Nels Thompson doesn’t much care for lutefisk. (Not cooked, anyway. The dried stuff, he said, is actually not that bad.) And he thinks the church lutefisk dinner is “a demented tradition.”
Still, as a fourth-generation Norwegian-American, it’s his tradition.
That’s why the 23-year-old is doing what he can to keep it alive — at least at the south Minneapolis church where he’s been a member of the congregation since baptism.
“There’s nothing else like it!” he said. “I don’t love lutefisk, but I do love the church lutefisk dinner. We can’t let it end.”
Thompson, who graduated from St. Olaf College with a major in Norwegian and spent last year in Bergen, Norway, as a Fulbright scholar, is taking the helm of the annual dinner at Bethlehem Lutheran Church for the first time. (He reluctantly signed up for the volunteer job after no one else did.)
But he’s doing more than just making sure the potatoes are hot, the lefse fresh and fruit soup plentiful at the Nov. 19 dinner: He’s launching a multipronged approach to lure millennials.
Thompson, a diabetes specialist at Children’s Hospital, has introduced a less expensive “youth” ticket that’s affordable for cash-strapped 20-somethings. He’s also using posters and social media to pitch the event as a quirky retro ritual.
“So many places cater to us and try to be cool and hip,” he said “This is the opposite. It’s hokey, but it’s a unique cultural experience — and it’s ours.”
The Rev. Chris Nelson, senior pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran, couldn’t be happier to have Thompson take the lead of the decades-old event. (Though he begs to differ about the taste of the much maligned fish.)
“Nels is the first of his generation to step up and volunteer to be in charge of the dinner,” he said. “We’re thrilled he’s taken it on and is reaching out.”
Losing the legacy
In recent years, interest in church-sponsored lutefisk dinners has been dying as fast as guys named Ole. While dozens of Twin Cities churches still sponsor the holiday season events, the numbers have been dwindling and the diners graying.
“Lutefisk sales are 50 to 60 percent of where they were 20 years ago,” said Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Fish in Minneapolis, the largest lutefisk producer in North America. “Kids don’t grow up with the heritage. We’re pretty far from the roots of the family tree.”
It’s been more than a century since a million Norwegians left their homeland for America. Time has diluted the connections to those early forebears and their traditions. (Thompson never met any immigrant ancestors and is the only person in his family fluent in Norwegian, which he learned in a college classroom, not on the knee of a grandparent from the Old Country.)
“Lutefisk dinners originated at churches because they were cultural centers in the day when Norwegians were immigrants. They got together with other people who wanted to be reminded of where they’d come from,” said Pastor Nelson, whose church was founded by Norwegian immigrants 122 years ago.
For those homesick new Americans, lutefisk was a comfort food, served with a side of longing for the loved ones left behind who were savoring the same Christmas treat. The sentimental context of the translucent fish, however, is increasingly lost on today’s diners.
That’s why Thompson, of Edina, is playing up the quirk factor. And he’s not doing it alone.
He enlisted his old friend Corinne Dickey to be serving captain. The two met in the church nursery and worked side by side at numerous lutefisk dinners while members of the youth group.
“All day, every day, I work with foodies and serve foodies,” said Dickey, 23, who dishes up French food at the chic St. Genevieve eatery in south Minneapolis. “We can go out for dinner every night, but it’s not a lutefisk dinner. This might have appeal because it’s different. Weird can be trendy.”
Typically the crowd at a lutefisk feed is as white as the fish itself, but Dickey said the goal of the outreach for Bethlehem’s dinner is to widen the circle to include non-Scandinavians who’ve heard about the tradition and might want to see it — and smell it — for themselves.
“We’d love to share this with anyone who’d like to join us,” she said. “The Lutheran culture as I know it has a welcoming and loving attitude to everyone.”
That attitude, rather than the fish itself, may prove to be the attraction for millennials, said Hannah Ubl, generational expert at BridgeWorks, a Minneapolis-based consulting group.
“Millennials crave experiences; that matters more to them than things,” she said.
She said she thinks the most critical factor in determining whether the almighty cod will be a hit among the young may be how much church is part of the church dinner.
“Studies show this generation does not identify with organized religion. We say they are religious ‘nones’ because so many aren’t affiliated,” Ubl added. “If there’s a lot of prayer, that could be a turnoff.”
At Bethlehem Lutheran’s supper, the serving is continuous with no organized blessing, although Pastor Nelson hopes that participants seated with friends and family members will give thanks as they are seated at their tables.
Luck and lutefisk
Last year’s lutefisk dinner at Bethlehem Lutheran attracted 430 diners; Thompson’s goal for this year is 500. He ordered 200 pounds of the delicacy from Olsen Fish to be dished up onto plates in the church kitchen, doused with butter or cream sauce.
“We used to figure a pound per person, but portions go about half that now,” said Dorff of Olsen Fish. “These days they throw other things on the menu for people who want to come but can’t stomach lutefisk.”
At the Bethlehem dinner, those “other things” include meatballs with cream sauce, green beans, coleslaw and an array of Norwegian desserts. There also will be a lefse demonstration, pickled herring and plenty of music, including the band Ole and the Ice Scrapers.
Dorff said he’d be closely watching Thompson’s efforts to coax his cohorts to the table.
“I’ve been trying to think of ways to romanticize lutefisk and get it going again,” he admitted. “I wish him luck.”
Thompson is fired up about revitalizing his church’s lutefisk supper, but he’s not counting on luck; he’s counting on millennials.
“I know I can get people my age to come — for the first time, or the first time in a while,” he said. “If we can get ’em in the door, they’ll have a good time.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.