I will always remember at Christmas traveling to Chicago’s Andersonville with mom and Grandma Maja to stock up for traditional Swedish foods from Wickstrom’s deli.
Of course, no pilgrimage to Andersonville with mom and Grandma Maja would be complete without the purchase of LutFisk. (Lye Fish) No Christmas would ever be complete without the ritual of stocking up on this fish along with other traditional Swedish goodies, It was like an annual vaccination to get charged up filling a cart with deli meats and cheeses, caviar, herring tidbits. The inside of the deli was always packed with people and often a line formed outside waiting to enter and take a number. When one’s number was called it was time to show off one’s best Swedish greeting Mr. Wickstrom’s inquiring as to the quality of his goods for this Yuletide events. It was exciting preparing for the much anticipated and revered Jul season smorgasbord feasting ahead.
In my book I take aim to share warm and tender recollections about Swedish traditions that are just as connected to my family roots as the red hair from my Viking forebears. Lutfisk is much more to me than a Christmas habit.
Lutfisk is a big slab of cod that comes from the deep icy cold far North Atlantic the stomping grounds of the Vikings and today’s Laplanders. Laplanders are the people Grandma said, live off of reindeers of the Norland, frigid and desolate, dark and cold much of the year. Many stories were told about the sturdiness of a whole clan of people who thrived on adverse living conditions. The Lappish, (Sami indiginous people ) Maja said, we’re very proud to be “different “. The distinctive dress signaled that they were not your usual blond hair and blue eyed Scandanavians. Maja said their lifestyle was more like Eskimos. She admired their self sufficiency. They lived off of the land. They kept to themselves in villages and clans. They spoke a language somewhat like Swedish. They were a tough group who hunted and fished and ran reindeer herds for food, clothing and more. They perfected living under harsh conditions which Maja claimed offered life lessons for Swedes. The Swedish Lappish, Maja said, “have backbone and spine, independent and proud of it”, “they prepare for tough times and as rugged individuals train their children to stand on their own two feet.”
“Lappish people, Maja said, caught codfish when the water was not frozen and dried the fish on racks and then preserved the slabs of dried fish stored in barrels”. The fish were powdered with lye to kill bacteria and prevent rotting thus insuring a supply of food. Dried cod becomes lut fisk that can be placed in baths of water washing away the lye that preserved it.
Taking the dried fish home or a few pounds already pre-washed was our ritual. For days and weeks water changed daily until Christmas feasting. Served with boiled potatoes and a white cream sauce, Swedes Roll their eyes in delight connecting to tradition.
More than tradition for Maja was telling stories of the August Källgren deli shop the family owned in downtown Sollefteå . Lutfisk was handled by Maja and all the family waiting on eager Swede customers. The Swedes in Maja’s home town who would enjoy this tradition perhaps might have a discussion about lessons from Lut fisk. Some might talk about lessons learned about the Swedish value of being well prepared to deal with adversity when it comes like bitter cold winters and hunger.