, Bob Piper was offering lutefisk at his grocery  store on the Chariton square, the demand dried up soon after as cultural pride diminished. Now, sadly, the holiday treats at First Lutheran Church could just as easily have been prepared by --- and this will chill your blood --- Methodists.

Lutefisk begins life as unsalted whitefish, most often cod, plucked from the sea and dried. This is an ancient practice --- dried fish loses none of its nutritional value and, if handled appropriately, can be stored for years, then reconstituted by soaking in water. Scandinavians discovered long ago that if the water is a mild solution of lye (run fresh water through wood ashes), the fish plumps up quickly, exceeds its original volume and is broken down a little to become even more digestible. When cooked properly --- a task best left to Lutherans --- the result is mild, firm, slightly flakey, slightly gelatinous.


This platter of lutefisk (I've stolen the photo from Maxine Hall Beckner) was served up earlier this fall at Grace Lutheran Church in Hanlontown, where in years past I have enjoyed lutefisk meals although my culinary heart belongs to Zion Lutheran Church in Rake where, oft seated by the side of the late Miss Rosella Erdahl, I learned the basics of eating lutefisk (including, watch out for bones).

The catch is, cod-based lutefisk smells to high heaven. In the little Winnebago County town where I lived for many years, one of the signs of the season was the stench, evident as soon as one walked through the front door of Thompson Food Center, which meant that Don had buckets of lutefisk available in the cooler.

There is, however, absolutely no basis for the awful recipe once prescribed for lutefisk: Rinse thoroughly, place on a board, bake fish, throw away the fish, eat the board. Although --- if mishandled in the kitchen, lutefisk can degenerate to a unappetizing soupy mess.

The advertisement here, published in The Chariton Herald-Patriot of Nov. 20, 1913, certainly illustrates the Swedish presence in Lucas County and the Swedish pride (and marketing skill) of Edwin Jarl, whose grocery story was not far west of the alley on the north side of the square.

The main text box reads, "To all Swedes and families who have recently moved into our city: I invite you all to come in and get acquainted with us. As we are the only Swedish merchant in the city, we tried to handle as much in Swedish products as possible, tasty and of the best quality. We have big supplies of men's, women's, and children's shoes of all kinds. Underwear, socks, in one word, everything a household needs."

The advertisement ends with a list of available provisions needed for the holidays and at other times in a Swedish household including, at the end, lutefisk, herring and a third fishy product that I can't translate.

Edwin Jarl was born during 1872 at Skarkind, Norrkoping, Osteregotland, and came to the United States at the age of 15 with his older brother, Emil.  He married Anna Nelson during 1899 in Chicago then set out soon thereafter, with Emil, for Osceola where the brothers established a general merchandise store.

During July of 1912, after Emil had decided to try another line of work, Edwin sold out in Osceola and bought the Busy Bee Grocery on the north side of the Chariton square from Pete West. He added general merchandise to the grocery stock and remained in business there until the fall of 1926, when he closed out operations and moved to Glendale, California, where he died during 1946.

It's hard to say when or how Lucas County's Swedes came loose from their moorings, but World War I certainly didn't help. 

On the 23rd of May 1918, Gov. William L. Harding issued what became known as "The Babel Proclamation" forbidding the public use of any language other than English in the state (other governors outlawed the German language; only Iowa, all non-English languages). This included church services --- and telephone conversations.

Although most provisions of the proclamation were rescinded after the war ended, it certainly had a chilling effect on many ethnic groups.

Norwegians held firm, however; but Lucas County's Swedes --- not so much.

Here's dessert --- a tray of sweets including kringla, krumkaka and rosettes that I bought back in 2008 at Grace Lutheran Church in Hanlontown, then arranged on a tray to take into the office that afternoon. Enjoy!


1 comment:

Marcia said...

I have tried to keep some of my husband's Norwegian heritage going with my kids. We inherited the Lefse Grill. My son with his Grandma Mattie worked through the recipe and techniques for 4-H in the 90's. With my daughter we made the traditional Lefse this year for Thanksgiving. My family was introduced to Lutefisk by their Grandma Mattie and was not something to continue in our family. Alas, only my daughter in law likes Lutefisk and did make it one year for the family and again it was not accepted well. I do make Kringle at times and did learn to make Krumcake (spelling?) with a dear friend.