A group is bringing the Norwegian delicacy to the masses, despite the fishy cuisine’s major dip in popularity.
It’s no surprise there are countless jokes about eating (or avoiding) the difficult-to-make lutefisk. One does not dine on the Norwegian fish meal but rather endures it.
Before lutefisk (Norwegian for lye fish) can become lutefisk, the fish must be reconstituted from its stiff, dried form to a flaky, yet gelatinous (and presumably edible) state after soaking in a lye water solution for several days and sometimes weeks. The cardboard-thin cod can potentially balloon up to eight times its size when fully reconstituted. This dried cod, or stockfish, usually emanates a potent fishy aroma.
After soaking in water, then a water and lye solution, and then water again to eliminate its causticity, the lutefisk is ready to cook. This means simmering in a pot of hot water until it reaches temperature. The fish mustn’t be overcooked, otherwise, it will begin to liquefy due to its delicate nature. (It can also saponify because of the lye. Soap fish, anyone?)
Clarified butter is the condiment of choice because it drowns out the sometimes-pungent flavor. Aquavit, a strong spirit derived from either grain or potatoes, is commonly served as a traditional pairing.
Lutefisk was born out of necessity due to the harsh winters in Norway and other parts of Scandinavia. A good amount of fish had to be preserved to last through the desperate winter months when food was scarce. This brand of fish was consumed more for survival than enjoyment.
Herein lies lutefisk’s dilemma.
But that’s not stopping one of the biggest Norwegian fraternal organizations in Los Angeles, the Sons of Norway, Norrona Lodge #50 in Van Nuys from rooting for the fish and hosting dinners dedicated to the delicacy.
Ryan Ole Hass has been a member of Sons of Norway for 25 years and is currently in charge of preparing the lutefisk served at the lodge’s dinners. Photo by Eddie Lin.
Regardless of the fact that demand for lutefisk is in an overall decline in the U.S. as well as across Scandinavia. Or that lutefisk’s raison d’etre of food preservation no longer carries weight thanks to modern refrigeration. Therefore, the only reason for serving up this dish is to uphold tradition.
Yes, Chris Dorff, president of the Olsen Fish Co. in Minneapolis, the world’s largest lutefisk producer, says orders for the fish have been slipping year after year. Olsen marketing representative Don Sobasky further illustrates the decline, saying that over 30 years ago, lutefisk orders were at a robust 800,000 pounds (today it’s easily half of that).
Head lutefisk chef Ryan Ole Hass has been a member of Sons of Norway for 25 years and says that lutefisk is actually more popular in its adoptive country of the U.S. than it is currently in Norway. “People from Norway have traveled to L.A. and included the lutefisk dinner as part of their itinerary,” he says. “It’s an important part of their heritage.”
It’s an important part of Ole Hass’ heritage too. The son of a Norwegian mother and a Mexican father, Ole Hass was raised by his maternal grandmother when his father left the family. As a result, he became fully immersed in the Norwegian side of his DNA. His grandmother began taking him to social events at the lodge when he was 5 years old, though his olive complexion and dark brown hair made him stand out among the fair-skinned blondes who dominated the lodge.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m not fully accepted,” he says.
That changed, however, when the late Bob Olson, the prior head lutefisk chef who passed away a few years ago, handed over the reins, or rather strainers, to Ole Hass. Olson, who prepared the lodge’s lutefisk for almost 40 years, was infamous for chasing people out of his kitchen and running the lutefisk station with an iron hand. Olson had a “feel” for lutefisk and never timed his cooking or used a thermometer.
When Olson made it to 90 years old, he felt the need to pick his successor. Many of the lodge members believed he would select an older person with more of a Norwegian background. Instead, Olson went with Ole Hass.
“It was a big deal when Bob Olson chose me over everyone else to be his apprentice,” he says. “He didn’t listen to the others. He saw my passion and decided on me.”
At last, Ole Hass felt like he was accepted in the lodge.
Eventually, when Olson died at 94, Ole Hass took over the main lutefisk station. Right away he implemented new standards like using a modern laser thermometer to precisely determine when the lutefisk reached proper temperature, thereby cutting fish waste by 75%.
The Sons of Norway lodge is one of the few places in Los Angeles that serves up traditional Scandinavian fare. Ole Hass and fellow lodge member Bryan Olson are committed to keeping the traditional dish alive and hope to drum up interest in the dish in other communities. Photos by Eddie Lin.
“Lutefisk is expensive. Retails at $17 a pound. At least $10 to $12 in bulk. One ruined pot of fish can cost $25. Wasting fish is heartbreaking. It’s easy to overcook,” he says.
Overcooking isn’t the only way to waste lutefisk. It’s also having too many leftovers at the end of the night. “You can give away meatballs and vegetables but good luck with lutefisk,” Ole Hass says.
Years ago, other Sons of Norway chapters in L.A. and Thousand Oaks offered lutefisk dinners. “Now it’s just us,” Ole Hass says. “We’re the last one standing.”
Ole Hass remains hopeful and energized about saving the at-risk dish. He believes the greatest threat to the culinary tradition is the aging out of lutefisk lovers. “Volunteers and guests get older with no next younger generation to replace them,” he says. “When they go, lutefisk goes because none of the new generation wants to eat it.”
And it’s not that they necessarily like eating lutefisk, although some genuinely do. For many Norwegians of a certain generation, lutefisk has been a gastronomic obligation: eating lye fish is an annual duty to renew one’s dedication as a Norski. For Scandinavians younger than 60, lutefisk isn’t as important a symbol of their heritage — it’s just a weird fish they grew up dreading to eat.
Lutefisk isn’t the only thing on the menu at the Sons of Norway dinners. Photo by Eddie Lin.
To combat the lack of interest in lutefisk, Ole Hass and fellow lodge member Bryan Olson have been proposing using social media to spread the word about the lutefisk dinners. Although this was initially met with resistance from the elderly members.
“Bryan and I are willing to spend our own money on Facebook ads,” Ole Hass says. “That’s how much we’re passionate about saving this tradition.”
Ole Hass’ other strategy is to invite guests who have no connection to Scandinavian culture. He has been bringing friends, colleagues and strangers of Hispanic, Egyptian, Chinese and other backgrounds to the dinners. A few years in a row, a tour bus filled with Chinese tourists joined the dinner and enthusiastically ate lutefisk. The fish’s texture reminded them of certain Chinese dishes.
There’s also the Cal State L.A. professor, Steve Paulson, who generously treats his students of diverse backgrounds to the dinner. Paulson is Norwegian and Swedish and enjoys sharing this aspect of his heritage with his class — and admits that he’s hoping to gross some of them out with the infamous dish.
“[At] past dinners, all you saw were light-skinned and light hair,” Ole Hass says. “Now, the dining room is a mix of all kinds of people eating lutefisk.”