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Ode to Lutefisk

The Experimental Gourmand has decided to run away to Italy for a few days. She’s turned the keys to the blog over to her brother-in-law to write about one of his own food history stories.

We are told that one of the best ways to understand a country or people is to eat the food that they eat.  I don’t know if you gain understanding, but it certainly is a way to get beyond the tourist experience.In the small towns and farm country of the upper Midwest, this means a Lutefisk Dinner.  

For those of you who don’t know, Lutefisk is a traditional cod dish from Scandinavia.  Back in the day, cod was used to keep the population fed, and Lutefisk was a method of preserving it.  (The filets are dried, then later reconstituted by soaking it in a lye mixture, and then in plain water to flush the lye – thus Lutefisk = lye fish.)  It was finally cooked by being boiled.

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.

Back in 2002, my wife and I drove out to South Dakota to visit my grandparents, and when we arrived, my grandmother was beside herself with excitement about taking us to this meal.   So, we loaded up in the car at 5pm, hoping to get to Summit about 5:30, and then into the dinner shortly thereafter.  As we approached the town, I could begin to smell the fish.  By the time we parked the car two blocks from the community hall, the smell was almost overpowering.  Then we walked into the building, and it was like walking into a Lutefisk flavored sauna – the temperature and the odor became even more intense.

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.


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