Friday, December 20, 2013

Why do some of us love awful foods?

We all have favorite Christmas food traditions, and most are wonderful and delicious. But what about the foods that just a few of us love, the foods that most of our family can’t look at, let alone eat or smell? Sometimes these traditions are generations old, a few perhaps started when we were young and ate it at a party. Maybe it just struck us as unique and special, and we eat it to relive that happy memory. A lot of us eat foods that remind us of home, or where we came from. What else could explain Norwegian-Americans still eating Lutefisk? In Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor writes:

“Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I'd be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.”

Lutefisk is usually made from dried Whitefish that is soaked in water for five or six days, the water is changed each day, it is then soaked in lye, placed in cheesecloth to keep it from falling into small pieces, and gently and briefly boiled before serving. It is gelatinous and has a strong odor. Any preparation, serving utensils and plates must be washed immediately, and be careful to never use silverware with Lutefisk. Real silver will be permanently ruined. Think about the clean up that is necessary afterward. Often much of what was used is simply thrown away. Even if you eat Lutefisk, and manage to keep it down, what is it doing to your insides? The name means Lye Fish. Enough said.

In Greenland, the Scandinavian roots still seem to affect the holiday food choices. Greenland is probably the home of far fewer immigrants to the U.S., but Greenland-Americans would no doubt have a hard time locating the ingredients called for in these two traditional dishes.
Mattak... Raw whale skin and blubber. It is said to taste like fresh coconut. It is frequently too tough to chew, so is often swallowed whole. I think a better substitute would be fresh coconut. 
Kiviak... An Arctic bird called the Auk is wrapped in seal skin, and buried for several months until it achieves the desired state of decomposition. Very popular for unimaginable reasons.

A new tradition has taken hold in Japan at Christmas. In the 1970s, some western visitors were seen ordering KFC in an effort to find something that reminded them of home. The “Kentucky For Christmas Meal” is very popular, and can be had with the additions of cake and Champagne (from the Colonel’s private wine cellar?) for about forty dollars a plate. Diners often have to make reservations well in advance.

Fruitcake is frequently maligned and mocked, but at least lye isn’t one of the ingredients. My husband is the only one in our house who eats it, and he  doesn’t publicly announce his love for the fattening treat, but it is a tradition that began in high school. A family he knew received a small-sized case of fruitcakes each Christmas. A relative of theirs worked at the Georgia factory, and mailed a case to every deserving person on their Christmas list. My husband was unfamiliar with fruitcake, but was open to new experiences, and took to it immediately. He says that with every bite he remembers the friend who’s re-gift started this sweet memory.

Another of his hard to understand favorites is the Swiss hard cheese called Schabziger, a skimmed cows milk cheese that is flavored with an herb called fenugreek. It is made into 100 gram cones that are light green and 5cm high. This was a cheese that was found on the buffet table at his grandparent’s home in Milwaukee. It has been almost impossible to find in stores for at least ten years, but it can be found on the Internet under the brand name Sap Sago. It was developed  in the eighth century by monks in the Swiss canton of Glarus. In 1463 the process was formally protected. Each cone is stamped to prove its authenticity, making it the oldest protected cheese on the planet. It is usually grated and mixed with butter and spread on bread. My husband likes it on pumpernickel and tops it with minced chives.

These are Christmas foods that the few like, and these loyal few keep a memory alive within themselves that they may not even be able to articulate. It is nostalgia perhaps, a lovely word that originates from two words, “homecoming” and “ache” For these few people, devoted to unlovable foods, it is a sort of homecoming, paired I imagine, with a gastrointestinal ache.

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