“My mom would have been proud of you,” Dad told me from the place where he rested, post-meal, in my kitchen.
As I sealed plastic wrap over bowls of medisterkaker, potatoes, red cabbage, and riskrem to refrigerate and Mom filled my dishwasher with the plates, utensils, and serving dishes from the night’s lutefisk feast, I reflected on what my dad was saying. Words so necessary–both comforting and bittersweet. My paternal grandmother never got to see this side of me–the grown-up Daytona who had settled so fully into life as an adult with a husband and son and who was now trying to keep our family’s Norwegian heritage alive through its food. She had lived to see me get happily married and work to establish a career as a journalist–a dream she had had for me many years before–but this, this part of life with a little family of my own and with a passion for Norwegian food, is where I think we would have connected best.
There was a day in the summer of 2009 that was going to change everything. Standing in the little white-and-beige bathroom in my first house–a mid-century brick home not far from where my grandparents once lived–I looked in the mirror and guided the black pearl studs into my ears. Almost ready to leave, all I had to do was make a stop to buy an almond- and raisin-studded kringle to bring to Grandma’s home for a lunchtime birthday celebration. I was going to propose something to Grandma that day, ask her if we could start talking–truly talking–and if she would tell me about her life and about Norway. I stepped out into the sun-drenched wood hallway to answer my phone and heard my mom’s still-shocked voice: “She’s gone.”
In an instant, everything changed. There would be no kringle, no birthday greetings, no feeling the softness of Grandma’s warm hug as she welcomed me into her home. Grief, mixed with regret, would come flooding in and filling the crevices that I had dreamed of filling with stories and more memories with my grandmother.
What I had wanted was time, time with someone dear to me yet generations apart, someone with whom I was ready to deepen a relationship. I’ve thought about that often throughout the years: Am I spending enough time–quality time–with my other, still-living grandma? With my loved ones? With my friends? Am I hearing the stories of farm life in North Dakota during the war, when my maternal grandparents were falling in love? Am I savoring the feeling of my Grandma Adeline’s shrinking shoulders when I hug her, realizing that each day with her is a gift?
What I’ve long wanted is time–more time with loved ones, more time to get things done. Reading through a chapter in One Thousand Gifts before bed the other night, I discovered that maybe it’s not more time that I need and necessarily want, but enough time–enough time to use it well and to the fullest. Though I hadn’t thought about that distinction in the way author Ann Voskamp put it, I’m realizing that that’s how I’ve been trying to live my life this year. Time and time again over the past few seasons I’ve thought to myself, this is when you’ll stop waiting, stop just dreaming and planning, and start doing. That might look as small as ordering a book about food photography for professional development or as meaningful as planning something like the lutefisk dinner my husband and I hosted for a few family members the other night.
The idea of a lutefisk dinner came up a couple of weeks ago and I remembered how much Grandma Adeline loves the preserved, gelatinous fish. While I grew up eating it with the family on occasion, I had never felt compelled to incorporate the dish into my own repertoire. But I realized that I’m blessed enough to have my 94-year-old grandma in my life right now, and while she’s here I want to treat her to a lutefisk dinner.
Soon the date was set. I had developed a menu and found a source for lutefisk (in Seattle, a city with a rich Scandinavian history, you don’t have to look far). As I sat next to Grandma at the candlelit dinner table on Wednesday night I watched as she chose an assortment of dishes, focusing mainly on filling her white plate with lutefisk and the potatoes. “That’s all I need,” she said. She’s a true, old-school Norwegian-American, and a representation of what I’ve read: that a traditional lutefisk feast needs nothing other than white food, simply lutefisk, potatoes, and perhaps lefse. Grandma, with her shrinking appetite, ate steadily and enthusiastically, agreeing to a second portion of lutefisk and leaving nothing on her plate. “I’m never coming to your house again for dinner–you make me feel miserable,” she joked as she commented on how her stomach ached with too much good food.
I’ve worried too often over the years about having enough time with Grandma–I suppose some of that fear comes from unexpectedly losing my other grandma before I was ready to say goodbye–but there’s a difference between an anxious, reactionary life and one that’s sensitive to the uncertainties of life and seeks to treat each day as a gift, living it to the fullest. The latter is what I’m striving for, and it’s with that in mind that I organized the lutefisk feast.
As the evening wound to a close I saw my family members so happy and content and I experienced what some of you mentioned in the Facebook discussion about lutefisk last week–that you love it for the warmth and love and memories that surround these meals. Prior to this week I assumed that it would be a tradition I’d carry on for Grandma as long as she’s alive and then probably cease it (I’ve never been one to seek out lutefisk), but now I understand why so many people hold fast to the tradition. Almost everyone at the table–including my husband and me–had seconds of the lutefisk, which was some of the best I’ve ever had with a pleasant, consistent texture and a delicate flavor accented by melted butter and cream sauce. Who knows, we may just keep up the tradition.
Our Lutefisk Feast
Though this post is about so much more than just lutefisk, I wouldn’t be able to sign off without including some details about our dinner. Though the food was entirely authentic in its inspiration, purists will note that our feast incorporated both Norwegian and Swedish traditions to honor my family’s Norwegian heritage and to remind my husband of the lutefisk (or lutfisk in Swedish) that my husband ate while visiting relatives in Sweden for Christmas when he was young. Looking back at it, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Lutefisk with Melted Butter and White Sauce: There’s a reason lutefisk is such a polarizing food amongst Scandinavians: With its preparation (it’s basically dried or cured cod that’s been soaked in lye and then rinsed for several days before baking) and the gelatinous texture, it sounds strange and can be an acquired taste, but those who love it are passionate about it. If prepared well, lutefisk can be enjoyable. My husband sprinkled ours with salt and pepper and baked it at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. We served it with melted butter–the Norwegian way–and Swedish-style with a white sauce. To make the white sauce, melt 3 tablespoons of salted butter in a saucepan over medium heat and then add 3 tablespoons flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon and adding a little more flour if necessary to form a roux. As soon as the mixture thickens and forms a light roux, slowly begin to 1 1/2 cups of whole milk: Start with 1/4 cup and stir until the roux seizes up and all the ingredients are well-mixed and smooth. Keep adding the milk in small quantities, stirring until incorporated and smooth each time (as you get close to the end of the milk you can start adding it in more quickly). Stir in 1 cup of whipping cream and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and continue to heat until the sauce thickens and reduces to the desired consistency. Keep in mind that it will continue to thicken as it cools, and you don’t want it so thick that you can’t pour it from a little pitcher or gravy boat. (As a guide, I used proportions from a little book called Scandinavian Christmas that Penfield Books sent me last year and created the sauce from that.)
Mashed Potatoes with Butter and Parsley: My mom’s simply-boiled new Yukon Gold potatoes roughly mashed and strewn with melted butter and chopped parsley were a perfect accompaniment for the lutefisk.
Green Peas Sautéed with Onions: Peas were a distinct part of the lutefisk meals my husband remembers eating in Sweden. This quick version from Simply Recipes gives an ordinary bag of frozen peas a special touch by starting with sautéd onions and seasoning the dish with chicken broth, salt, and a pinch of sugar.
Medisterkaker and Lingonberry Preserves: One of the many things I love about Norwegians is their hospitality, and in a similar fashion I served plenty of medisterkaker–spiced, fatty pork meatballs–to round out the meal for those who weren’t interested in eating much lutefisk. Grandma Agny always used to serve these for holiday meals, and I grew up loving them. Lingonberry preserves pair well with medisterkaker, accenting the rich, savory morsels with their tart bite.
Two Red Cabbage Salads: Sweet-and-sour red cabbage, slowly simmered, is a common Scandinavian side dish during the holidays, and while I love the delicate and comforting quality of traditional rødkål, I also enjoy a combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures in meals. I decided to balance this particular feast by making a couple of cold, raw red cabbage salads: one creamy salad inspired by Ekte Norsk Jul Vol. 2 and another with a lingonberry-based dressing. I’ll be sharing both recipes on the blog soon.
Riskrem with Raspberry Sauce: I don’t remember there ever being a time when Grandma Agny didn’t serve riskrem–rice cream–with raspberry sauce for Christmas dessert. I always loved the combination of the delicate, barely-there flavor of sweetened rice and the bold, sweet-tart raspberry sauce. I added a twist to the classic this year by scenting the rice cream with lemon zest. (Recipe coming soon.)