Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
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For the Love of Mackerel

Norwegians once avoided the fish, due to a strange legend stemming from the Nazi occupation. But to me, it’s a favorite: kosher, delicious, and a reminder of home.

Nina Lichtenstein
May 11, 2022
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In Norway, where I was born and raised, mackerel was called an “un-fish.” To some Norwegians, this meant it was unfit for eating, and when they caught the fish, they’d throw it back in the ocean, despite it being a versatile and tasty food, its rich flesh cured, smoked, grilled, and fried for generations. This had nothing to do with kashrut, but was connected to the trauma of the Nazi occupation of Norway during WWII.

Jostein, a friend who grew up in the 1950s with the “un-fish” dictum in his family, once told me the disturbing tale about why mackerel weren’t considered fit to eat: When schools of mackerel would dart by just under the ocean surface, their smooth skin shimmered green; since German soldiers in their iconic green uniforms had died off the coast, the locals said that the mackerel had fed off the Nazis’ dead bodies. Not wanting to eat an embodiment of the enemy, the occupier, the Norwegians immediately released any mackerel they caught back into the ocean, unwelcome on local families’ dinner table.

In my childhood home in the Norwegian capital, we had no such restrictions. In fact, my dad used to look forward to early summer, when mackerel is in season, and he would make it for our family, despite plenty of reasons for being resentful toward Germans. His father, my farfar, was arrested by the Germans during the war and sat in a prison camp outside Oslo for a month, suspected of having helped the resistance. My father was a 7-year-old boy when he and his mother trekked across town to visit his dad at the camp (Norwegian women were encouraged to bring food and warm clothes to their imprisoned husbands); a German soldier turned them away at the prison gate. My father had visceral issues with any authority figure ever since, not just Germans, especially if said figure wore a uniform.

I’ve wondered how my father and my friend have such different attitudes toward the mackerel. Jostein grew up in a small village on the northwestern coast where locals caught their own fish, whereas my dad grew up in the capital, and fish was bought at the fishmonger’s shop, one step removed from the drama and stories offered by the deep, mysterious ocean. Despite my father having actually experienced the war while Jostein was born after the war, I think it has to do with the power of the stories we tell, and particularly of local lore: The fish’s reputation was tarnished through a graphic, primal metaphor, and as an edible one it was all the more formidable.

After I had lived in the U.S. for many years, my husband and our three boys went deep-sea fishing in Florida with our neighbor David, a kind of substitute grandpa for our boys, who didn’t see my dad that often, him being on the other side of the Atlantic. David, a Midwesterner, wasn’t too fond of mackerel either, but he admitted he had never tasted it, he just knew it was oily, and he didn’t care for oily fish. I promised him if they caught mackerel, I would prepare it for him and his wife for dinner, and gave the game fishermen strict instructions not to throw any mackerel back in, should they catch any. They returned to land without the groupers and snappers they had hoped for, but plenty of bluefish and mackerel. Dinner plans were made, and resulted in David becoming an enthusiastic convert. His eyes and belly had an epiphany: Mackerel, prepared well, is delicious!

Mackerel is considered a delicacy in my family and in many Norwegian households and restaurants; there is something redeeming about turning an ordinary fatty fish into a celebrated summer treat. And to most Norwegians today, it is once again seen as the ultimate summer fish dish, the Nazi-association no longer an issue—to many, it never was. When I surveyed a couple of my Norwegian Facebook groups—a “foodie” one in particular—some respondents were shocked by the “ignorance” of the “un-fish” legend; others chimed in about their parents’ generation shying away from it, yet admitted to loving it, adding salacious details about how much sour cream or butter to add.

Despite the fish’s oily flesh, my father used generous amounts of butter to sear it, whole. It’s a fond childhood memory; the smell, all the tiny bones, the crunchy skin, the boiled potatoes we’d mash with our forks in the butter, the cool cucumber salad doubly green with plenty of dill. As an adult, I particularly enjoy the cold beer it pairs well with on a warm summer day.

Since I try to steer clear of seafood and other common Norwegian delicacies unfit for a Jew-by-choice who prefers to eat kosher, it’s especially meaningful for me to prepare and serve dishes that reflect my birth-heritage, such as mackerel. You might imagine the fun I had when I brought my new partner, Tony, to Norway the first time, and he, a quintessential hobby fisherman from Maine, caught six mackerel in less than half an hour off the dock by our cabin. Could it be they were so plentiful because everyone else in that part of the country threw them back in? I asked him playfully as I told him the “un-fish” story.

Wanting to show him my beautiful country and its fjords, we had headed from Oslo to the northwestern coast of Norway, where a friend let us borrow her family’s tiny old summer hut perched on a hill above the quaint ferry landing bringing locals to and from the Lofoten archipelago. I cleaned the fish the way my dad had taught me, further impressing my new love, and whipped up the quintessential summer feast in a kitchen the size of a postage stamp. We relished the meal outdoors, late at night, on a small, rickety table with mismatched chairs on a terrace facing snowcapped mountains in the distance. And since it was Norway in June, the light never turned to dark, and another mackerel-convert was born.

The Recipe

Pan-seared Mackerel

Pan-seared Mackerel

Nina Lichtenstein is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who divides her time between Maine and Tel Aviv.