"IF YOU ASK most people what lutefisk is they'll tell you it's cod. But that's not true. When the Scandinavians left the old country, they got on the boat and packed up all their belongings, came across the ocean, got here, got off the boat, but when they unloaded all their stuff, well, they found out they'd forgotten the lutefisk. So they wrote home to the relatives, and said 'send lutefisk.' They didn't have problems sending lutefisk, but they didn't want to pay the freight. So they sent it C.O.D. And when it came through customs--you know, those guys aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer--they read 'C.O.D.' and said 'cod,' and that's the way the story's been ever since."
Tim Furlong is big man with a beard, and he's not about to let the chance for a groaner go by. He claims to be the last maker of "lutefisk lures"--jokey decorative fishing lures for lutefisk zealots. One is topped with a wild-haired purple troll--"that's a trolling lure," he pointed out a couple Saturdays back at the 75th Anniversary of Ingebretsen's Scandinavian Food, Gifts, and Goods. His eyes danced around a room filled with the audience of his dreams, hardy Scandinavians who had come down for the party. Lutefisk was on sale, lutefisk was free in little sample cups, and lutefisk-eating prowess was on full display.
For the uninitiated, lutefisk is "salt cod"--cod gutted, salted, and dried in the sun, rehydrated with lye, and rinsed with water. The process creates a yellow, mucousy glob that's trimmed with cream sauce or butter. It tastes foul, like ancient cold cream--slightly salty, with a chemical tinge and an overpowering odor. But that didn't seem to stop the feeding frenzy: at the celebration, folks threw open the door, hooted "this must be the place!," and yanked their turtlenecks over their noses.
Clearly the only reason anyone ever ate this stuff was for brute survival--during famines or at the tail end of a fruitless winter. But it seems these cultural K-rations have staked out a new and glorious life as a delicacy. "It's a big tradition here," says Furlong, "but native Norwegians won't eat it; nor will any Scandinavians that lived through the World War II era--it's all they had, dried cod. The older people won't touch it. When people ask me my feelings about lutefisk, quite bluntly, I tell them I wish I was a dog--because if I was a dog I could lick my ass to get the taste out of my mouth."
But the women clustering around the free lutefisk table begged to differ. "You either love it or you hate it," one of them said. "We eat it at Christmas every year; it's like a treat. We actually have it over mashed potatoes with a white cream sauce." While they talked, the klatch, all in their 50s with clean purses and sensible windbreakers, spooned the goo down their hatches.
Ingebretsen's has been having such lutefisk revelries since 1921, when the meat market was part of the vibrant Scandinavian community centered around Cedar Avenue. Cedar was known then, derogatorily, as "Snoose Boulevard," and do-gooders regularly traveled the avenue to cluck over the Swedes' heavy drinking. Today, Ingebretsen's stands on the same block as the infamous Pizza Shack, near Do-Me Nails. After a spell of relative calm, east Lake Street is once again a stretch that doesn't have cordial relations with the law: in the final minutes before the lutefisk-eating contest, a cop pulled over three teenage girls, ordered them to them throw their hands up on a wall, and patted them down. A dozen Ingebretsen's patrons, pink-skinned and plump, stepped up closer to the front window to watch, still holding their helpings of lutefisk.
As the frisking continued, the games inside got started. Darkened by the shadow of a giant wooden Viking in front of the herring case, the contestants took their marks--Bob Paulson, a Scandinavian calendarmaker; Roger Moe, of MPR; John Lundberg, whose mother, grinning, and daughter, grimacing, were on the sidelines; Pastor Haug, of Gethsemane Lutheran Church; and our own Tim Furlong--and were handed their steaming tubs of lutefisk.
"We're going to ask you not to call out, or cry out," Judge John Anderson warned. "You'll be judged by how well you hold in your emotions, like a good Scandinavian. If you finish your plate we'll give you more." The four judges took their positions, including Olsen Fish Company President Bill Andresen, who unloads about 500,000 tons of the muck every year. "We will judge you entirely subjectively," announced Anderson, "on how well we think you're holding up under the pressure of lutefisk."
And with that verbal shot of the starting gun, the contestants took to feeding. Suddenly, as promised, Furlong went wild. He unveiled a little baggie of boiled potatoes, buttered lefse, lingonberries, tubs of ice cream, and a blender. As the crowd watched, aghast and laughing, Furlong dumped the ingredients of a traditional lutefisk meal--including the steaming fish itself--into the machine, blended, and decanted the hellish beverage into a wine glass. But while Furlong was supplying the theater, Lundberg and Paulson quietly polished off their portions. The lady behind the counter nuked another round. They polished that off. Together, in seconds flat, they'd eaten two pounds of chow that seemed to have come from a plumbing accident. ("You know what Drano is?" Furlong asked in a quick aside. "You know what the primary chemical in Drano is? It's lye.")