Pastor John Klawiter sat down last month to pen an obituary to be published in the community newspaper. This was no announcement of a church member’s death, but rather a creative way to spread the word that a beloved tradition at Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake had reached its quiet end.
The first sentence delivered the news: The church’s Scandinavian Dinner — an annual meal featuring lutefisk flanked by helpings of Swedish meatballs, potatoes, cranberries and lefse — “has peacefully died at the age of 70.”
Klawiter, a self-identified “lutefisk convert,” wanted the write-up to read as a tribute to the seven decades the church has served hundreds of pounds of the pungent and gelatinous Nordic dish on the first Tuesday of December.
“There was a lot of pride that this made it to 70 years,” Klawiter said, adding that the decision came with a sense of sadness that was tinged with relief for the 190 or so volunteers the dinner required.
For the past few years, the fall planning meetings preceding the dinner began with a head count, said Sandy Zarembinski, who served as the event’s coordinator for the last decade. As the tradition grew older, so too did its core group of volunteers.
That left the planning group to discuss how to fill gaps left by volunteers who had died or grown too frail to spend a day rolling meatballs or wiping tables.
This past fall, the group also wondered how the event could draw more young families from the congregation and the Forest Lake community. Most of the 500 or so people who went to Faith Lutheran and waited their turn for the $20 meal were not members of the church or even Forest Lake residents.
The group wondered if a turkey dinner would be a better option. But a menu change wouldn’t relieve the burden on the volunteers, they decided.
Though there’s no immediate replacement for the event affectionately dubbed “Holy Tuesday,” Klawiter was quick to clarify that the focus now will be on creating a new tradition.
And area lutefisk lovers still have options nearby: Scandinavian dinners at Elim Lutheran in Scandia and Christ Lutheran in Marine on St. Croix are listed as the “survivors” in Klawiter’s obituary.
For many at Faith Lutheran, Zarembinksi said, there’s a desire to start a new tradition that offers the kind of multigenerational and cultural experience that the Scandinavian dinner did.
“Whether you ate a tiny bit of lutefisk and just put it to your lips, or you loved it or you even just smelled it and it brought back memories, it was a chance to share those family traditions,” Zarembinski said.
On this year’s first Tuesday in December, Zarembinski said she’ll rummage through her memories of Holy Tuesday. She’ll think about how, seven or eight years ago, her parents traveled from Montana for the dinner. Shortly after arriving, her father, Edward “Walleye Wayne” Knudson, suffered a heart attack.
“He was mortified that he was going to miss the lutefisk dinner,” she said. So nurses rigged him with a defibrillator vest and sent Walleye Wayne to go to dinner.
Though health issues limited him to just a few of the lutefisk dinners in following years, Walleye Wayne always bought up the leftovers — which one year amounted to more than 60 pounds of food.
“Even that didn’t last him through the year and he was quite disappointed,” Zarembinski said. But when her father died in March, he still had lutefisk in the freezer.
“There’s a lot that will be missed about Holy Tuesday,” she said. “It was really a fun, tradition-filled event. It was almost spiritual.”