Ode to Lutefisk
Nowadays, Lutefisk is an echo of the old days. For the Scandinavians that settled in this region, it is seen as one of the last links to the old countries. So, as the leaves fall from the trees, and the wind becomes raw, the Lutefisk Dinner becomes a staple of small town life leading up to Christmas. It is often both fundraiser and social event.
In South Dakota, one of the larger dinners is served in the town of Summit. Summit’s claim to fame is that it is located on the highest land in the Eastern half of South Dakota – a range of hills that is too windy and too rolling to be much good for farming. Summit is small by anyone’s standards – only about 250 people call it home, although it swells to several times that size during the Lutefisk Dinner.
We stood in line to get our tickets and were assigned numbers 351-354, and were then instructed to sit until called. We sat, just in time to hear numbers 185-192 being called. These lucky souls eagerly hurried to a table, where they were promptly served. In came the bowls and platters heaped with corn, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, lefse (another Scandinavian treat) and, of course, Lutefisk. The diners tucked in as if it would be their last meal – soon calling for refills, especially on the fish.
Finally, two hours after arriving in Summit, our numbers were finally called. We took our seats and got started. It was probably the best “mass-produced” meal I’ve ever eaten. The ham was smoky and salty, but still moist. The potatoes and gravy obviously had plenty of butter and cream, and the corn was as sweet as though it had been picked the week before (although rumor was that it came from a can.)
But the fish was the star of the show. Summit serves fish the ‘Norwegian’ way, with melted butter, and the tray made its way steadily around the table. Most of our co-diners were taking huge spoonfuls, saving about half their plate for it, and dousing it liberally with the drawn butter. When the tray came to me, I took just enough fish to be polite. The truth is that, despite my heritage and family tradition, I have never liked it. And yet this time, I began to understand the appeal.
Yes, it can be kind of disgusting to look at – translucent and gelatinous almost to the point of slimy – and the smell has been unfavorably compared to wallpaper glue. But when done right, it can be tasty. The truth is that the actual taste itself is very mild. Cod, after all, is not a strongly flavored fish, and the preservation process takes even more out of it. For the first time, I really understood what my grandfather meant when he called it good fish, year after year. It is good because it is an enduring tradition. This meal was a reminder of every other Lutefisk Dinner – from big social gatherings like this to more intimate Christmas gatherings with the family. It is a tradition that always speaks to goods times and celebrations of the things that really matter.
I’ve had Lutefisk several times before and since, but I’ve never had a meal that has helped me understand people more. I don’t know that I will ever like it , but I do know that there is something about sitting down to a tradition that makes for an incomparable experience, and one that I am not ready to let go anytime soon.