I first heard about Lutefisk when I moved to Minnesota. Lutefisk is a traditional Scandinavian dish made by soaking white fish in lye. A common story of lutefisk’s origins is that fishermen hung their fish to dry on birch racks. Vikings raided and burned the village but then a storm blew in from the North Sea and stopped the fire. The ruined fish soaked in a puddle of rainwater and birch ash for months before hungry villagers picked through the moldering remains, discovered the fish and – of course, who wouldn’t – ate it. Today in the Midwest, people respond powerfully to lutefisk – either willing to drive hours for a lutefisk feed or aggressively against the gelatinous dish.
In the normal course of my life I haven’t wandered into an opportunity to try lutefisk. This year I determined to go out of my way. I read in a tourist magazine that the First Lutheran Church in Pine River, MN had an annual lutefisk event, so after pulling in the dock that sunny October Saturday, we headed north. Pine River is in the Chain of Lakes area, close to the mouth of the Mississippi and the Paul Bunyan Trail.
We drove straight to the church and waited while the three women selling tickets absorbed the attention of the elderly gentleman in front of us for 15 minutes. Upon purchasing our tickets we were directed into the church nave where masses of elderly people waited in pews for their ticket numbers to be called. Every few minutes a volunteer wavered forward with a microphone almost as big as her, to read off ticket numbers. One group consisted of ticket numbers 167 –167. Another time she called off a series of numbers. No one moved, so she said that she knew everyone wanted to sit with Mary, but they were messing up her number scheme. It felt like we were in a different universe.
When our numbers were called, we were shepherded to the famed Lutheran church basement where we were given plates full of lutefisk, smashed rutabaga and Swedish meatballs. We were directed to put butter, salt and pepper on the fish. I tried the lutefisk first. It truly wasn’t bad. It tasted neutral and had a jelly-fish texture sprinkled with small bones. My mistake was trying the other food. Once the other textures were in my mouth, my mouth rebelled against the lutefisk. My advice for others: eat all the lutefisk first. You get used to it and it’s not bad. If you move on to other food, you will not move back to the lutefisk.
Fun fact: Sterling silver should never be used in the cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk as it will permanently ruin silver. It’s quite amazing that a meal that can permanently ruin sterling silver is ingested with great delight by so many.
Upcoming lutefisk events include:
10/26/14 – Luther Seminary, St Paul, MN
11/15/14 – Living Waters Lutheran Church, Sauk Rapids, MN
11/20/14 – Elim Lutheran Church, Scandia, MN
12/6/14 – Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN
For those who don’t want to personally try lutefisk, you can experience second hand through Andrew Zimmer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1-ekVB-DMk