MH is a third-generation Irish-American originally from Battle Creek, MI, who relocated to Santa Barbara, CA in high school.
MH had a tough adjustment period when he moved out West:
“My sophomore year our family left the Midwest and moved to Santa Barbara, and my brothers and I had to start a new high school in the middle of the year…I wasn’t bullied or anything, but there was a period where the other kids were a little confused by me, I think. I was on the basketball team, and one day at practice the balls kept rolling out the door and into the hallway, so my coach told me to go close them. These guys were standing in the doorway, this one guy, Rich Cooke, who was on the football team. I guess he knew who I was, because when I told them I needed to close the doors he yelled something at me like, ‘you think you’re so much better in your turtlenecks,’ something dumb like that to make fun of how I dressed. So I pushed him out into the hallway, beat him up, closed the door and walked back into the gym like nothing had happened. And I stopped wearing turtlenecks after that.”
This story shows how material things, like clothes or cars, can help facilitate folk culture for certain groups whether they like it or not. In MH’s case, his preppier wardrobe communicated a stuffiness or snobbish attitude to his new classmates in Southern California, who were wearing more boardshorts than club attire. Unfortunately for Rich Cooke, stereotyping and playing into those folk beliefs isn’t always an effective way to understand someone from another “culture.” And at a time when teenagers are very focused on their identity, he may have felt threatened by MH’s ability to integrate into the school’s culture (besides his clothes), even as an outsider.
The informant describes a phrase that is specific to St. Louis, Missouri. The informant believes he learned this word from one of his friends first, but sees the term as a way of describing a certain group of people in a derogatory way. He also thinks of being at Six Flags in St. Louis because this is where he sees many hoosiers. The informant found it weird that no one knew what a hoosier was when he came to California.
The informant explains that the state emblem of Indiana is the Hoosiers and the University of Indiana is called Hoosiers as well and for some reason in St. Louis a hoosier indicates hick. When you see someone who is like a hick – people who are overweight, not very smart and farmers – you say, “Oh, they’re a hoosier.” The word hoosier is effectively synonymous with “white trash.”
The term hoosier used in St. Louis is interesting as it shows how a term in one region is specific to the group who uses it, but different terms with the same meaning exist outside of St. Louis. Hoosier effectively meaning “white trash” indicates that groups around the U.S. come up with different ways of categorizing this type of person – described as overweight, unintelligent, and a farmer.
Informant: “My family for Christmas, we eat lutefisk. Which is cod soaked in lie. It’s cod soaked in lie and then you cook it, and its this gelatinous thing that is, its indescribable, and anybody coming into the family has no idea what’s going on, like why are you serving this for Christmas dinner. But you put it on mash potatoes and you mash it in there and you put drawn butter on top and its good, but if you eat it by itself, it is like, I don’t know, its absolutely disgusting. They cook the cod in lie because you were in the Midwest, these were all Norwegians who fled Norway, and you didn’t, I mean there was no where you could really fish, I mean you could ice fish or whatever, but these were all people that grew up with an abundance of fish in Norway and here they are in the middle of the Midwest with no fish, so they would transport this cod from the east coast. But to keep it OK they would keep it in lie, which is you know a poison, and that’s how they would keep it and transport it.”
Interviewer: “And it’s safe to eat?”
Informant: “Yeah you cook it and eat it, with lots of butter, it’s very good. It looks like no fish you have ever eaten; I mean it is like see-though, gelatinous fish.”
Interviewer: “Why on Christmas?”
Informant: “I don’t know, but there are these huge lutefisk dinners in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I mean like people pay like 50 bucks to go have a lutefisk dinner.”
Interviewer: “How was it to have this tradition be apart of your yearly Christmas experience?”
Informant: “Well I mean for me I grew up with doing it, so it is very traditional, it is like how we felt like we were connecting with our heritage. It is important to carry it on. Like this year , my aunts were like oh, lets do something different, lets do like lobster or something like that and all of my generation was like ‘No, were are doing lutefisk,’ because to us that is like the traditional Christmas dinner and we want it. Regardless of the fact that nobody else would ever come to your house and eat that. That’s it yeah.”
The informant is a middle-aged mother with three boys. She grew up in Minnesota with a large family in the suburbs of Minneapolis. As stated in the interview, the informant grew up eating lutefisk for Christmas and she associates the food with Christmas dinner.
Lutefisk is a traditional dish from the Nordic Countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland and has been carried over to Nordic-North American areas of Canada, the Finnish community at Sointula on Malcolm Island in the province of British Columbia, and the United States, particularly in the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
Lutefisk is made from cod, and to make it, the skin and bones need to be removed, then the fish is salted and hung to dry for several weeks until it hardens. Then, it should be soaked in lye for several days. (Merriam-Webster: Lye – strong alkaline liquor rich in potassium carbonate leached from wood ashes and used especially in making soap and for washing). According to the informant, lutefisk can be served with gravies, green peas, mashed peas, (boiled, baked or mashed) potatoes, meatballs, lefse, gravy, mashed rutabaga, white sauce, mustard sauce, melted butter, syrup, or cheeses, though they usually serve it with mashed potatoes and butter.
I think this collection really emphasizes how people can become attached to their traditions even if they don’t necessarily like them. The informant is determined to continue to have lutefisk dinner on Christmas because she feels that it ties her to her heritage and it is an important tradition for her, even though she considers the fish itself to be “disgusting,” .
Plate of Lutefisk
The informant sent me this picture of Cream of Lutefisk soup after our interview
Interestingly, Lutefisk is present in many different popular culture genres, for example in movies and music. A movie was released in 2011 called “The Lutefisk Wars” directed by David E. Hall and Christopher Panneck about: “A rural frozen food delivery man is mistaken for someone else and ends up in the middle of an ancient feud between two Norwegian Mafia Families” (IMDb). There is also a music band called Lutefisk which released an album in 1997 called “Burn in Hell Fuckers.” Lastly, a parody song concerning lutefisk called “O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk” was created by Red Stangeland to the Tune of “O Tannenbaum” by Ernst Gebhard Anschutz.
The Lutefisk Wars. Dir. David E. Hall and Christopher Panneck. Perf. Ken Baldwin, Haynes Brooke, and Regan Burns. Sojourner Pictures, 2011. Film.
Lutefisk. Burn in Hell Fuckers. Bong Load Records, 1997. Audio CD.
Informant: “I went to my friend’s farm in north Dakota, that’s where she grew up, you know on a family farm probably 50 miles away from the nearest town, and anytime they had an injury, if you stepped on a nail or something which is something you would do on a farm, what they would do is they would stick the foot in a bucket full of alcohol. You wouldn’t go to the doctors, you wouldn’t put antiseptic on it, you used alcohol. Like hard alcohol, like vodka or whiskey or something and that took care of the problem, that’s how they solved their infections, and prevented infections.”
Interviewer: “When did she tell you?”
Informant: “Let’s see, I went to visit her farm in like 1992, so this was only like 20 years ago, so relatively recent, but that’s what they did growing up.”
Interviewer: “What do you think of this particular cure?”
Informant: “Well, growing up in a city I thought it was kind of backwards because I’m used to just getting medicines, but it worked for them. They went to town once a week because of how far they lived from town and they only bought supplies once a week. So, for them to stop farming and drive into town to go get some antibiotics was like a big huge waste of a farmers time. So, instead they would just use a home remedy.”
Interviewer: “Sorry, but where does she live again?”
Informant: “Um its was like 50 miles west of the Minnesota, north Dakota border, so it was into the farmlands of north Dakota.”
The informant is a middle-aged mother with three-boys. She grew up in Minnesota with a large family in the suburbs of Minneapolis. As stated in the interview, the informant learned the lore from her friend when she went to visit her on her farm in North Dakota. The informant remembered this lore because she was surprised that they did not use medicine, but it still worked for her friend’s family.
I thought this was an interesting folk practice because it is very practical. This family would use the closest thing that they had on hand to deal with a particular medical problem, and these practices were still being used until at least 20 years ago. This folk practice really attests to fact that just because a remedy is a folk remedy does not mean that it is wrong.
My source grew up on a farm in northeast Nebraska and recalls learning this indicator when he was 7 or 8 years old. His grandmother owned three dogs during his childhood, and one day he saw them all eating grass at the same time. He found this odd, so he asked his grandmother if she forgot to feed the dogs. She hadn’t, and explained to him that when dogs eat grass, it’s an indication that it will rain soon. Sure enough, it rained later that day. Afterwards, most of the time he saw the dogs eating grass, rain quickly followed.
It is not out of the ordinary for a dog to eat grass, and it is actually typical if a dog has an upset stomach. But then again, a coming rain is not likely to make a dog sick. My informant suggested that there might be an atmospheric change that occurs before a rainstorm that might make dogs believe they have a symptom of an upset stomach, so then they would decide to eat grass. There is no proof to support this explanation, but it makes sense to my informant considering the likelihood of rain after he saw his dogs eating grass.
However, there were several times that he would see the dogs eating grass and it wouldn’t rain. In these cases, either the dogs were sick or it was a dry season. This supports another folk superstition that his grandmother once told my informant. She would say, “In a dry spell, all signs fail.” My informant’s grandmother knew many folk superstitions, and she would tell them to the family when appropriate. No one else in the family desired to memorize them all as she had done, but they would remember the ones that she had told them over and over, and they shared those between each other. These superstitions were likely shared in the same way by many other families. This particular superstition is likely to be shared mostly by farmers because their occupation and livelihood is dependent on weather patterns, so if there is any way farmers can make use of a weather indicator, they certainly will.
Annotation: This particular folk superstition can be found in John Frederick Doering’s article: “Some Western Ontario Folk Beliefs and Practices” in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 51, No. 199 (Jan. – Mar., 1938), pp. 61
My informant first heard this folk simile as a child growing up on a farm in Nebraska. One day when he was out with his father, it began to rain. While rain was not out of the ordinary at that time of year, the rain was coming down with unusual ferocity. My informant recalled that the wind was blowing the rain in every which direction and when the rain hit the ground, it splattered everywhere. Another farmer turned to my informant’s father and rattled off this folk simile.
Growing up on a farm, my informant knew from experience exactly what happens when a cow pisses on a flat rock. “It’s splatters everywhere and makes a huge mess,” he explained. This is not a secret, and anyone can understand how this directly compares with a heavy rainstorm. But for one to fully appreciate the humor in this simile, they would have to have a first-hand experience to relate to. For this reason, this folk simile is mostly shared among farmers and others residing in rural communities.
There’s no underlying message that can be found within this simile. It’s used because it takes something that’s funny to think about, to the folk group, and applies it to an unfavorable situation. It turns an unfavorable rain storm into something to laugh about.