Yes Mom, I did.
I’m not really sure why she was surprised.
Just like before, just like it had always been. I looked down at my ticket and read the words, “Norwegian Lutefisk and Meatball Buffet”. Stepping out of the vehicle and moving towards the church door felt very familiar. We walked a little slower than we used to, but nothing had really changed.
For years during the Christmas season, we would jump into a car and drive down to Preston, Minnesota. In the lobby of the Christ Lutheran Church you sat and waited for your number to be called. The smell of meatballs and fish wafted up from the basement, where all the delicious food awaited.
We hung our coats on the same hangars in the same room as decades past. Turning to the mirror to check my hair, I questioned why I was preening at all. With most of the patrons twice to thrice my age, there was little impressing that needed doing. But it had been a long time and I wanted to look good for the lutefisk.
Now, I suppose, if you’re not of Norwegian descent or have few ties to Scandinavian foodstuffs, you might be curious as to what the recurring term is.
Lutefisk is simply: Lye Fish
While others waited patiently in the sanctuary or on lobby benches, we ventured into the Christmas Gift shop. All manners of trinkets and decorations were there. If it wasn’t red, white & blue or covered in trolls it had no place being in this room. Many wore Norwegian shirts or caps, while they poured over a table of tasty desserts. The lefse table limited purchases to two per person. They held on to our purchase for us while we returned to the lobby.
Simply based on the name, lutefisk can be a divisive source of calories. Seeing it doesn’t make it any more enticing either. It is definitely a food that you tend to either love, or shun. However, much of its negative connotations, I believe, come from a lack of understanding. What really is lye?
The crowd started to move. I could see my parent’s eyes darting, their anxiety peaking. People were moving down the stairs without an official announcement. Without asking questions, I lead them to the stairs. Everyone questioned this mysterious migration, but no one wanted to miss the fish. Descending the stairs, a door to the boiler room opened and I caught a glimpse of the row of pots. It was inside these, our lutefisk was boiling.
Turns out lye is used to cure a ton of foods, including olives, mandarin oranges, pretzels, and bagels to name the most Midwest familiar ones. You do want to get the good lyes though because as wikipedia states, “Lower grades of lye which are unsuitable for use in food preparation are commonly used as drain de-cloggers and oven cleaners.”
Approaching the buffet line, I handed my ticket to an old guardian. He seemed tried and true, pointing me towards the men and women with ladles. They revealed the meal ingredients, finally plopping the jiggly whitefish amongst the meatballs, potatoes and sweet carrots. When asked if I’d like any butter I took their recommendation. Two scoops.
The trick I’ve found, is that you do not eat lutefisk alone. I mean that both in the company you keep and when it enters your mouth. Mixing it with butter, potatoes and meatballs are all a part of what makes it good, especially when dining with friends or family. When polling real Norwegians I found we were missing one crucial ingredient. That would be bacon, but I’ll have to bring that up at the next meeting.
With belly full, it was time to head to the table I really came for. The spread of desserts is my draw and I filled a small plate with traditional fare. Rommegrot, fruktstuppe, krumkake, kransekake, rosettes, sandbakelse, oh my! Of course I’m incapable of letting a chocolate chip cookie go uneaten so I had to have one of those as well. Back at the table we really started connecting with others we’d been sitting with.
Christ Lutheran Church has been putting on its lutefisk dinner for years. It turns out, I had been sitting with the woman who along with her husband had brought the dinner back after a hiatus. She recommended I go see where the fish was made and for the love of lutefisk I found the man in charge. He and his wife make sure everything is in order and it has become a family affair as they now include their son and his wife.
“You want me to pull a big piece out?”
The man wielding the fillet knife asked me this as I took pictures of whitefish cut and ready for boiling. I felt like I was boiling, the boiler room was ironically the perfect place for lutefisk preparation. I laughed with the crew and took the full tour before returning to my parents and saying a long Minnesotan goodbye with my new friends.
This year Christ Lutheran boiled up five hundred pounds of lutefisk they received from somewhere in the Twin Cities. They told me that was down from seven hundred in years past. Looking around I could see the crowd was an aging one. Aside from the children serving and a smattering of school age kids with their parents, I was one of the younger ones. I can’t say with any amount of confirmable research, but it seems to be a dying tradition.
With flurry and frenzy around us, we bid goodbye. The next feeding was beginning and our table needed to be cleared. The crew works like a well-oiled machine here and we were holding up the process. Back in the cold, we started our return journey home.
Change comes to all things. Old traditions fall away as new ones begin. We can’t do them all, and newer generations find their own exciting ways in the world. It’s also important to not completely forget the originals.
I challenge you to try this fancy fish dish. It may be too late this year to join in the festivities, but you can look ahead and start to put it on your calendar for next year. And when you do just know I’ll be wishing you the best and…
…I’d love to see if you go back for seconds.