Fish Jello in butter sauce

Joke:  A nice couple had bats in their attic.  They called in an expert.  He said, "Just put lutefisk up there and you will rid yourself of the bats."

When he phoned to be sure the solution worked, the couple said, "It worked like a charm.  No bats.  But now, how do we get rid of the Norwegians?"

My mother, being of Swedish extraction, prepared Lutefisk (pronounced LEWD-uh-fisk- the Swedish accent will happen automatically) every Christmas like so many other Minnesotans of said extraction. No turkey for us. Nosiree. No stuffing and gravy and cranberry sauce or French cut green beans in Campbell's mushroom soup with canned fried onions on top.  No flaming puddings or mincemeat pies. We knew not of these delights. We assumed that the rest of the world feasted, as we did, on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day being reserved for church, church and more church). And we assumed that everyone was consuming Lutefisk on this special day.

The process of rehydrating a woodlike slab of dried cod was the first jingle of the Christmas season for us. A ghastly odor filled the house with Christmas cheer.  

Since I was a child, and didn't scrupulously record the process, I will fall back on the Internet to supplement my memory:

"The first treatment is to soak the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (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, regaining a size even bigger than the original (undried) fish, while the protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, causing its famous jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) has a pHvalue 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."

Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon Days does not reflect my views. but his description is apt:

"Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot."

What to serve with a repulsive, gelatinous fishlike substance, you may well inquire.  This depends on the region of Scandinavia from whence one’s forbearers hailed.  For my mother’s clan, it was things that are white.  A buttery white sauce and boiled potatoes. Dessert was rice pudding with an almond hidden inside to give the lone recipient luck for that year.  Served with the rice pudding was a thick sauce which I now deduce to have been Welch's grape juice thickened with cornstarch.  Mother told us that the whiteness of the meal was meant to represent the purity of Christ and the grape sauce to represent His blood. Swedish Lutherans, you may know, tend to focus on the more grim aspects of everything certainly including religion. (Interesting to note that the word 'grim' itself is of Old Norse origin, suggesting that this trait goes way back). Anyway, to us children, all this all this sounded rather more like Easter, and that almond seemed vaguely pagan… But who were we to mess with Christmas?

You are probably thinking that this special Christmas feast doesn’t lend itself to fond memories. Visions of sugarplums it was not, and yet, incredibly, and so unlike the vast majority of children who celebrated Christmas annually with lutefisk, I loved the stuff.  I'm not sure why, but even as I think of it, I'm beginning to feel the itch to soak fish in lye until it swells into an exuberant gelatinous mass...  Perhaps it was the association with Christmas.  Presents were opened after dinner on Christmas Eve at our house, in the Swedish tradition.  After the table was cleared and the dishes were washed, it was time to gather around the sparkly mountain of gifts spilling out from under the tree.  Now, lest you imagine vast wealth here, you have to understand that Mother was of the firm belief that anything gaily wrapped was a present. Thus, in spite of opening gifts of socks, underwear, toothbrushes and other mundane items, (yes, there was always one nice gift), we sat happily amidst the chaos of ribbons and wrapping paper, all full of rehydrated cod, glowing with the magic of Christmas.