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For many of us, hula conjures up visions of slender Hawaiian women in leafy skirts, coconut bras and plastic leis. Think Blue Hawaii, a 1961 Elvis movie, or the Brady Bunch's ill-fated trip to the islands, complete with a Tiki curse and Alice in a grass skirt.
Until recently, those stereotypes threatened to become the only readily available representations of hula, an age-old Hawaiian cultural practice enacted through chanting, singing and dancing. Each of hula's movements has a meaning that helps tell a story about gods and goddesses, nature or important events. Rather than simply a performance geared for tourists, the dance is something Hawaiians did for themselves for centuries, at religious ceremonies honoring gods or rites of passage and at social occasions as a means of passing down history.
After years of Western imperialism—under which hula was first discouraged by Christian missionaries in the early 1800s and later marketed as kitsch in the mid-1900s—the dance, in many Hawaiians' eyes, was losing any real sense of history or culture. "Outside influences were making it obsolete," says Rae Fonseca, a kumu hula, or hula master, in Hilo on the Big Island. As a result, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a renewed interest in hula's traditional roots began to sweep across the state. Adrienne Kaeppler, curator of oceanic ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. and an expert in hula, helped form the State Council on Hawaiian Dance in 1969. "During its meetings," she says, "we brought in some of the older hula masters who were willing to share their dances in a variety of workshops." The classes filled quickly, signaling the beginning of hula's renaissance. "It just went on from there," Kaeppler says.
Today, serious hula is everywhere in Hawaii. The dance can also be found among the mainland diaspora and other places such as Japan, Europe and Mexico. Even Hollywood has joined in—Hula Girls, this year's Japanese entry in the Academy Award's foreign language category, tells a charming tale of rural Japanese girls learning the dance. Halaus, or schools of hula, have cropped up in most Hawaiian towns, and men and women of all ages study the dance diligently. "I have my classes twice a week for each age group," Fonseca says. "It entails a lot of dedication."
Kumu hulas generally teach their students both hula kahiko (traditional hula) which involves chanting accompanied by percussion instruments, and hula 'auana (modern hula) which features songs, mainly sung in Hawaiian, and instruments such as the ukulele and guitar. Early hula kahiko costumes for women featured skirts made of kapa, or bark cloth. Men wore the skirts, too, or just a loincloth, called a malo. A lei for the head and its counterpart for the ankles and wrists—called kupe'e—were made of plants or materials such as shells and feathers. Hula 'auana emerged in the late 1800s, when international visitors introduced stringed instruments to the culture. It was at this time that the ubiquitous grass skirts came on the scene as well, though costumes for hula 'auana are often more Western in appearance—fabric tops, skirts and dresses for women, and shorts and pants for men, but with lei and kupe'e as adornments. These accessories, however, depend upon which type of dance is being performed. "In hula kahiko," says Noenoelani Zuttermeister, a kumu hula who teaches at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, "a circular lei would be worn on top of the head, whereas in hula 'auana, the dancer may affix flowers to one side of the head."
But while hula historically has involved a merging of different cultural forms, kumu hulas of today want blending stopped. Rather than integrate Japanese or, say, Mexican dance traditions with Hawaiian hula in Tokyo or Mexico City, Fonseca says hula must be kept pure, wherever it is performed. "It's up to us teachers to stress that where we come from is important," he says. Zuttermeister strongly agrees: "If the link is not maintained as it should, then we're not passing on something that is hula and we're not being true to our culture."
Fittingly, hula is strongly associated with family tradition. Both Fonseca and Zuttermeister come from hula-focused families: Fonseca's grandmother was a hula performer in the 1930s, and Zuttermeister's mother taught the dance. Perhaps the best example of a hula dynasty in action is Aloha Dalire, a kumu hula from the town of Heeia on Oahu and the first winner of the Miss Aloha Hula title at the famed Merrie Monarch festival. This weeklong event sponsoring three days of hula competition has been called the "Olympics of hula." The dance's best and brightest compete, and the contests are so popular they're televised live in Hawaii.
Miss Aloha Hula, as one might imagine, is part beauty pageant winner, part mind-blowing hula dancer. Dalire won the title in 1971, a time, she says, when the contest was open to anyone "over 18 and ready to step into the limelight." She hails from a long line of dancers—she's the seventh generation—and her three daughters followed suit. They each individually won Miss Aloha Hula, in 1991, 1992 and 1999.
Dalire believes the Miss Aloha Hula contest births many kumu hulas. That may be true, but the path to becoming a hula master is not universally agreed upon. Each hula school has its own particular steps and rituals. Several kumus seemed reluctant to describe these, instead uttering the Hawaiian proverb, "All knowledge does not come from one," when pressed about them. Dalire says students must study Hawaiian history, culture and language, as well as dance. Malama Chong, a protégé of Fonseca's, says lei-making and costuming are also important. In addition, students may be required to heed kapus (taboos), including abstinence and food restrictions. "It's a serious undertaking that requires years of training," Chong says.
Indeed. Hula has again taken its place as a proud and integral part of Hawaiian culture. The next time you hear Turner Classic Movies, remember Dalire's parting words: "We don't always run around in grass skirts—they're only for sharing hula. We're modernized as much as anyone else."
And, for the record, she's never worn a coconut bra.
Mimi Kirk is an editor and freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian readers are avid travelers, either in reality or from the comfort of their armchairs, and over the years the magazine has taken them from Savannah to the Sargasso Sea, from Panama to Bangalore, from Reno to Warsaw. Now we're adding something extra.
Here on the Web, we've expanded our new magazine feature, Smithsonian Journeys, to offer a host of additional stories, essays, travel tips, photo galleries and much more. Already, we've taken you camel trekking in the Australian outback, to Great Britain's Blenheim Palace and to Belgium's Royal Greenhouses. This month Joyce and Richard Wolkomir's Smithsonian feature, "Living a Tradition," takes you on a journey to New England's Shaker villages. Here on the Web, we give you more: in a letter to our travel editor, affectionately known as Smitty, the Wolkomirs tell of their encounter with a ferocious dog on their way to the Hancock Shaker Village. Want to visit a Shaker village yourself? In Travel Tips, you'll find an easy-to-read map of all the villages visited by the Wolkomirs and informative links to the Websites of many of the Shaker museums and villages in the United States. Click on another of our Web stories and sample the sounds of Shaker hymns. There's a slide show of fabulous finds at the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. We've also put together a collection of recipes from the cookbook of Sister Frances Carr, a Shaker at Sabbathday Lake. Check out our Smithsonian expert, Jeremy Adamson from the Smithsonian Museum of American Art's Renwick Gallery, whose essay about Shaker design will surprise you. And delight in a story from one of the country's foremost scholars on Shaker culture, June Sprigg, who weaves a charming tale about her first encounter with the Shaker sisters at Canterbury. We hope you'll find something here to intrigue you, and if you have a thought or two to pass along to us, please do. Write us a postcard or e-mail us at email@example.com and tell us what you think of this new feature.
In coming months we've got much more to offer as we prowl the ghost towns of the American West, take a very wet trip to the monstrous whirlpools of the North Atlantic and seek out the giant megaliths of the British Isles. So stay tuned travelers.
Graphic designer Jessica Helfand has been fascinated with visual biography since her days as a graduate student in the late 1980s, pouring over Ezra Pound’s letters and photographs in Yale’s rare book library. But the “incendiary moment,” as she calls it, which really sparked her interest in scrapbooks came in 2005, when she wrote critically of the hobby on her blog Design Observer. Helfand derided contemporary scrapbookers as “people whose concept of innovation is measured by novel ways to tie bows,” among other things, and was vilified by the craft’s enthusiasts. “I hit a nerve,” she says.
Spurred on by the rise of scrapbooking as the fastest growing American hobby, Helfand set out to study the medium, collecting, from antique stores and eBay auctions, over 200 scrapbooks dating from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. In the collages of fabric swatches, locks of hair, calling cards and even cigarette butts pasted on their pages, she found real artistry. Helfand’s latest book, Scrapbooks: An American History, tells the story of how personal histories, as told through the scrapbooks of civilians and celebrities, including writers Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Anne Sexton and Hilda Doolittle, combine to tell American history.
What types of scrapbooks do you find the most interesting?
The more eclectic. The more insane. Scrapbooks that are pictures of just babies and cherubs or just clippings from the newspaper tend to interest me less. I like when they’re chaotic the way life is.
What are some of the strangest things you’ve seen saved in them?
Apparently it was custom in the Victorian age for people to keep scrapbooks just of obituaries. And they are weird obituaries, like one in which a woman watches in horror as streetcar claims the life of her six children. Incredibly macabre, gruesome things. We have one of these books from 1894 in Ohio, and in it there is every weird obituary. “Woman lives with remains of daughter for two weeks in a farmhouse before she’s discovered.” Just one after another, and it’s pasted onto the pages of a geometry textbook.
You see often in books by college and high school girls these bizarre juxtapositions, like a picture of Rudy Valentino next to a church prayer card, or a box of Barnum’s animal crackers pasted right next to some steamy, embraced Hollywood couple for some movie that had just come out. You could see the tension in trying to figure out who they were and what their identities were vis-à-vis these emblems of religious and popular culture. I’m a kid, but I really want to be a grownup. There’s something so dear about it.
What do you think goes through people’s minds as they paste things?
In antebellum culture just after the Civil War, there was this kind of carpe diem quality that pervaded American life. I have my own theory that one of the reasons for the rise in scrapbooking has been so meteoric since 9/11 is precisely that. People keep scrapbooks and diaries more during wartime and after wartime, and famine and disease and fear. When you feel an increased sense of vulnerability, what can you do to steel yourself against the inevitable tide of human suffering but to paste something in a book? It seems silly, but on the other hand, it’s quite logical.
Scrapbooks, like diaries, can get pretty personal. Did you ever feel like you were snooping?
I took pains not to be prurient. These people aren’t here to speak for themselves anymore. It was very humbling to me to think about the people who made these things in the moments that they made them, what they were thinking, their fears and trepidations. The Lindbergh kidnapping, the Hindenburg, all these things were happening, and they were trying to make sense of it. You fall in love with these people. You can’t have emotional distance. I wanted to have some analytical distance in terms of the composition of the books, but certainly when it comes to the emotional truths that these people were living with day by day, the best I could do was just be an ambassador for their stories.
How do scrapbooks of famous and non-famous people slip through the cracks and not end up with their families?
The reason scrapbooks secede from their families is that there are typically not children to keep them. Or it’s because the kids didn’t care. They’re old, falling apart. To a lot of people, they’re really forgettable. To me, they’re treasures.
But the other thing is the more curatorial, scholarly angle. There tends to be a very scientific, quantitative view of gathering evidence and then telling the story chronologically. These things just fly in the face of that logic. People picked them up, put them down, started over, ripped out pages. They’re so unwieldy. Typically historians are more methodical and meticulous in their research and in their compilation of stories. These things are the opposite, and so they were relegated to the bottom of the pile. They would just be anecdotally referenced, but certainly not held in point as really reliable historical documents. My editor tells me that there’s a more open mindedness to that kind of first person history today, so I may have written this book at a time when it could be accepted on some scholarly level in a way that it couldn’t have 20 years before.
Image by Scrapbooks: An American History / Yale University Press. Wooden Spoon. Enloe Scrapbook, 1922. (original image)
Image by Scrapbooks: An American History / Yale University Press. Delineator. June 1931. (original image)
Image by Scrapbooks: An American History / Yale University Press. The Hair Book. Natchitoches, La., 1733. (original image)
Image by Scrapbooks: An American History / Yale University Press. Blanchard Scrapbook. Natchitoches, La., 1922. (original image)
What was it like paging through poet Anne Sexton’s scrapbook for first time, seeing the key to the hotel room where she spent her wedding night?
It’s the most adorable, clumsy, newly wed, young, silly thing. It’s just not what you associate with her. Those kinds of moments were certainly exciting for me in terms of finding something I didn’t expect to find that was so out of sync with what the record books tell us. It was sort of like finding a little treasure, like you were going through your grandmother’s drawers and you found a stack of love letters from a man who wasn’t your grandfather. It had that kind of quality of discovery. I loved, for example, the little firecrackers from a fourth of July party and the apology note from the first marital spat she had with her husband, the goofy handwriting, the Campbell soup recipes, things that were very much a part of 1949-1951. They become such portals into social, economic and material culture history.
In your book, you describe how scrapbooking has evolved. Preformatted memory books, like baby and wedding books, were more about documenting. And scrapbooking today is more about purchasing materials than using vestigial ones. Why the shift?
It shows that there is an economic incentive. If you see that there is a trend that something is happening you want to jump on the bandwagon and be part of it. My guess is that some very savvy publishers in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s said they were going to make memory books that told you what to remember. That to me is very interesting because it shaped the way we started to value certain memories over others. It was good and bad; they were doing what Facebook does for us now. Facebook will change the way we think about sharing pictures and stories about our mundane lives the same way those publishers made those books and told you to save the fingerprints of your babies.
You’ve been quite vocal and critical about contemporary scrapbooking, and yet you haven’t called it “crapbooking,” as other graphic designers have. Where do you stand?
What I’ve been trying to advocate is that it’s an extremely authentic form of storytelling. You just save something, reflect on it, put it next to something else and suddenly there’s a story instead of the story being sanctioned by pink ribbons and matching paper. I don’t say don’t go to the store and buy pretty stuff. But my fear is that a certain monotony will come out of our reliance on merchandise. How is it possible that all our scrapbooks will be beautiful because they look like Martha Stewart’s, when are lives are all so incredibly different? With so much reliance on the “stuff” a certain authenticity is lost. I kept seeing this expression of “getting it right,” women wanting to “get it right.” Everybody made scrapbooks a hundred years ago, and people didn’t worry about getting it right. They just made things, and they were messy, incomplete and inconsistent. To me, the real therapeutic act is being who you are. You stop and you think what was my day. I planted seeds. I went to the store. Maybe it’s really mundane but that’s who you are, and maybe if you think about it, save it and look at it, you’ll find some truth in that that’s actually very rewarding. It’s a very forgiving canvas, the scrapbook.
As journalists, we’re all wondering whether the print newspaper and magazine will survive the digital age. Do you think the tangible scrapbook will survive in the advent of digital cameras, blogs and Facebook?
I hope they won’t disappear. I personally think there is nothing that replaces the tactile—the way they smell, the way they look, the dried flowers. There’s just something really amazing about seeing a fabric sample from 1921 in a book when you haven’t ever seen a piece of fabric that color before. There’s a certain recognition about yourself and about your world when you see something that no longer exists. When it’s on the screen, it’s a little less of that immersive experience. At the same time, if there is a way to keep scrapbooking relevant, move it forward, make it be a satellite of its former self and move into some new zone and become something else, then that’s a progressive way of thinking about it moving into the next generation.
Although the doors don’t open until 11 a.m., the parking lot is already filling up on a Friday morning at Lakeview Lutheran Church in Madison, Wisconsin. Inside, volunteers busily set tables, stir boiling pots and dish out plates of food they’ve been planning and preparing for weeks. Outside, pink-cheeked diners decked in Nordic sweaters head up the steps, eager for their annual taste of lye-soaked cod drenched in melted butter.
“I like lutefisk! It tastes good to me,” says Nelson Walstead with a laugh. Walstead, a Norwegian-American, is the chief organizer of Lakeview Lutheran’s annual lutefisk dinner. “It makes me feel good to know we are keeping the tradition alive, and that we’re passing this on to the next generation,” he says.
It seems only natural that the descendants of the Vikings, perhaps history’s greatest tough guys, would celebrate a food prepared with a caustic and highly dangerous substance. Lutefisk—codfish (fisk) preserved in lye (lut)—is both a delicacy and a tradition among Scandinavian-Americans, who serve the chemical-soaked, gelatinous fish with a warm and friendly smile. Lutefisk, or lutfisk in Swedish, is a traditional dish in Norway, Sweden, and parts of Finland.
But today, Scandinavians rarely eat lutefisk. Far more lutefisk is consumed in the United States, much of it in church and lodge basements. In fact, the self-proclaimed “lutefisk capital of the world” isn’t in Norway but in Madison, Minnesota, where a fiberglass codfish named “Lou T. Fisk” welcomes visitors to this lye-fish loving town. The lutefisk dinner is an annual fall and winter tradition at scores of Lutheran churches and Nordic fraternal groups throughout the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest or anywhere with a large Scandinavian-American population. Strangely, these children of immigrants celebrate a tradition that connects them to their ancestral home, even as many Scandinavians have moved on.
“These dinners represent important traditions in both families and communities, and for some, they are a valued connection to culture and heritage,” says Carrie Roy, a Scandinavian cultural scholar and creator of the film Where the Sacred Meets the Quivering Profane: Exploring the Public and Private Spheres of Lutefisk “While the food tradition certainly originated in Scandinavia, the immigrant communities—especially their churches and cultural heritage lodges—have played a major role in developing the phenomenon of lutefisk dinners.”
Lutefisk starts as cod, traditionally caught in the cold waters off Norway. It’s then dried to the point that it attains the feel of leather and the firmness of corrugated cardboard. Water alone can’t reconstitute the fish, so it’s soaked in lye. Yes, lye, the industrial chemical used to unclog drains and dispose of murder victims, the one that explodes when it comes in contact with aluminum. Incidentally, it’s the same chemical that gives pretzels that deep, shiny brown, cures fresh olives for eating, and what makes bagels gleam; these foods just don’t advertise this fact like lutefisk does. The fish is then repeatedly rinsed before being shipped off for cooking and eating. But it’s still so close to toxic that the state of Wisconsin specifically exempts lutefisk from classification as a toxic substance in Section 101.58 (2)(j)(f) of its laws regulating workplace safety.
A strong fishy odor wafts through the stairwell at Lakeview Lutheran as diners dig into steaming platters of lutefisk served family style. Melted butter sits in ceramic pitchers for easy pouring, though other dinners feature a mustard or cream sauce. The fish itself is flaky and a slightly translucent white in color. While still firm in places, the fish tends to be slippery and a little squishy, and the whole platter quivers a bit as it makes its way down the table.
The rest of the meal is a fairly standard slate of starchy seasonal fare: mashed potatoes with gravy, creamy coleslaw, cranberries, green beans and a big bowl of mashed rutabagas that are nearly indistinguishable at quick glance from the mashed potatoes. A pile of rolled lefse, the Scandinavian potato flatbread similar in appearance to a flour tortilla, sits in the center of the table beside sticks of butter and bowls of brown sugar, lefse’s usual dressing.
Lutefisk is a polarizing dish, even among those at the dinners.
“I won’t touch the stuff. My wife was the Norwegian one,” says Ed, who has come to Lakeview’s dinner for a decade or more. “I like to come, though. And I really like the lefse!”
In the wrong hands, lutefisk can turn into slimy glop. For the haters, there’s always meatballs, a hand-rolled peace offering for mixed marriages of Scandinavians to spouses of different ethnic heritages, and for those with Scandinavian blood who object to lutefisk’s texture and intense odor.
The plaintive question frequently asked of lutefisk lovers: “If it’s so good, why don’t you eat it more than once a year?”
“Lutefisk is the substance you love to hate,” writes Roy. “It’s a rich substance for jokes, and for these reasons, it holds an interesting spectrum of appeal that varies from the cherished to reviled.”
That notorious smell has improved in recent years, however. Modern processing methods, including enclosed commercial kiln dryers and the refinement of lye, make for better smelling—or at least less smelly—fish. The lye does leave a distinct ashy taste that butter helps mask. Still, few people make lutefisk from scratch at home anymore, preferring instead to purchase it vacuum-packed from the store. Those searching for the smelly scent memory of old, however, can still find it at Ingrebretson’s Scandinavian Foods, a Minneapolis institution that hosts an annual lutefisk tasting, where shoppers can buy dried fish to soak themselves. There aren’t too many takers.
No one is quite sure where and when lutefisk originated. Both Swedes and Norwegians claim it was invented in their country. A common legend has it that Viking fishermen hung their cod to dry on tall birch racks. When some neighboring Vikings attacked, they burned the racks of fish, but a rainstorm blew in from the North Sea, dousing the fire. The remaining fish soaked in a puddle of rainwater and birch ash for months before some hungry Vikings discovered the cod, reconstituted it and had a feast. Another story tells of St. Patrick’s attempt to poison Viking raiders in Ireland with the lye-soaked fish. But rather than kill them, the Vikings relished the fish and declared it a delicacy. It makes for a great story if you don’t mind the fact that Patrick lived centuries before the Vikings attacked Ireland.
Whatever its origins, Scandinavians have eaten lutefisk for centuries. Preserved cod provided protein during the long winter months for generations of families in a part of the world with a strong tradition of fishing. Lye was used for making soap and preserving food. It was easily prepared in the kitchen by boiling wood ash from beech or birch in water and straining the result. Lutefisk first appeared in Norwegian literature in 1555 in the writings of Olaus Magnus, who describes its preparation and proper serving method: lots of butter.
Despite its long history in Scandinavia, though, lutefisk has fallen out of favor now that few people need to preserve food to last all winter. In fact, the Norwegian national dish isn’t lutefisk or even fishbased; it’s farikal, a lamb and cabbage casserole.
“You see some lutefisk in Norway but you’ll find many people who’ve never had it. There’s just not the lutefisk culture in Scandinavia that exists here,” says Eric Dregni, a Minnesotan who spent a year in Norway and wrote the book In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream about his experiences. “It’s the immigrants that have kept this going and turned it into a community event.”
Andrine Wefring at the Culinary Academy of Norway in Oslo agrees. “People still eat it, usually at Christmas, and you can find it in some restaurants in the winter. But church dinners? No, that doesn’t happen here,” she says.
Poverty and the collapse of traditional farming practices led more than 950,000 Norwegians to leave their homes for America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only Ireland experienced a greater exodus relative to the size of its population. Lutefisk, the food of poor Scandinavians, came to the United States with its immigrants. Today, there are nearly as many Americans with primarily Norwegian heritage as there are citizens of Norway, about 4.5 million people. And many of the immigrant descendants crave some connection to their Nordic past, even one that jiggles and seems to repel more than it appeals.
“It’s a symbol of solidarity,” says Hasia Diner, a professor of immigration history at New York University. “Foods like lutefisk could have been markers of poverty in the past, but by eating them in the more prosperous present, they serve to remind consumers where they came from and how far they have come.”
Professor Diner notes that it’s common for subsequent American-born generations to find these immigrant foods offensive. “Some individuals may find them disgusting, but they still offer markers of past authenticity,” she says.
So perhaps the nauseating aspects of lutefisk are also part of its appeal to Scandinavian-Americans: Eating dried cod cured in lye feels counterintuitive enough to forge a real connection to the practices of their ancestors.
Volunteers at Lakeview Lutheran cooked up 1,000 pounds of lutefisk for the November 4 dinner. They also rolled and grilled 235 dozen sheets of lefse, a labor-intensive process that began in the church kitchens in September. The lutefisk dinner, now in its 60th year, attracts nearly 1000 people to the table. Proceeds support the church’s outreach and mission work.
“It’s a ton of work to pull this off every year,” says Dean Kirst, pastor of Lakeview Lutheran. “But it helps us remember there was a time when our European ancestors struggled and suffered a lot even if we’re in more prosperous times now.”
It’s not all Scandinavians at the dinners. Pastor Kirst runs to the fridge to get a bottle of soy sauce for a Chinese-American woman who prefers her lutefisk with an Asian flair.
Even in the United States, the future of these dinners is uncertain. As the immigrant generation grows more remote from its roots, lutefisk consumption has declined. Those who love it tend to be those who grew up eating it, which is happening less and less. To tap younger eaters at home and abroad, in 2001 the Norwegian Fish Information Board launched a promotion to brand lutefisk as an aphrodisiac using a slogan that roughly translates as “Lutefisk lovers love more.” Olsen Foods in Minneapolis also markets a lutefisk TV dinner for the busy working family.
Pastor Kirst has seen a decline in attendance at his church’s lutefisk dinner. “People just don’t have the time they used to to devote to pulling off the dinner, and our membership is changing,” he says.
But among the traditional, lutefisk remains a cherished part of the holiday season. Many will travel from church to church throughout the fall and winter to get their fill of lutefisk, history and good Scandinavian cheer.
“It’s the combination of good food—we make good fish here—and tradition,” says Walstead. “I hope it never stops.”
NASA transferred this poster to the Museum in 2017.