Holiday traditions stink

What legitimate delicacy is soaked in lye, gives off a stench reminiscent of rancid meat, jiggles on the plate in the manner of a glob of greasy gelatin, and tastes like something I would never eat except under threat of death?

Mine did, but at least it’s mine

One of our family’s longstanding holiday traditions involved a food called lutefisk. It made its one and only annual appearance at the holiday meal — the bigger the family gathering, the larger the pot of lutefisk.

It was our first scent of the holidays, because when we entered the host home, the overwhelming aroma of lutefisk literally seeped through the door.

I’m told that lutefisk is a Scandinavian “delicacy”. But what legitimate delicacy is soaked in lye, gives off a stench reminiscent of rancid meat, jiggles on the plate in the manner of a glob of greasy gelatin, and tastes like something I would never eat except under threat of death?

As far as I know, virtually every relative of mine, young and old, felt the same way about lutefisk — literally no one ate it. But there it was every holiday — in a boiling, hideously large pot right next to the turkey and ham.

Lutefisk was some now unremembered family member’s holiday tradition. And more than 40 years after it first entered my holiday consciousness, lutefisk remains there today as a “tradition” — a tradition for all the wrong reasons, but still something I think about every holiday.

That kind of defies common sense, doesn’t it? A food I can’t stand is the most memorable holiday tradition of my youth, a memory that lingers fondly even today?

Of course, our family had other holiday traditions, too.

For example, my mom has a photographic memory for her holiday decorating layout, from precisely where the plastic Santa hangs on the wall to exactly where the intricate (for a third-grader) Crayon-colored holiday artwork is aligned on the kitchen cabinets. Even today, I can close my eyes, and tell you whether the Santa peeking from the wreath will be mounted to the left or right of Rudolph and his fellow reindeer.

Moving to current day, we always top our tree with a very juvenile rendition of an angel made from an overturned Dixie cup, rendered meaningful not because of its artistic value but because it was stapled and glued and penciled by one of our very own former juveniles. Same with a string of paper ornaments festooned with shimmering glitter and bearing the smiling face of another former juvenile, who also happens to be a favorite of ours.

And after the presents are opened and the recycling disposed, my wife creates the most majestic breakfast of the year, serving up a holiday-decorated table lined with over-frosted cinnamon rolls and milk and orange juice and fresh-baked butter biscuits and the pièce de résistance: a medley of scrambled eggs, cheese, sour cream, butter and spices so full of calories and fat that it would spin the heads of those people on TV’s “Biggest Loser”.

By way of continued quirky family tradition, I’ve never seen my wife more than nibble at the feast she spends hours creating, just as her mother did for her. And even though none of those foods are my favorites, it’s a holiday tradition of the highest family magnitude anyway.

This brings me to the neighborhood recipes offered up in our cover story this month; all are something of traditions to the people who originated them, and the story suggests they might become holiday traditions for your family or mine somewhere down the road.

But as it turns out, the odds of specifically setting out to create a tradition and having that well-crafted and laboriously planned idea actually become a lingering family memory are pretty slim.

Because that’s the way holidays go. We endlessly scheme to create traditions, and we cleverly channel our efforts into building them. But most of the time, what people remember is the lutefisk.

Fondly, though.


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