Lutefisk: It's not just a joke

  • Article by: JEREMY IGGERS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 10, 2006 - 10:13 AM

It's not only the food, it's the fellowship. Across Minnesota, at scores of churches and a few restaurants, lutefisk season is in full swing.

Detractors liken lutefisk to fish-flavored Jell-O, or deride it as Scandinavian chitlins. But to the devotees gathered in the basement of Lebanon Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis, lutefisk -- codfish preserved in lye -- is both a delicacy and a tradition.

The lutefisk dinner is an annual event this time of year at scores of Lutheran churches throughout Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. With minor variations, the basic menu is pretty standard: boiled or baked fish, meatballs, boiled potatoes, lefse (Scandinavian potato tortillas) and rice pudding. At Lebanon Lutheran, the meal also includes a basket with Swedish flatbread and other breads, plus coleslaw and cranberry sauce.

At Lebanon Lutheran, the tradition goes back at least 50 years. A generation ago, the annual dinner drew 600 diners or more, and the line for tickets ran out the door. The numbers have declined gradually and the average age has risen; this year's supper drew about 150 diners, many of them seniors. Proceeds from the dinner help the church meet its budget, said the Rev. Jim Gullickson, with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans matching some of the money raised.

At the dinner, members of the congregation are outnumbered by visitors, drawn from all over the metro area. "I go to an Episcopal church," said Dawn Sweiven of Burnsville. "They don't do lutefisk. They do wine and cheese." On the subject of sauce, Sweiven doesn't take sides; she tops her lutefisk with butter and cream. "Lutefisk is like Wonder bread," she explained. "It's just the vehicle to get the good stuff to your mouth."

Her friend Lori Olson-Lehman of Blaine gives high marks to Lebanon Lutheran's lutefisk. "The only thing wrong with this one," she said, "is they don't serve rutabagas." In Nerstrand, Minn., where she grew up, the lutefisk church supper at Grace Lutheran was an annual tradition, serving 1,200 to 1,500 dinners each year. "That's how we paid for our Guild Hall," she recalled.

The two friends usually go to three lutefisk dinners a year, but this year they are cutting back to two. Asked why, Olson-Lehman pointed to her hips. Enough said. But for true lutefisk lovers, Lebanon Lutheran is just one stop on the lutefisk circuit, a seasonal pilgrimage that starts in September and runs through March.

One of the most dedicated is Jim Harris of Apple Valley, who just might qualify as the Robert Parker of lutefisk. Like the famous wine connoisseur, Harris is the expert to whom lutefisk lovers turn for guidance. His website, lutfiskloverslife lutfiskloverslifeline.com, is the authoritative guide to lutefisk dinners throughout the Upper Midwest. (Lutfisk, without an e, is the Swedish spelling.)

Like Parker, who evaluates dozens of wines a day, Harris has a prodigious constitution: In 2004, he visited 30 lutefisk suppers, and last year, 24. Like Parker, Harris keeps meticulous notes of his tastings. (Admittedly, Harris doesn't go into as much detail as Parker does about the delicate bouquet and subtle flavor notes.)

But Harris modestly disclaims any comparison to Parker; he's a lutefisk lover, not an expert, he said. "The basic secret is, you have to have it firm and flaky. If you boil it just a little bit too long, it's going to turn into Jell-O. And that's not good lutefisk."

The one big schism among churches is the doctrinal issue of sauce: The Swedish custom is cream sauce, while Norwegians favor melted butter. Harris has noticed a pattern: "The Swedish churches all have butter sauce for the Norwegians, but there are quite a few Norwegian churches that don't have cream sauce for the Swedes."

This is a point on which lutefisk lovers can be quite particular, reported Harris. "I talked to the pastor's wife at Vang Lutheran Church in Dennison, and she said that some people actually bring cream sauce in a Thermos for themselves." Lebanon Lutheran, though founded by Swedish immigrants, takes an ecumenical approach, serving both sauces side by side.

But when you get right down to it, the big attraction of lutefisk dinners isn't the lutefisk or the sauce. "It's way beyond the food," said Harris. "I certainly like the food and as long as the lutefisk isn't horrible, it's an enjoyable time." The real attraction is the fellowship. "You go into a little country church with 300 cars parked in the cornfield and you don't know a soul when you walk in. You come out an hour and a half later and you have met 20 or 25 people, told a lot of jokes, had a lot of conversation, and you really feel good. It's the socializing that is the fun part of it."

Would it be even better without the lutefisk?

"No way!"

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