Posted by: rolfsky | January 17, 2007

lutefisk, eskimos, and a loss of sentimentality

The one sentence summary: He who clings to sentimentality least, wins.

I come from a Swedish/Norwegian/German heritage and have long been privy to stories and jest around the concept of lutefisk. If you’d rather not visit Wikipedia, lutefisk is essentially arctic fish cured in lye until it is a dried, caustic lump with a pH of about 11 entirely unfit for human or animal consumption. To prepare it, first soak it in an acid solution (changed everyday) for nearly a week, and then throw it in the oven. After all this, it’s a fish with a jelly-like consistency which should not be eaten with silver flatware, as it will permanently damage the metal. I’ve never had it, but apparently it’s an aquired taste.

Sound tasty?

If you’re not in for lutefisk, another acquired taste is a little cracker with some surströmming mashed on it. “What’s surströmming?” you ask? Well, it’s Swedish herring that’s brined, then canned in tins without sterilization whereupon it begins to ferment. Half a year later, the bulging can now filled with fermentation gases and is also chock full of basically rotten fish. You may enjoy it by opening it out of doors and hopefully under water, so you don’t get sprayed with brine.

Explosive rotten herring, alright, sound nasty?

Let’s take another regional delicacy, “scrapple“. The summary is pretty much perfect:
Scrapple is a savory mush in which cornmeal and flour, often buckwheat flour, are simmered with pork scraps and trimmings, then formed into a loaf. Small scraps of meat left over from butchering, too small to be used or sold elsewhere, were made into scrapple to avoid waste, a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.

(What the above summary fails to mention, is the large component of pork brains that makes up scrapple.)
So what we have here, is another attempt to make do by whatever means possible. The Norwegians soaked their fish in lye so that basically nothing would want to eat it through the winter, the Swedes happened upon fermented fish when salt was too expensive for a proper brine, and the Pennsylvania Dutch used every scrap of pig to make some perverted type of meatloaf.

The interesting thing is, all three of these highly questionable foodstuffs live on in the name of “tradition”(!!). Lutefish is trotted out dutifully as at Norwegian American celebrations, surströmming is eaten with appropriate quantities of the antiseptic-like aqua vite , and scrapple apparently can be had in many supermarket regions, including Los Angeles.

And what’s the danger in it all?

Well, none really. Obviously, while possibly considered disgusting, none of these “foods” are going to hurt you. The whole point here is about what sentimental creatures we humans are. We keep these foods around because “that’s what great-grandma did”, even when great-grandma would have frozen the fish in her Frigidaire if given a chance.

I recently heard that because of the melting ice caps, eskimos were in grave danger of losing their traditional way of life. Now, let me get this straight. Global warming is making the arctic regions a place more hospitable to human habitation, and we’re all bothered? Heaven forbid that eskimo children don’t grow up learning to eat seal’s eyes, because they’d be losing their culture! I for one would be saying, “thank god, now it won’t be so damn cold all the time.”

The big joke is that “culture” is whatever things we’ve glorified to set ourselves apart from “them”. And usually we can only really claim true proprietorship over the things that no culture would do, unless they had to. You wouldn’t eat lye fish in the first place, unless you had to in order to stay alive. “Cultural heritage” is a collection of things we’ve trumped up as important, when really it’s just stuff that our ancestors did so they didn’t starve to death.

And we do this, because we’re sentimental. Eating the crap that grandma ate, makes us feel closer to her, makes us one of the gang and distinctly different from our peers. But it’s also silly, because we don’t need fermented herring any more and the time, money and energy we spent looking for this fish at a specialty market? Could have been better spent: getting ahead.

This, kids, is the moral of the story. The French fight to not allow “new” words into their language, meanwhile the English won a long time ago by borrowing and stealing any succinct term they could grok for modern life. The English, red coats blazing, fell to hidden American snipers who refused the idiotic concept of marching out onto a battlefield in long rows. The Americans, saw their manufacturing jobs sail off to foreign countries because we copied what Japanese factories looked like without understanding the drive behind the business.

Sentimentality is a liability. It costs something, ignores modern thinking, and returns a questionable value.


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