Lutefisk: The world's largest chunk of phlegm?

Not-so-stinky Nordic tradition still has foothold in Minnesota

Dorff does what he can to dispel lutefisk rumors. First, the odor. "It doesn't smell bad," he insists. "Boiling shrimp or lobster or crabs is a lot smellier." Boiling a large batch of lutefisk, as church feeds do, sends fishy vapors into the air, he explains, but baking it reduces the smell significantly. Second, lutefisk won't be gooey if it's carefully prepared. "When I cook it, I keep it firm," he says. "It's not just a sloppy mess." (Harris also warned me about the perils of overcooking. "If it jiggles on the plate, it's probably not very good," he remarked.) Third, while Scandinavian-Americans consume more lutefisk than Scandinavians themselves, interest has remained strong in the food's country of origin. A few years ago, Dorff says, Norwegians launched a marketing campaign to get more young people hooked on lutefisk. He hands me a pin with a Norwegian phrase that he says roughly translates to "Lutefisk lovers make better lovers." He's not sure how well the campaign worked.

When I follow Dorff into Olsen's production facility, the first thing I notice is the sour odor of fish mingling with a spicy, vinegary tang. Days later it will reprise in subtle whiffs each time I put on my jacket. That said, if you've ever experienced the plant-wilting, eye-watering stench of a hog farm or turkey barn, Olsen's odor is hardly worth mentioning. Inside the chilly warehouse, a dozen or so workers, mostly Hmong men and women bundled in outerwear, squirt pickling brine into plastic herring tubs, pack lutefisk pieces into plastic bags, and stir the large soaking tubs of plump, white fillets. Compared with processors of, say, steak or chocolate, I'd guess there's very little risk of employee theft.

One of the best places to participate in lutefisk culture is, of course, the American Swedish Institute, and when the day of its annual supper arrives this year, the snow-dusted parking lot is almost full and every handicapped spot is occupied. Lots of white-haired people wearing patterned wool sweaters, plus a few children and young adults, crowd into a basement banquet hall decorated with Scandinavian folk painting. A woman greets the group with a "Välkommen" and a reminder that the gift shop will be open until 6 p.m. At the back of the room, buffet tables nearly sag with a spread of lutefisk, potatoes, peas, meatballs, fruit soup, lefse, and lingonberry jam. A frail old woman stooped over her cane (she looks like she might weigh 80 pounds, even after a soak in a lye-saturated bath) hands her plate to the lutefisk server and asks for an extra piece.

The Landmarc Grill's lutefisk in cream sauce is surprisingly not loathsome
Bill Kelley
The Landmarc Grill's lutefisk in cream sauce is surprisingly not loathsome

I don't see Harris (there are three seating times), but I do run into several people I know. Soon, I'm seated at their table, looking at photos of their grandchildren and being introduced to their friends. Anna-lena Sköld, a Swedish chef, has been preparing the Institute's lutefisk (it's baked) for nearly a decade with the help of her husband, Magnus, and many volunteers. As Magnus brings out a tray of fish, I receive yet another warning about timing its cooking: "If you leave it in too long," he says, "it's like eating glue."

This lutefisk appears translucent, almost crystalline; its flakes sparkle like ice shards. One of my friends holds up a forkful of fish and shakes—it wiggles like a turkey gobbler. My tablemates knock their lutefisk back like it's aquavit. Many have been eating it since childhood, when their parents soaked it at home. But do they actually like it? I ask. Their responses are fittingly Minnesotan. "You get used to it," one says. "It slides down so fast you don't have to taste it," another replies. "Butter helps," the fork-shaker adds. And have they been successful in convincing the next generation to take up the tradition? "My kids call it fish Jell-O," a woman laments.

With the advent of jet travel and modern refrigeration, there's little practical reason for lutefisk to exist. But these suppers are not so much about getting a fish fix than participating in a social tradition. No matter how far families spread around the globe, I think a longing for home persists—to be tethered to somewhere specific, bound by its culture and rituals, no matter how weird they are.

One of the women at my table tells us each to cradle a ginger cookie in our palm and press the center until it breaks: If it splits in three, you'll have a year of good luck, she says. I push mine until it cracks into thirds, like a peace sign, and I breathe a sigh of relief. There's a comforting warmth in our shared lutefisk experience—even if it isn't all pleasant.

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