The Christmas and New Year’s holidays brought muted joy to the southern Minnesota community newspaper where I worked in the early 1980s. Treats appeared in the break room. Little trees sprouted on desks.
The holidays meant a break from my usual routine of courts and cops, city and county government, agriculture stories and news from a dozen small communities. But there was still a news hole to fill.
I wrote one story concerning a re-enactment of the Christmas story, with a Shetland pony cast as the donkey and a woman with a questionable reputation as Mary. Another story centered on how workers spent New Year’s Eve, featuring a public safety dispatcher who rang in the new year midafternoon with a flock of grandchildren.
Other assignments included finding the folks with the best light displays, watching children prepare food packages for the less fortunate and interviewing Salvation Army bell ringers.
It was not the stuff a young reporter like me clamored for.
Then there was the pre-Christmas lutefisk dinner, prepared and served at a small Lutheran church in the area. It was a long-standing tradition, one the congregation was extremely proud of. But it was all news to me. I moved to Minnesota from north-central Iowa, where our Christmas traditions included specken dicken and cookie walks.
The smell hit me as soon as I got out of my vehicle. To the untrained nose it was … fish. Sort of. By the time I got into the church basement, my eyes were watering.
“Welcome to our dinner!” exclaimed the church’s kitchen crew.
I focused on taking pictures, interviewing people and watching hordes of people queue up for the meal. The line extended down the stairs and into the church’s parking lot.
The crew’s enthusiasm was admirable. They were proud of their work and also quite pleased to be featured in the local newspaper. Their children were charged with gathering dirty dishes and wiping tables clean for new diners.
“Would you like a taste?” asked one of the kitchen crew, offering a piece of slimy white fish.
“No,” I replied courteously. “You have a big group to feed and it wouldn’t be appropriate for a reporter to take food from others. I’m working, just like you.”
(And trying not to gag.)
Someone later told my editor that I was nice but very businesslike.
The doors opened and happy diners poured in, filling the basement, elbow to elbow, and suffusing the room with their friendly chatter. Other sounds included the hiss of hot water, clattering dishes and Christmas songs blaring from a nearby record player. Special plates were prepared for delivery to the housebound.
Almost all of the food was white or light brown. Fish, potatoes, lefse and whatever else were ladled onto plates full of steaming meatballs. The only color in the room was provided by table decorations, mashed peas, Christmas cookies and all the bright yellow pitchers of melted butter. I had never seen, nor smelled, anything like it. Keeping a straight face was difficult.
“You’re not from here, are you?” asked someone from the kitchen crew.
“No,” I replied. “But this looks like quite a tradition.”
Oh, gosh, said another kitchen volunteer. There was only a tiny piece of lutefisk left for the reporter, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. Kind elderly ladies made sure it was well wrapped, along with a taste of lefse and some cookies. They ignored my standard excuse about reporters not accepting gifts.
The food stayed in the car for the trip back to the newspaper office, where film was developed, photos printed, an article written and filed.
It was almost midnight when I returned to the small house I shared with my two cats, Beany and Cecil. I set my things on the kitchen table and went to make a phone call to my sweetie.
After we hung up, I returned to the kitchen. The lefse was gone. Only a few cookie sprinkles remained. I assumed the cats ate it all.
But then my tiny entree turned up the next day. Turns out, the cats had managed to unwrap the lutefisk from its wax paper and foil, and shove it beneath the fridge.
I guess they were not from here, either.
Jane McClure is a St. Paul community journalist. She has brought the cookie walk tradition to Hamline Church United Methodist, but she has never tasted lutefisk.