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Jim Heffernan column: Let’s get that A out of lutAfisk

I never cared for lutefisk. Too slimy for me. But at least I know how to pronounce its name.

Lutefisk
Jim Nordblad Harris’s plate at the annual lutefisk dinner at First Lutheran Church in Duluth in 2014. Because of his Swedish background, Harris gravitates to the “lutfisk” spelling and the cream sauce poured over it.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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Well, the holidays have arrived, ready or not. I like the holidays but there are, of course, problems with them.

I’m not talking about how busy they increasingly become, or how expensive they can be, or how much weight we can gain eating all of those holiday goodies. I’m talking about a problem largely unique to people living in areas populated by ancestors who hailed from Scandinavian countries. Like around here. Like me.

Oh, I know Finland and Denmark are Scandinavian countries, along with Sweden and Norway, in the minds of most, but my research has shown that Denmark is really sort of Germanish. (I had a grandmother from a far northern German province and the family wasn’t sure if she was German or Danish, depending on the direction of the 20th century’s two major world wars, labeled I and II to tell them apart.)

I read once that Finland was originally populated by ancient tribes hailing from east of their spot on the map, linking them more to the steppes of Central Asia, but they are part of Scandinavia in the minds of most and Helsinki sure felt like it when I visited there once. Oh, that gollamoijaka (or however it’s spelled).

It’s complicated, and why should we care? Well, one reason is that many of our holiday traditions are handed down through the generations going all the way back to the original immigrants from the various northern European countries who populated this region.

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Which raises the problem of lutefisk. We all know that lutefisk, like fruitcake, can be a holiday joke wherever it is served, like in what used to be known as our “Upper Tri-State Region” where so many Scandinavians settled. This region also used to be known as the “Northwest” until somebody pointed out where Seattle is on the U.S. map. Oops, sorry.

But it is here in the upper U.S. that lutefisk is king, and considered either a delicacy or a joke. It was served each holiday season (but not ON Christmas) in my growing-up home by my Swedish-heritage mother. My father liked it, although he was not Scandinavian at all. He considered himself Irish although his mother was from either Germany or Denmark depending on those world wars. The Irish actually have a past in lutefisk. More on that later.

I never cared for lutefisk. Too slimy for me. But at least I know how to pronounce its name, which is the problem I cite today after this long introduction.

I have noticed that many — actually most — people around here incorrectly call it luteAfisk when the subject comes up. They do this innocently with all good intentions and no malice toward lutefisk.

But it’s time now to correct this travesty. So once and for all, it’s lutefisk — two syllables. Not luteAfisk, with that rogue A inserted, bringing the name of the food way up to three syllables. So, let’s all start at least pronouncing it correctly, whether we like lutefisk or not.

Now back to the Irish involvement in lutefisk. There are many tales of how lutefisk was invented, most of them pointing out that up in Norway or over in Sweden many centuries ago somebody took cod fish, dried it out on wooden racks, soaked it in lye for many weeks, salted it down so the lye wouldn’t kill people and cooked it up in various LutAran churches — sans the meatballs.

Now we hear the tale that none other than Irish St. Patrick is credited with employing lutefisk to poison Vikings when they raided Ireland several centuries ago. Instead of going ahead and dying, the Vikings liked it, brought the idea back home and it became a holiday staple.

Jim Heffernan
Jim Heffernan

This history has been brought into question by Google, when it points out that St. Patrick was driving the grasshoppers from the Emerald Isle centuries before the Vikings raided. Details, details.

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Well, that’s my treatise on lutefisk. Pronounce it correctly and enjoy it while (if?) you can because it disappears in a couple of weeks. So will sylta, my favorite Scandinavian delicacy. It used to be called “head cheese” because it was made out of the brains of whatever slaughtered animals were too stupid to avoid their fate. Those old Scandinavians were frugal folk and wasted not a thing.

They don’t make sylta out of brains anymore, though, and it’s starting to show up in education results. (Yes, I know, that’s as nutty as a fruitcake.)

Well anyway, Happy Holidays, in spite of all this.

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Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by email at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org.
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