SCANDINAVIANS ARE LOSING their ties to lutefisk and yielding to Nigerian Americans and other West Africans who prefer dried fish. Americans are eating more herring.

First described by Swedish scholar and archbishop Olaus Magnus in 1555, people have eaten lutefisk in Norway, Sweden and parts of Finland for centuries. Lutefisk, when translated from its original Norwegian, is self-explanatory: Lut means lye, and Fisk is fish. To make it, dried cod is soaked in caustic lye solution for days, transforming it into quivering fillets.

Nobody quite knows who invented it; tales range from someone accidentally dropping a fish into a bowl of lye to “The Swedes trying to poison the Norwegians,” jokes Travis Dahl, a meat salesman at Ingebretsen’s Nordic Marketplace in Minneapolis. Once rinsed, the mild-flavored meat is either baked or boiled, then smothered with everything from melted butter to sautéed onion and bacon bits. The smell can linger long after people clean their plates-an odor that’s the butt of many a Minnesotan grandpa jokes.

On northern Norway’s Lofoten Islands, fisheries have long dried fresh cod on wooden racks. Stock fish was nutritious and hardy. It would remain viable for years and when soaked in water would be reconstituted basically to its original state when caught,” explains Terje Leiren, professor emeritus of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington. This made it ideal for long sea voyages, thus indelibly tying it to the transatlantic slave trade-and to Norway, which was once part of a dual monarchy with Denmark. During voyages to the Danish West Indies, today’s United States Virgin Islands, stockfish-laden ships would stop in Nigeria.

Cultures and traditions change through marriage, generations and food availability. Minnesota and Wisconsin won’t give up easily. 

GENE JOHNSON is Publisher Emeritus of Press Publications, owner of the Pine City Pioneer. He can be reached at


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