The Time Capsule: A tale of lutefisk and unwashed Swedes

Lutefisk stories go on and on, and about the time one thinks one has heard them all, one hears another. I had never given a thought to the possibility the preparation of this dried codfish could have an adverse effect on a young lady’s personal hygiene, something she vividly recalls half a century later, but now I know.

I was doing a volunteer afternoon at Stanton’s museum and Swedish History Center when Anita and Hakan Junfors, a couple from Alingsas, Sweden, dropped in to see what we had. 

They took the tour and, as they’d obviously worked on their English, we got along fine. They commented on displays and we talked of immigration and what life was like for the droves of Swedes who settled much of this area in the 1870s and 80s. Eventually the conversation, as it always must, turned to lutefisk. Do you actually eat the stuff over there, I wondered, or is that a ruse perpetuated in order to sell it elsewhere?

“Oh, we eat it,” Hakan replied, “once a year. The day after Christmas. Always.”

I asked if they cooked it themselves.  Anita said she does, gave me a brief description of how, and said she serves it with ?????. I didn’t understand the word.  It may have been mustard.  She repeated and I still wasn’t sure but nodded and let it pass, moving along to whether she started with dry or reconstituted. 

Mrs. Junfors laughed. Dry lutefisk is available, she said, but hardly anyone buys it. Instead, consumers opt for lutefisk that has been pre-soaked and sealed in an attractive wrapper. Talking of this triggered a memory, and she had a quick Swedish exchange with her husband. He smiled, nodded, switched to English to say it was “all right to tell him.” (People who talk lutefisk, regardless of language and cultural barriers, instinctively trust one another.)

Anita grew up in a small house. Her grandmother often came to visit, sometimes for extended periods. Grandma always took charge of the annual lutefisk tradition. Her way of doing it was her way, and no one dared tell her otherwise. Grandma’s routine was to select a nice slab of dried fish and soak it—for three long weeks—in the bathtub. 

This meant three weeks without a bath.  Such might have been a lark for a small child, as were regular trips to the bathroom to watch something the size of a dinner plate grow, day by day, until—as if by magic—it sprawled over the edge of the tub like an oversize walrus. 

Time passed. The day came when young Anita found going a fortnight plus a week with a monstrosity in the tub that prevented her bath to be most unpleasant. So was sharing a house with an equally un-bathed family. During the holiday season. With friends dropping by for a hug. Only grandma didn’t seem to mind. 

As the years went by Anita detested those three bathless weeks more and more, longing for the day when Mt. Lutefisk went to the boiling pot.  Then, with great sighs of relief, a line formed for the tub. 

More lutefisk stories can be heard this November when the Stanton Swedes do their annual dinner. If you have a good one come and share it, or give me a call or an email. First prize for a lutefisk story I haven’t heard, one both printable and as good as the bathtub ordeal, is a one-year subscription to the Express.                           

Roy Marshall is a local historian and columnist for the RedOak Express. He can be contacted at

The Red Oak Express

2012 Commerce Drive
P.O. Box 377
Red Oak, IA 51566
Phone: 712-623-2566 Fax: 712-623-2568

Comment Here