About a week ago, it was Dad’s birthday. He passed away in 1993, but whenever the calendar marks his birthday I think of him because he was a great father.
One of the things I remember most about my dad is he was a Norwegian through and through. Both his mother and father were first-generation immigrants from Norway, and he grew up eating all of the foods of the Norwegian heritage. Ironically, he married a full-blooded German whose parents were first-generation immigrants too.
Another thing that I distinctly remember most about my dad is he loved the Norwegian dish of lutefisk. My mother would serve (among the American fare) the good old German dishes that she learned from her mother. I was weaned on sour kraut, Knoefla, dumplings and kuchen. But once a year on his birthday, she would relent and give Dad his beloved lutefisk dinner. I imagine it was a birthday gift to Dad that Mom would allow her kitchen to smell like boiled farm overshoes.
Out of respect and love for my father and his (our) Norwegian heritage, I couldn’t articulate the loathing I had for this abomination that Dad classified as food.
However, each year, my brother, Curly, his wife Lulu, Brunhilda, my sister Irmagart , my kids, and all my nieces and nephews would make the pilgrimage home for Dad’s birthday and Dad’s annual Norwegian dinner. Dad would proudly serve up mountains of the decaying fish. The house would smell a combination of a compost heap and a week old dumpster behind a cheap Chinese restaurant.
Dad would smile proudly as he put the huge steaming dish in front of Curly and me, and I harbored a deep resentment bordering on pure hatred for the women and children who were allowed to eat turkey at the same table.
You see, my brother and I were the ones who were expected to carry on the Norwegian (Viking) lutefisk tradition just as we carried the name, and the spouses and women and kids were politely excused from this lutefisk brotherhood.
Brother Curly and I gave Oscar-worthy performances by eating this nuclear meltdown. We both politely acted our way through the meal, always trying to save hurt feelings by appearing as eager to dig into lutefisk as dad was. We never tipped off our real feelings and try to get into the spirit of the day. After all, we didn’t want to rain on Dad’s parade.
“It’s a great batch,” Dad would say as he proudly set it down on the table.
“It sure looks good, Dad,” Curly would say. (Liar!)
“Yeah. Looks great,” I would dutifully add. (For fertilizing gardens and patching tires,) I thought to myself.
“AH, that smell reminds me of home when I was a kid, boys.”
“It’s a real . . . distinctive smell, Dad,” Curly said.
“It’s distinctive all right” (The only thing close is probably singed or burning rubber.”
There’s plenty boys, so don’t be bashful.”
“Yeah, Dad and the rest of the family has to eat turkey, eh.”
“Poor souls!” (The first one that says the turkey is great, gets a fishbone in the eye.)
The whole meal is spent singing the praised of decaying cod and somehow finding a way to push it down my throat. As soon as my first bite hits bottom, I feel ill and consider rushing myself to an emergency room. I reject the idea (for my Dad) because I am afraid that a blood test may show signs of swamp water and I will be confined to a lutefisk rehabilitation center.
As I bravely smile through the meal and watch my Dad and brother, my heart sinks when they both have another helping and plate head my way. The rest of the meal is only faded memory – your mind does that sometimes to block out painful memories.
As the meal closed out, I can remember visions of my dad proudly cleaning off the empty lutefisk platter as he and his junior Vikings had polished off nearly all the lutefisk.
Curly sat next to me with a drool of melted butter on his chin and patted his stomach to show Dad his satisfaction. Then, just as Dad went into the kitchen and out of sight with the empty lutefisk bowl, Curly turned to me with a face about the color of dying grass and said, “Aren’t you glad that’s over for another year?”