The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis has taken “pivot” to a new level.
Think drive-through lutfisk dinners for hundreds. Who knew this was even possible, much less in demand?
Yes, you can get your baked lutfisk (the Swedish spelling), along with the requisite trimmings of meatballs, lefse, rice pudding and more from the kitchen of the institute’s Fika restaurant, a holiday menu that has varied little in the 40 years it’s been served at ASI.
But this year the “seatings” may be in your car in the parking lot or, for those more fastidious at mealtime, brought home to the kitchen table. Either way, there will be enough expressions of tack (thank you) to fill a museum.
Even during a pandemic, there was no debate about if there would be lutfisk this season at ASI — only a discussion of how.
“It’s a continuity of tradition and gathering,” said Bruce Karstadt, CEO and president of the Swedish institute. “Even virtually we can gather over a common meal. It’s an important gesture to make, and especially now.
“To serve our community with what we do best, we’ve had to adapt and innovate. Lutfisk is that kind of Swedish-American tradition in and of itself. Combine it with a drive-through feature, and it’s quite a funny, unique and playful twist. It’s also safe,” he said.
And likely to be the only one in the world. “I’m thrilled by the Drive-In-Lutfisk-Event,” responded Richard Tellström, a history professor at Stockholm University in an e-mail. “It has definitely not been done here in Scandinavia.”
The love-hate relationship between the Nordic dish and Minnesota diners is palpable, regardless of heritage. Based on dried whitefish (such as cod) pickled in lye, the finished translucent dish quivers in its gelatinous state. It’s among the traditions brought to the U.S. by Scandinavian immigrants some 150 years ago, one that gets far more attention here than in the countries from where it came.
“You won’t find group lutfisk dinners across the Atlantic. It exists only in this country, and it’s a wonderful homage to tradition, family and to memories of grandmother’s kitchen for those who grew up with this,” said Karstadt. “It’s a reminder to us of those past generations who came to this country to build a better life.”
When Fika executive chef Blake Meier settled into his role at ASI four years ago, lutfisk was new to him. Today he purchases 200 pounds of the specialty from Olsen Fish Co., in north Minneapolis, for the holiday meals.
“I had never made this before I came here,” he said. “Now I truly appreciate it. It’s grown on me.”
Once the fish lands in the Fika kitchen, it’s ready for a serious soaking in water — several days’ worth — before it’s edible (though some might say even that term is being generous). Then it’s baked with clarified butter and seasoned with salt and white pepper.
“It’s crazy how much butter I use with this,” said Meier, who serves it with two traditional sauces, a mustard version and a béchamel.
As for that fragrance, well, it does linger in the kitchen for a few days, he noted. “The pastry chef always comments. I have to keep it in a separate cooler.”
Travel to Sweden has broadened Meier’s view of the humble preserved fish.
“What about lutfisk tacos?” he said of one possible menu option for the future. “It would be more presentable to someone who hasn’t had it before or who had a bad experience. Lutfisk gets a bad rap, but it’s actually good when prepared well.”
As for Karstadt, of Swedish heritage, he’s planning to order the meal for himself. “I wouldn’t miss it when it’s served once a year.”
That’s not always the response from Scandinavians themselves. When Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson visited the Twin Cities on a book tour for his “Nordic Cookbook” several years ago, he was asked if lutfisk was popular back home.
“Why would you eat lutfisk when you can eat fresh cod today?”
Where: American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Av. S., Mpls.
Date: Nov. 15 (reservations required by Nov. 8).
Time: 4-6:30 p.m., pickup times scheduled every 30 minutes, starting at 4 p.m. with the last one starting at 6 p.m.
Cost: $40 per person (members); $45 per person (nonmembers).
Lutfisk reservations: asimn.org or call 612-871-4907 during public hours, Thu.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. All reservations for a group must be under one registration for pickup.
Menu: Lutfisk, meatballs, red potatoes, cucumber salad, lefse, butter and cream sauces on the side, rice pudding with lingonberry sauce and pepparkakor cookie.