‘Are All Three Of You Looties?’

We headed out last evening to celebrate my mother’s birthday. She turned 93 yesterday, and we took her to the Ace Bar & Grill here on the East Side, where she and I often have lunch (though we haven’t been there recently, as the cold weather has kept Mom inside in the past few weeks).

As we entered, Mom leading the way with her walker and the Texas Gal and I trailing in her wake, the hostess smiled. I waved three fingers in the air, and she said, “Three tonight! Are all three of you looties?”

None of us answered, and in the silence, I tried to figure out what she had said. “Are we what?” I finally asked.

“Looties! Here for the lutefisk dinner!”

We’d not known that Monday was the date for the Ace’s lutefisk buffet. Mom and I glanced at each other, knowing that we’d love to have lutefisk for dinner.

The Scandinavian dish has become a American joke over the years, the punch line often wielded in self-deprecation by descendants of the Swedes, Norwegians and Finns who brought the dish with them during the great migration from their homelands to the United States in – mostly – the mid- to late 1800s.

It is an odd dish. Here’s how it’s prepared, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Lutefisk is made from dried whitefish (normally cod in Norway, but ling is also used) prepared with lye in a sequence of particular treatments. The watering steps of these treatments differ slightly for salted/dried whitefish because of its high salt content.

The first treatment is to soak the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish swells during this soaking, and its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, producing a jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) is caustic, with a pH value of 11–12. 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.

It sounds dreadful, I know. When lutefisk is baking, the aroma is pungent (though the taste is much more bland than the aroma would lead one to believe). The memory of that aroma makes me think of December evenings on Kilian Boulevard long ago, where we had lutefisk at least once every year, and makes me think as well of my grandfather’s farm outside Lamberton, where we had lutefisk every Christmas Eve. In the early 1970s, that tradition moved to my parents’ home, and it lasted there until 2002, the Christmas before my dad died.

At the Ace last night, when Mom and I learned that lutefisk was on the menu, we looked at each other and shrugged. A lutefisk dinner for her birthday would have been a wonderful surprise, but the white sauce was almost certainly made with wheat flour, something she must avoid completely and that I can only have if it’s whole grain. (The Texas Gal, for her part, shuddered at the thought of lutefisk, which she’s tried once, and began thinking immediately of prime rib.) Just to make certain, I had our young waitress check with the kitchen on the ingredients in the sauce.

She confirmed our suspicions about the flour, and we regretfully said we’d have to pass on the lutefisk. “Well,” she said, “we do have lutefisk in butter.”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding, “but we’re firmly in the Swedish tradition with the white sauce. The other stuff? That’s for the Norwegians.”

The waitress laughed along with us and then said, “So that’s the difference! I’ve always wondered.” And she went off and got us our beverages as we all settled on the prime rib. As we waited, Mom and I discussed the possibility of making a lutefisk meal using a flour we both can have, probably brown rice flour. “It wouldn’t look very good,” I said.

“And that’s a lot of work for just the two of us,” she added. I nodded in agreement. And we pretty much decided that, like other things and people still cherished but now gone, lutefisk is a memory.

And here’s one version of the most common lutefisk joke among we Scandinavians: The song “Oh, Lutefisk,” offered here in barbershop harmonies by four sharply dressed fellows in 1979:

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