For the most part, I look forward to the holidays for the reason many of us do: the feasting. From basically Halloween through the first week of January is a nonstop food carnival, full of lavish holiday dinners, party snacks, delectable desserts, cheerful cocktails, and scrumptious leftovers. But for many years there was one food item I dreaded, one that we were forced to consume because of tradition: pickled herring.
My family is Norwegian, and being such, if we don’t slurp down pickled herring before January 1, we might as well just say goodbye to any luck in the new year. As a kid, I thought this particular item was too stinky and slimy and scaly for my taste. I watched in horror as my parents and grandparents dug into these fish bites like they were nothing—they enjoyed it.
“You gotta do it, for good luck!” my grandpa would tell me. He would know, being raised by Norwegian immigrants in rural Wisconsin where Norwegian culture still dominates. Trusting his expertise, I’d take a deep breath, plug my nose, and toss a tiny piece back like I was taking a shot. Then I’d shake it off and feel satisfied that I’d protected our family, ensuring the best of luck in the year to come.
Fish, it turns out, is a lucky dish in many cultures, symbolizing abundance and fertility, reports Smithsonian Magazine. Pickled fish in particular is a New Year’s Eve treat in Germany, Poland, and Scandinavia, traditionally consumed right at the stroke of midnight to bring about prosperity and bounty. For my grandpa, pickled herring was mostly just another addition to a holiday spread, alongside the potato flatbread lefse and lutefisk, dried and salted cod that is then pickled in lye and turned into a jelly of sorts. They’re now dishes that he’s still delighted to enjoy each year, reminding him of his childhood and allowing our family to hold onto a little bit of our culture.
These days I don’t mind pickled herring. In fact, I’ve come to love all kinds of pickled fish, going out of my way to order them at restaurants. Last year when our family couldn’t be together for the holidays, my dad made sure to drop off a serving of pickled herring to myself and each of my siblings, which I enjoyed at home with a glass of glögg, Scandinavian mulled wine.
This year I plan on picking up my own jar, maybe even making it a pantry staple. Come midnight on New Years I’ll pop that bad boy open and take a sweet briny bite. It hasn’t been the best year for everyone, sure, but maybe a little Norwegian luck will turn it all around in 2022. Skål!