Sometimes food is not really good at being food but we still love it. Why, for Pete’s sake?
Many a culture, religion, ethnic group, and extended family has some traditional thingy on its holiday menu that takes a day-and-a-half and six people to prepare, looks odd, smells disgusting, tastes terrible, and is sensibly avoided by the most logical people at the table — the 5-year-olds.
We do not require these foods for nutrition or enjoy these foods as edible stuffs, but by golly, we keep reproducing them, and forcing beloved family members to eat them.
Take, for example, the brick of angry, dried fruit Brits call fruitcake, Germans call stollen, and Italians named panettone. Legend has it that fruitcake originated as a Roman army energy bar, lending its shelf-life to long campaigns. How, precisely, the stuff lasted in an ancient Italian backpack is anyone’s guess, but great-aunts have long recognized fruitcake’s ability to travel through the mail without arriving the worse for wear.
Then there are pig’s feet and hog jowls of some Southern African-American traditions, meant to attract prosperity in the new year. At a friend’s New Year’s Eve celebration a few Januarys ago, I was seated next to a marvelous 83-year-old professor, who leaned over and sagely advised: “Concentrate on the cornbread.”
My host revealed that the pig’s ears had been cooking for three days, requiring periodic airing out of the kitchen, and that before putting them on to boil, she had tweezed away errant hairs.
Any recipe that begins with tweezing the protein source requires more fortitude to prepare than I possess.
Lutefisk is a “food” that my family has made, year after year. Minnesotans need no explanation of the terrors of it, as we suffer them at annual church basement dinners so that we can skip purgatory and get straight into heaven. If you married into Minnesota, I’ll just say this: Lutefisk smells like wet feet left in rubber boots, and requires the cook to wear a clothespin on her nose and carry a long-handled spoon.
Cod is the stinkiest fish to cook this way, so cod is what is used. It’s soaked in cold water for half a dozen days — six days! — and then lye is added for another 48 hours. At this point, it would kill you to eat it, because potassium hydroxide is cleaning solution, not a condiment. So the lye must be leached out in another bath of days of cold water. Which makes it impossible to cook because it’s all waterlogged, so it must be coated with salt to absorb the water. Which makes it impossible to eat, so the cook carefully scrubs away the salt, which is rather like trying to peel Jell-O.
How could this method have been discovered? Did a ship sink with a hold filled with cod, but was then pulled out of the water and cleaned with lye, but then fell back in … oh, heck, I dunno.
A tip. Once the last piece of lutefisk is pulled from the serving plate, an accomplishment that likely requires every bit of the host’s salesmanship skills, get that plate right into the dishwasher. Leftover lutefisk hardens into a substance that could adhere jet engines to planes. Don’t use the family heirloom flatware, either — lutefisk ruins silver.
This is a food that alters metal. But go ahead, feed it to the baby.
I have a photo of my Norwegian father at his last holiday dinner with us three years ago. He faces a plate of steaming lutefisk, which he has piled onto a sheet of lefse, anointed with boiled, flavorless potatoes, sauced with melted butter, and folded up into roughly the shape of a diaper. Every year, he said that the point was to get as much into his mouth as possible before the rivulets of butter reached his elbows.
In this photo, he is tucking into that dreadful Scandinavian burrito with apparent delight. Not enough delight, however, to have asked for this meal any other day of the year.
So why, when modern humans have a holiday cornucopia of delectable menu options — prime rib, tofu cacciatore, Culver’s — would people choose to replicate the unpalatable and terrible foods once necessitated by long sea voyages with no refrigeration? Why do we 21st-century folk celebrate annual festivals by facing peculiar food and just, you know, swallowing it?
Because they taste like family. Because they taste like childhood. Because they bring us back to our grandmothers’ kitchens, our mother’s dinners and being scrunched next to cousins on piano benches with no elbow room. Because they link us to the people who are no longer at the table. Because they connect generation to generation through indigestion.
Some foods feed us in ways that have little to do with calories. And everything to do with soul.
Pamela Hill Nettleton, of St. Paul, is a writer and journalism professor.