Lutefisk: The world's largest chunk of phlegm?

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

Jim "Nordblad" Harris, creator of the website lutefiskloverslifeline.com, has his own version of Black Friday. When tickets go on sale for the American Swedish Institute's annual lutefisk supper, Harris shows up at 7 a.m. to make sure he gets one before they sell out.

Harris, who is half Swedish on his mother's side (hence the quoted middle name), has compiled a 17-page spreadsheet of some 200 lutefisk suppers, mostly concentrated in the upper Midwest, but some as far away as Florida and Montana. He is what some might call a "professional" lutefisk eater, having attended as many as 30 suppers in a "season," which runs from about October to March and peaks right before Christmas.

No matter how you say it, "lute-fisk," like the Swedes, or "lute-a-fisk," like the Norwegians, the dried whitefish rehydrated with lye—a chemical used in drain cleaners, mind you—is an unlikely inspiration for such passion. Its notorious odor and gelatinous texture have caused it to be described as "the world's largest chunk of phlegm," "the afterbirth of a dog," and "a weapon of mass destruction." How has demand for Scandinavia's much-maligned soul food remained so strong, even as its aging fan base ascends to its fork-wielding Valhalla?

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

While some people cook lutefisk at home (it's available "fresh" or frozen at Cub Foods, Lunds, Byerly's, Ingebretsen's, and other retail grocery shops), most eat it at church or lodge suppers or at old-time restaurants such as Pearson's and Jax. Harris was curious to try the lutefisk served at the Landmarc Grill in the remodeled Normandy Inn, which recently reprised the dish. So on a cold December night, we sat down to a table set with white linens and stemware that felt miles away from the fellowship halls filled with buffet tables and folding chairs typical of lutefisk feeds.

Harris's whitish hair and beard make him look a bit like a trim Santa Claus, and his eyes twinkle as he makes a crack about aquavit being distilled from the fermented mash of 2x4s. He started publishing his list about 10 years ago, when he knew little of lutefisk suppers beyond those served at his home church, Mt. Olivet Lutheran in Minneapolis. "I used to pile it up," Harris says of his trips through the buffet line. "I didn't know where my next lutefisk meal was coming from."

Our plates arrive: a cream sauce-coated fillet served with green peas, pearl onions, roasted potatoes, and a few sheets of lefse. (The Norwegians tend to top their lutefisk with melted butter. The Swedes, who seem to prefer cream sauce, have been known to tote their own in Thermoses.) The meals look as elegant as their surroundings—no off-putting smell, no resemblance to bodily fluids. This will be Harris's ninth plate of lutefisk so far this year.

"Part of it is tradition, but I really do like it," Harris says, as he finishes his fish in a matter of minutes. The lutefisk looks flaky, not gelled, and when I take a bite, I find its texture soft yet toothsome, a bit like a scallop. The flavor is strangely inoffensive: It's not so different from other mild, white fish—just smoother, though maybe that's the cream sauce. I don't know that I'd call it good, but I also can't say it's bad. "Lutefisk can be fantastic or horrible," Harris says, having eaten his share of both. We deem Landmarc's lutefisk a success. Harris's only complaint is that the portion is so small.

Harris says his favorite part of the lutefisk experience is the camaraderie—the chance to mingle, make new friends, and even trade a few Ole and Lena jokes. "You drive up to a little church five miles out of town and you see 300 cars out in the cornfield and you don't know a soul," he says. "But you meet people." Harris says he's talked to many lutefisk lovers who tell him they now attend several more suppers each year than they would have without his list. "I think Olsen Fish Company owes me," he jokes.

He's referring to the world's largest lutefisk processor, which sits just a few miles away on an industrial strip in north Minneapolis. Olsen has been in business for nearly a century, when barrels of lutefisk were transported via horse and buggy. Company president Chris Dorff took over the business from his father a few years ago and says he sells about half a million pounds of lutefisk a year, 90 percent of which is consumed between October and Christmas. Lutefisk is not a growth industry, Dorff admits, but he says demand has stayed relatively steady. Church and lodge feeds are "stronger than ever," he notes. The poundage ordered by each organization may decrease a bit each year, which Dorff attributes to reduced appetites of aging attendees, but it's certainly not dying. "It's a tradition that will be around for a long, long time to come."

Lutefisk originates as cod (or similar fish, such as tusk or haddock) caught off the Norwegian coast. In the old days, fish were hung on outdoor racks to dry in the sun and wind; today that process takes place in more sanitary indoor facilities. The dried product is referred to as stockfish, Dorff says, as he shows me two types. The first, a skinned fillet, looks like a semi-translucent cardboard paddle. Dorff turns it into lutefisk using a two-week soaking process in which the fish rehydrates to eight or nine times its dry weight. Next Dorff holds up a whole dried, headless fish, gray in color and roughly the size of a baseball bat. This type of stockfish is popular with Nigerian immigrants (Norwegian traders introduced it to West Africans decades ago), he says, who often add it to stews. Despite stockfish's worldwide use (the Italians are the top importers), Scandinavians are the only group that rehydrates it with lye, which Dorff says helps open up the pores, allowing the fish to absorb more water.

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.

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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