Minnesotans came from miles in every direction, hungry for a taste of home.
They followed their noses to a tiny redbrick shop in rural Isanti County. They prowled the grocery aisles. They lined up outside the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis to collect their colorless feast.
It's lutefisk season. A time for church suppers and family dinners built around whitefish soaked in lye, then dried until it has the tensile strength of a 2-by-4, then soaked again until it jiggles merrily like Santa's belly when you poke it with a fork.
But we're in the middle of a pandemic and it's hitting Minnesotans where it hurts. Right in the lutefisk.
Church socials are canceled, family gatherings are scaled back. Production is a fraction of usual at the two Minnesota firms that make most of this hemisphere's lutefisk.
But where there's a will for lutefisk — or lutfisk, if you trace your roots to Sweden rather than Norway — there's a way.
"I've had lutefisk every Christmas my entire life," said American Swedish Institute CEO and President Bruce Karstadt. "I'm one of the many who enjoy it and appreciate it."
Karstadt grew up in the Swedish-American enclave of Lindsborg, Kan., where lutefisk was the first course at Christmas Eve dinner; served with boiled potatoes and white sauce mixed with a bit of mustard.
First the lutefisk, then it was time to open presents.
Every bite, every year since, is a small connection to those memories, those loved ones, that joy.
So the America Swedish Institute set about preserving a bit of that joy with a drive-through lutefisk dinner in November.
Hundreds of people drove in, sometimes for hours, for a chef-crafted to-go box of baked lutefisk with butter or cream sauces, Swedish meatballs, baby red potatoes, cucumber salad, lefse and with rice pudding with lingonberry sauce and a pepparkakor cookie for dessert. The meal was strictly BYOS — bring your own spices.
Best meal ever, people raved to Karstadt, as they drove through. He watched one extended family, traveling in two cars, pull up next to each other in the parking lot and roll down their windows, sharing a meal together as safely as they could.
"'That was so great,'" one satisfied lutefisk diner wrote to Karstadt afterward. "'That was my Happy Meal for 2020.'"
Most of Minnesota's Happy Meals come from one of the state's two family-owned lutefisk producers. The Olsen Fish Co. in Minneapolis is Big Lutefisk, importing some 300,000 pounds of dried cod from Norway each year and processing it for weeks on end in smelly, caustic baths to meet North America's dwindling, but still devoted, demand.
With no Lutheran lutefisk socials on the calendar, demand was down sharply, to maybe a third of normal. But Olsen stocks grocery stores across the state, and as the holidays approached, company President Chris Dorff experienced a "mad rush" on lutefisk by home cooks.
"Lutefisk and the herring," Olsen said, name-checking the company's other crowd pleaser, pickled herring. "Makes you smarter, live longer, better looking."
For the boutique lutefisk experience, fans drive an hour north of the Twin Cities to the Day Fish Co., founded by the Bolling brothers half a century ago in a former creamery in beautiful Braham, Minn. In a normal year, Day Fish opens its doors in October for the start of lutefisk season, importing, processing and selling 30 tons of the stuff, along with pickled herring, dried fish, cheeses and other Scandihoovian treats before closing down at the end of February.
This was not a normal year. Unsure whether they'd be able to open at all, Day Fish owner Roy Bolling didn't place his usual order — 30 tons of dried whitefish — with his suppliers in Norway. When the doors opened in November, Day Fish was able to process only 10 or 15 tons of lutefisk.
"It cut the lutefisk in half," said Dave Bolling, Roy's nephew. "So that was a little kick in the butt."
"I guess we're a little lucky we got to be open," Bolling added. "We normally stay open through the end of February, because we have church suppers through the end of January, but they're all canceled. So we're probably going to close [for the season] in a week or two."
It was a short, and not very sweet lutefisk season for Day Fish. But they made a lot of lutefisk lovers very happy. And the happy customers tried to return the favor.
"People don't usually leave us tips here," Bolling said. "This year, holy cow, I can't believe the big tips."
One woman, who waited outside for someone to bring her $33 order out to the car, handed over a $100 bill with the instruction to keep the change. "I said, 'Ma'am, this is a $100 bill,' " he said. The satisfied customer waved him off with instructions to keep it.
Maybe lutefisk isn't to everyone's taste. But it makes a lot of people happy, and maybe knowing that is enough to make the rest of us happy for them.
"It's not the holidays without lutefisk," Bolling said. "You gotta have your lutefisk."
Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks