“So we have this little tradition in Norway where we eat lye fish. Do you know lye? Do you know what lye is? So lye is a liquid obtained by leeching ashes or strong alkali. So you literally put a fish in ash and you let it rot. Then you leave it in the ash or lye until it becomes so fermented that all that’s left is the part of the fish that doesn’t serve any function, the jello that’s only there to make sure that the rest of the body stays where it should be. And that’s what you eat. Once a year. For Christmas, primarily. And you eat it with so many things on the side that you disguise the taste of the fish. So like, the whole point is you use as many small dishes as you can. You can’t just eat the fish because the fish tastes horrible. And we all agree that it tastes terrible, but we all keep eating it because it’s tradition. It comes from Lofoten. It comes from way up north. It comes from a way of preservation. So it was back in the day when we didn’t have refrigerators or anything like that. They could put the fish on lye. And then that would… You know, it rots, but you can still eat it. It’s like, yeah, it works. It’s called lutefisk.”
Lutefisk sounds like an absolutely awful dish. It seems the source felt that way about it anyway. He recalls eating it every Christmas ever since he was little. No one enjoys it, his family merely does it out of tradition. The tradition, like he said, stems from old times when fish couldn’t be preserved in refrigerators and whatnot. So instead, people would preserve fish by keeping it in ash.
It sounds like this dish wasn’t invented intentionally. Ash was probably used to preserve other things, and they had no idea the effect it would have on fish. They probably preserved the fish in ash or lye for a couple of days, came back, and seen a whole different product than they were expecting. I’m surprised it’s still around though, considering the method of making it and what it actually is. Must be a very strong tradition for people to still be eating it today.
People probably hated it back then, too, but like the source said, with enough side dishes, the fish could be forgotten. It probably allowed ancient Norwegian peoples to still take in some kind of protein during the heavy winter months, along with whatever nutrients they got from the harvest.
For more on this recipe:
Legwold, Gary. The Last Word on Lutefisk: True Tales of Cod and Tradition. Minneapolis: Conrad Henry, 1996. Print.
“There’s a creek that goes through my hometown of Crawfordsville, Indiana called Sugar Creek, and they say it has best smallmouth bass fishing in the country. Apparently in the 80s, some high school kid went down to the Creek after school and caught four 8lb smallmouths, and a massive 12 pounder in an hour. Ever since kids always go down there to try to catch some huge ones, and I’ve caught a couple big ones myself, but nowhere near the 12 pounder he caught.”
This is from my friend who comes from a small town in Indiana with a lot of folklore traditions. He’s lived there all of his life, and apparently there are a lot of these little local stories legends about his town which is awesome. He said that this one particularly resonates with him and gives him a sense of nostalgia because it reminds him of his times fishing during his childhood and looking for legendary bass.
Informant: “I know I’ve said this multiple times when I’m out fishing with someone, especially if we haven’t caught many fish yet, is ‘Welp, The reason we’re not catching any fish is because I’m not bleeding yet.’ Well, either ‘not bleeding’ or ‘haven’t hurt myself yet’. And if while I’m trudging along hiking to go somewhere fishing and I slip and fall and get all scuffed up or bruised or hurt or whatever, I think to myself, ‘ok, well now I’m going to catch fish because I’ve hurt myself’. And so these are things I’ve said many times over the years fishing, and I’d say that this is actually a true thing…most of the time. And part of the reason why this has ended up being a true thing is that you have a better chance of catching fish if you’re fishing in a part of the river that’s way harder to get to. Because, the average person is probably a little bit lazy, and they’re also not going to take risks. And so if you drive up to some spot and you get out of your car and you walk right down to the river and fish there, that’s probably where like a million people have fished. But if you’re like walking up the narrow steep river canyon, or trying to go down some spot where there’s not a path, and just try to go cross country to get to the river, if it’s really hard to get there, then hardly anyone or perhaps no one has fished there before. When you get to those spots, and I’ve been to a number of those spots in my life, the fishing can be just absolutely fantastic.
Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Washington and Oregon (where he hopes to someday retire so he can “go fly fishing every single day for the rest of [his] life”) and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.
Collector Analysis: In much the same way as there is folklore associated with different professions, there is also folklore associated with different hobbies; in this case, fly fishing. This particular proverb is interesting in that it implies a sort of balance in nature, and that everything has a cost. Specifically, if you want to catch fish, you have to prove that you really want them by bleeding a little. Of course, the informant’s explanation as to why this particular piece of wisdom is more correct than not is spot on. Also, humans tend to have an interesting relationship with pain. This collector has experienced independent times in which, when receiving a mild injury while performing a task, will think ‘well, I knew I was going to injure myself while performing this task, and now that I’ve injured myself, I don’t have to worry about it anymore. This particular piece of folklore is very probably just an extension of a similar chain of thought.
Informant: “When I was growing up, I remember every year my parents, my mother and father and I, we would always eat herring on New Years Eve. I remember it was supposed to bring good luck for the whole year. Specifically, you were supposed to get a can or jar of pickled herring, though it’s actually hard to find in the Northwest, though I still go out and buy some Herring, in fact this year, I happened to call my Aunt [M] who is also Czech, and we joked about how we had both gone out and made sure that we had our can of pickled herring for the New Year, and we laughed about the importance of, you know, getting our Herring.”
Collector: Was there any specific reason for the herring as opposed to any other sort of fish?
Informant: Well you know the Czech Republic, where this tradition originated from… actually I think it started in Bohemia, and then it became a Czech tradition… but both [of those countries] are landlocked and so fish tended to be hard to get because they had to transport it all the way from the sea coast. And herring was always a big deal, always a special thing because it was more expensive, and it showed how prosperous you were to be able to afford herring! And in order to keep the fish to stay fresh and task good after they transported it from the sea to inland, they would pickle it and preserve it. Actually, the other fish people ate a lot was carp, which is in the same family as goldfish, and wealthy people in the Czech republic would raise carp in ponds on their estate, so that was also a very special fish to eat because it was also a sign of wealth. Also, most [Czech people] were catholic, which meant that they had meatless Fridays, but you know they could still eat fish.
The informant is a 77 year old retired anthropologist living in Portland Oregon. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in the 1890’s to escape the economic turmoil within the country in that time period. She was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and studied anthropology at Stanford University, during which time she became interested in learning more about the traditions of her heritage. She has on several occasions traveled to the Czech republic to visit relatives there.
Collector Analysis: This particular tradition is but one of many New Years traditions around the world. In this case, the consumption of Herring, an expensive fish at the time, was supposed to bring one good luck for the following year. One idea which the informant brought up was that by eating expensive herring on new years eve, it would alter your luck to make you more prosperous so that you could eat herring more often!
Informant: “In Sicily, well in other places in Italy sometimes too, but really in Sicily, on the Eve of the big holidays, so like Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, you’re supposed to eat fish, but in particular on Christmas eve. It was called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, though I actually think in Sicily they called it La Vigilia, for The Vigil. The real tradition is that you’re supposed to make seven types of seafood. So in Sicily, my mom and dad they always did this, so they would start cooking a few days before Christmas Eve. When we were growing up in Los Angeles, we would go down to Redondo Beach and my mom would buy all these fishes very similar to the fishes they would have in Sicily, so she would make calamari, like deep fried calamari. Oh, and one of the things she would buy is called baccala, which is like a dry, salted cod. I’ve actually seen it in some Italian places in St. Paul, they sell it in what looks like a big bucket, and it looks like just dried fish, and so you have to soak it in water overnight, and then you have to drain the water, and then you have to soak it again, and so basically you’re reconstituting the fish. And I think a lot of times people in Sicily have that one because there are a lot of poor people, and that kind of fish was really cheap. And so [my mother] would do that whole thing day after day after day, and then she would make this sauce that she would put this fish in like this tomato sauce, and then she would bake it. So she did baccala, she did calamari, she always did octopus salad. She would never make the kind of fishes that [my family has] like salmon, I never had salmon growing up. She would make these things called sand dabs, they looked like a kind of flatfish and she’d fry them, and anchovies and sardines, and she’d make this pasta with fennel and tuna sometimes… But she had enough fish to feed an army, when there were only six of us, but that’s very typical though in Sicily…What other fish did she make… oh, eel! She would always make eel. And I would have continued this tradition, except that [my children] don’t eat as much fish, that’s why I sort of incorporated it into [my family's traditions], that’s why we always have fish on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, so some years I would make stuffed salmon with crab and so on, but I found that [my family] just really liked crab, so that’s why we always have crab, and I figured, that was close enough.”
Collector: Was the exact number of fishes significant?
Informant: “Well, so it was feast of the seven fishes, though sometime we’d do nine, eleven, thirteen, but it’s always an odd number. I’m not really sure why, but it was supposed to have something to do with luck, like you’re never supposed to do an even number. As for fish, I guess with Sicily being an island, it was really easy for people to just go out and catch fish, and so that’s why they had fish.”
Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.
Collector Analysis: This particular piece of folklore is interesting in that it shows how certain folk traditions can evolve when they are practiced in different contexts, in this case, how the amount and type of fish eaten changed when the informant was celebrating this tradition in different locations and with different people, and yet the tradition is still in many ways the same despite these changes. Also curious is the fact that in Sicilian culture, the number 13 is considered lucky, while the number 12 is considered unlucky, which is the opposite of many other European cultures.
My informant is a 22 year old Chinese-American young woman studying communications. She heard this recipe or fish cooking strategy from her mother, who passed it to her and her sister. She likes it partly because she’s used to the flavor but partly because it’s hygienic, and also reminds her of her family. It means a lot to her because of this connection with her family.
This interview was conducted in the informant’s living room.
“So when Asian people cook, or I guess specifically like Chinese people, they make this thing called hong shao yu, it’s a type of fish that you kind of like, that you, I guess you pan-fry? and Asian people don’t eat like, old seafood, like they hate the old fishy taste, and so what you do, and like plus eating like dead seafood is like… dead shellfish is like bad luck, like you don’t eat dead crabs and stuff, yeah. Just read like Amy Tan. Um. But like fish is okay, of course cause a lot of times it’s dead before you get it, and so when you make fish, you have to stuff it with like, green onions and ginger. Like, TONS of ginger, because it gets… ugh gosh I don’t even remember what they call it, but if you translate it it’s like the fishy taste from old fish, but ginger’s so fresh that it’s kind of antibacterial, so it kills the bacteria and stuff. Now whenever I make fish or any type of seafood I’m like ‘Oh I want it to taste as fresh as possible, so I always put in like, tons of ginger. Something I learned from my mom.” “So is this something you do with your mom a lot, or just something you saw her do? When did you learn it from her?” “I’ve watched her do it a lot, like growing up I was just next to her whenever she made food, and so I’d always seen her do it. She cuts slices almost where, if fish had ribs, where the ribs would be, and she just puts in slices of ginger into the fish. I’d always seen her do that and I never thought about why… I always thought it was more for flavor and not for like, health reasons. She taught my sister and I how to make it about a year ago, and since my sister’s always been better than me I usually just let her do it, but I know how to do it now.”
My informant enjoys the taste of this ginger-y, onion-y method of preparing fish, as well as the supposed antibacterial functions this method has; the two seem to be connected by a cultural dislike of the “old fish flavor” she mentions here. This method connects her to her Chinese cultural roots as well as her mother and sister.
I gathered this piece from my friend who comes from a very Italian family. Her parents family’s are both from Naples, her mom’s side is from Mirabella and her dad’s side is from Benevento. Even though her parents weren’t born in Italy, Italian culture is still very important in their family, and keeping up traditions such as this Christmas Eve dinner are very important to her parents, especially her father.
“I come from a very Italian background. My paternal grandmother was born in Italy and then came here, so my father is first-generation. My mother’s grandparents were from Italy…so they come from a very traditional Italian background. And one tradition that we’ve always followed in my family is that on Christmas Eve you are supposed to have the “Seven Fish Dinner” which means that you should be having seven different types of fish for your Christmas Eve meal. Every year my family would invite all of our family and friends over and my dad would spend about two or three days slaving away in the kitchen to cook all these different things which included lobster, probably cooked multiple ways, clams, shrimp…scungilli salad, which is octopus salad, a type of fish which I am not remembering what it’s called…and other things that I can’t remember.”
Q: So is this something your parents got from their parents?
“Yeah, it’s an Italian tradition. My family is not the only one’s that ever done it or heard of it. I know my dad keeps a lot of his Italian heritage in memory of his grandparents who he spent a lot of time with….’This is what my grandparents did so this how we’re going to do’ kind of a thing”
Food folklore tends to revolve around family and family traditions, and this is no exception. The informant learned about this through participating in a family tradition, which was kept by her parents in order to honor their Italian grandparents. Participating in the tradition becomes a way to keep the tradition alive and maintain the culture.
There’s a story in Vietnamese mythology that’s similar to the Chinese or Japanese story about the koi fish becoming a dragon.
There was an emperor who wanted to create new dragons because dragons bring rain, which helps crops grow. So many animals in the ocean were summoned to have a competition, where they had to jump over three gates of rain. The first animal that could jump over all three would get to be transformed into a dragon.
First, a fish—I think it was a tilapia?—tried, but only got past the first gate. The second to try was a catfish, but it hit its head on the second, so its head got flattened. The emperor rewarded it with dragon whiskers for effort. Next came the shrimp, but it only got past the second, so the emperor made it look like a miniature dragon. Lastly the carp tried, and it got past all three, so the emperor transformed it into a dragon.
Because of this, dragons symbolize success and wealth, and education in Vietnam is compared to the three gates.
Informant is a Vietnamese American and a member of USC VSA, and grew up learning about Vietnamese culture.
The carp’s transformation into a dragon is a common motif in Asian mythologies, with slight variations in each culture’s telling. It is also interesting to note that this myth has parallels to social function.
“We didn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is fine, but not on Christmas Eve. So we’d eat, like, baccala, which is salted cod. And calamari and other fish and seafood.”
My informant is an Italian Catholic. Refraining from meat on Christmas Eve is one of many cultural traditions practiced by this group. There are certain traditional fish dishes prepared, including baccala. My informant told me that she doesn’t particularly like baccala, and neither does the rest of her family. However, they make and eat it every year because it is traditional to do so.