It’s New Year’s Eve! Let’s talk about lutefisk!

We’ve been blaming the French for various woes for decades, if not centuries, although the British have been doing it for a lot longer. (The O.E.D. has a pejorative use of “Frenchified” dating back to 1592). But let’s not forget to blame the Swedish. Or, more precisely, Gustav Vasa.

Once upon a time, it was an honorable thing to be given the title of lord (occasionally, lady) of the grain. Shénnóng was “Emperor of the Five Grains.” (Chi (setaria millet), shu (panicum millet), shu (legumes), mai (wheat and barley), and either tao (rice) or ma (hemp), depending on which translator you use, were the staples of Chinese diet in antiquity). Suddhodana, the father of the Buddha, was known as the “Pure Rice King.” The Izapa Maize King drew blood from his own mouth to use as an offering to the gods, while Mayan mortals who wore the headdress of the Jester God were the Maize Lords. (Keep in mind that, for the Mayans, human flesh was made from maize dough, which should hint at the level of importance of the Maize Lord, which is why his sacrifice to the gods, every April 20th, was so vital to the health of the community). The Golden Bough tells us of the Silesian “Oak King,” one of a bridal pair who–well, go ahead and read it yourself, although you should probably start at the beginning of the chapter. (But then, the oak was Jove’s tree, so of course the Oak King is going to be important). And, of course, there was John Barleycorn, lord of the corn, always dying, always reborn. The ancients being what they were, we can assume there was some human sacrifice involved. (What, you want to tell Rabbie Burns and James Frazer (yes, him again) they were wrong?)

You’ll note that these individuals didn’t grab the title for themselves. They were assigned it or given it, and accepted the responsibilities which came with it. Indeed, sacrifice and responsibility were a central part of the role. The kings and lords came from the community and died in the community, and theirs was a role of significance.

More recently?

There was John Mackay, the Canadian “Barley King” and Almon James Cotton, the Canadian “Wheat King.” There was Henry Wilson, the South African “Oat King” of the Boer War, who was apparently succeeded by Tom Rhatigan, the “World Oat King.” There was Lê Van Lap, the “Millet King.”

The “Sorghum King” is a special case. The lineage is unsettled, and the title contested. Was it the Cherokee Charley Bumper? The South Carolinan W.S. Wilkerson? The Missourian John Heathman (father of Frankie Lee Timbrook)? The Georgian Walt Medlock, “Sorghum King of Sand Mountain?” Phelix Pryor Nance, “Indiana’s Sorghum King?”

We’ve also seen a number of “Rice Kings,” from Korean-American Kim Chong-nim, who had over 2,000 acres of rice in the San Joaquin Valley, to a succession of Chinese businessmen in Vietnam, all calling themselves “the Rice King.” But the last Rice King in Saigon was Ma Hy, and the Communists arrested him in ’75, and since then, the only Rice Kings have been…something quite different.

So where did it go wrong? When did the title of lord of the grain shift to profiteers and outsiders? How did it become about avarice and not responsibility, about aliens and not members of the community? Somewhere along the way the archetype of the Lord of the Grain flipped; it went from Tammuz/Attis/life-death-rebirth gods to something colder and crueler and altogether more exploitive, to the naiad of Love Canal. How did this happen?

If Ken Hite (@kennethhite) were writing this, he would describe, with erudition and wit, the occult significance of the change in the nature of the identities of the title-holders, perhaps involving the Green Man or Caliban’s “pricks at my footfall” speech as displaying the symptoms of ergotism or the manner in which Lussi, Queen of Light was replaced by St. Lucia.

But, alas, I’m not Ken. My thoughts are more base. Like Falstaff, I’m led by my belly, or at least preceded by it, and so my thoughts turn to food.

I mentioned Gustav Vasa. In The Observer Guide to European Cookery Jane Grigson mentions seeing “a portrait…of the great Gustav Vasa, the 16th century King of Sweden, dressed all in black with yellow slashes, like a regal insect, who encouraged his subjects to grow rye and make crisp bread. He is the Rye King of the packaged crisp breads sold in Britain.” Not just of the crisp breads, though; he was known as the Rye King during his lifetime.

Let’s look closer at Gustav. Founder of modern Sweden, but known as a tyrant. Led the rebellion against Christian II of Denmark, a.k.a. “Christian the Tyrant,” the man responsible for the Stockholm Bloodbath–but Gustav was no cupcake himself when it came to massacres, so that’s a wash. He oversaw the breaking of the monopoly of the Hanseatic League and the conversion of Sweden to Lutheranism–again, a wash. And the gematria gives us a 79 for Gustav, and a 1010 for Kristian (Christian II’s real name), which would seem to indicate that Gustav was one of the white knights.

On balance, Gustav seems a positive figure. But there is one area in which we can fairly describe Gustav, or at least his impact, as calamitous, and that’s in matters culinary.

From 1470 to 1521 Kristian II and Denmark ruled Sweden, but Gustav led the rebellion, got himself elected regent in 1521, and then was elected king in 1523. At the time of Sweden’s independence the most influential school of European gastronomy was French, and this was magnified in 1533 when Catherine de Medici arrived in Paris from Florence. She brought with her a retinue of chefs, pastry makers, and gardeners, and revolutionized French cooking, leading to a deluge of French cookbooks swamping Europe, including Pierre Sergent’s very influential Le Grand Cuisinier de Toute Cuisine (1540), which displaced the more traditional Le Viandier (circa 1485).

Denmark, as it happened, was and remained primarily influenced by German cookery. (This changed in the 1830s, with Madam Mangor‘s Cookbook for Young Girls, Written by a Grandmother (1837), but we can attribute that to Denmark’s choice of Napoleon as an ally). Sweden, on the other hand, more quickly took to French cookery.

Now, consider lutefisk. (In the Swedish, lutfisk). Garrison Keillor, who presumably knows whereof he speaks, described it this way:

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.

And where can we find the first written mention of lutfisk?

That’s right.

In one of Gustav Vasa’s letters, written in 1540. (Wikipedia doesn’t give a citation for this, but it can be found in Astri Riddervold‘s Lutefisk, Rakefisk, and Herring in Norwegian Tradition (1990)).

Gustav didn’t invent lutfisk–the taste for lutfisk already existed among Swedes–but he surely had a hand in popularizing it. (We can’t discount the effect of royalty’s imprimatur on food; just look at what Catherine de Medici did). Swedes wanted to emphasize their differences from the Danes, and so they embraced the French rather than the German influence on their cooking.

This, by the way, was a decision Swedes surely came to regret. Patrick Lamb, cook to five kings and author of Royal Cookery: or, the Compleat Court-Book (1710), described northern European, German, and Danish cooking as a “substantial and wholesome plenty.” The French of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, on the other hand:

  • followed the Italian lead in seeing the tomato as evil and claiming that it caused “inflamed passions;”
  • blamed chocolate for corrupting women’s morals;
  • said that too much chocolate consumption led to women giving birth to coal-black “cocoa babies;”
  • likened chocolate to feces;
  • said that Madame du Barry‘s appetite for chocolate came from her propensity for anal sex, gotten from her brothel training at the House of Gourdan;
  • claimed that allowing proles to eat pain mollet, a light bread formerly reserved for royalty, had introduced “an element of voluptuousness” into France;
  • sneered at rye and barley bread, with only white bread being good enough for French palates, so that the elite were “bread mouths,” who dined only on white bread, and the proles were “fodder mouths,” peasants who lived on dark brown bread;
  • agreed with Diderot, who said, in his Encyclopédie, “the potato is rightly held responsible for flatulence. But what is flatulence to the vigorous organs of peasants and workers?”;
  • and ultimately created the attitude which Brillat-Savarin described so well: “a true gourmand is as insensible to suffering as is a conqueror.”

Now, lutfisk was originally prepared with potash (K2CO3), but that was displaced by the stronger “caustic soda,” a.k.a. NaOH, a.k.a. lye. The way it works is, a white fish (usually cod) is steeped in lye for several days, rinsed under running water, and then boiled, which reduces it to a shoggoth-like mess gelatinous substance. It’s then served with boiled potatoes, flatbread, a white sauce, pepper and melted butter.

Between 1820 and 1920 over a million Swedes emigrated to the United States, many of them settling in the midwest and bringing their culinary traditions with them. So we can assume that, during that time, an unusually large amount of lye was used and dumped into the soil. Lutfisk consumption declined after the 1920s, when roast rib of pork replaced it as the main dish of Christmas Eve dinner, but lutfisk made a comeback in the late 1970s and has been going strong ever since.

Lye is an alkaline. And the Mississippi River (which, as you can see, runs along the Wisconsin border), is suffering from greatly increased alkalinity (see, for example, Science v302n5647, 7 Nov 2003, esp. Jones, “Increased Alkalinity in the Mississippi” and the Lackner/Raymond/Cole exchange on “Alkalinity Export and Carbon Balance”), with, as Jones puts it, “important implications for the biogeochemistry of the region.”

But not just biogeochemistry. Regularly dumping toxic amounts of alkalines into the soil for almost two centuries has, obviously, done more than just poison the rivers. It poisoned the earth, so that those who would claim to lordship over its produce are poisoned themselves. No more self-sacrificing Corn Kings for us. The Lord of the Grain has become a dictator. Now we get Blairo Maggi, the iniquitous “Soy King.”

And it’s all Gustav Vasa’s fault.

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