Thursday, December 21, 2006

What to Drink With Lutefisk

My mother asked me what wine I thought we ought to serve with our Lutefisk Christmas dinner. We both thought a Reisling would be reasonable, but I thought I'd do some quick checking online to see if anyone had opined about it. They have. A writer with the promsing name of Thor Iverson said in his wine column:
"if your traditional holiday meal is lamb vindaloo, borscht, and lutefisk, I'm afraid you're on your own."
Ouch! That seems like a cop-out. Guy du Vin reports that Norway is working on becoming a wine-producing nation. The midnight sun that far north will, the Norwegians say, give the grapes as much sunlight as Tuscany. We'll see. Guy du Vin's writer jokes:
"Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay will be produced, but we at Guy du Vin are eagerly awaiting the first bottling of an indigenous variety called Joerking which we assume pairs very well with the Scandinavian delicacy lutefisk -- which means, literally, 'cod soaked in plutonium'."
But as anyone who lives in Scandinavia will tell you, more lutefisk by far is consumed by nostalgic North Americans these days -- it's not likely any lutefisk pairing has actually occurred to anyone in Norway.

A website called Hymns and Carols of Christmas has a great deal of lutefisk lore, but on the subject of drink it says only that "A light white wine is recommended."

The Wine Country website just insults us:
"Of course, if your family is descended from a non-wine producing region, your food tradition is probably stunted as well. Pickled herring and lutefisk aren't exactly great wine foods, so Swedes need to improvise at their holiday tables."
My food tradition is probably stunted?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a nice guide to all the church basement lutefisk dinners in the Twin Cities about a month ago. Food writer Jeremy Iggers likens Apple Valley lutefisk expert Jim Harris to a wine connoisseur, but no word on what Harris might drink with the fish:
One of the most dedicated is Jim Harris of Apple Valley, who just might qualify as the Robert Parker of lutefisk. Like the famous wine connoisseur, Harris is the expert to whom lutefisk lovers turn for guidance. His website,, is the authoritative guide to lutefisk dinners throughout the Upper Midwest. (Lutfisk, without an e, is the Swedish spelling.)

Like Parker, who evaluates dozens of wines a day, Harris has a prodigious constitution: In 2004, he visited 30 lutefisk suppers, and last year, 24. Like Parker, Harris keeps meticulous notes of his tastings. (Admittedly, Harris doesn't go into as much detail as Parker does about the delicate bouquet and subtle flavor notes.)
My ancestry is more Norwegian that Swedish, so I'm suddenly skeptical of this "Mr. Harris." Besides, Swedes use cream sauce on their fish. What sacrilege! Melted butter is the only way to eat it. (It is in fact the only way to make it edible.) My grandmother used to call it "lutfisk" instead of lutefisk, but we let her stay for dinner because she accepted the butter sauce.

Harris's website is really just a link to a PDF document listing dozens of lutefisk sources, almost all of them churches, in Minnesota and Wisonsin. Scroll down a few pages and you'll find reviews of lutefisk dinners in Washington, Texas, California, Iowa, and even a couple in Arizona and Florida.

Most of the lutefisk in this country comes from the Olsen Fish Company, which was started in 1910 by Olaf Frederick Olsen and John W. Norberg. This downtown Minneapolis (don't tell the EPA) fish factory claims to be the biggest lutefisk producer in the world, making more than 650,000 pounds of it every year. Olsen became the biggest earlier this year when it bought Mike's a Glenwood, Minnesota company run by an Irish gentleman. The acquisition happened after Mike's sudden death from cancer. The lutefisk starts out as dried cod, which they get from Norway. For those of you that are going to be alone on Christmas, Olsen Fish makes something special:
"Our newest entry into the lutefisk market in '96 was our precooked lutefisk dinner with homestyle mashed potatoes and peas. We think this microwaveable dinner will help entice new customers and introduce a special part of Scandinavian heritage to a younger generation."
That's right, a lutefisk TV dinner.

I'll give a full report on my family's Christmas dinner and include some photographic documentation of the ordeal. I mean family tradition. In the meantime, if anyone has any advice on what to drink with lye-soaked cod, please do comment.


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