For the Love of Lutefisk!
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do,
do all to the glory of God. (1st Corinthians 10:31)
Whenever we eat anything, even something as exotic as LUTEFISK, we should do so to the glory of God, because the very act of eating is a proof of God’s Creatorship and care for our physical needs (Acts 14:17)
Norwegian-Americans are famous for treasuring their lutefisk, a strange concoction of codfish, dried hard and then softened by a process that includes being soaked in lye — and then thoroughly water-rinsed and boiled to remove the lye. To appreciate that Nordic cuisine culture idiosyncrasy, consider the following piece of rural church history.
On the morning of August 8, 2003, Holden Lutheran Church burned to the ground, taking a century of history with it. The building had stood for almost 95 years, and the congregation itself dated to 1895, when parishioners began worshipping in each other’s homes with a traveling minister. Norwegian settlers founded the church, located about 9 miles northeast of Isle in central Minnesota. The congregation was small, but it had a rich history—and a reputation of hosting the best lutefisk dinner in the area. …
After the fire, parishioners gathered to remove the debris and fill the huge hole left in the ground. “A local gravel man hauled over 100 truckloads of gravel to the site and didn’t even present us with a bill for the job,” church member Carol Bailey says. “His only request was for two tickets to our next lutefisk dinner!” … [While the rebuilding progressed, another venue was needed, to continue the lutefisk banquet tradition] … Nearby Faith Lutheran Church invited the Holden congregation to use its facilities for the annual lutefisk dinner in October, which attracted 450 people.
[Quoting from COUNTRY (August/September 2007) Magazine, edited by Robin Hoffman, page 43.]
That’s right — LUTEFISK! Codfish, soaked in lye, then repeatedly rinsed in water, then boiled, then served with white sauce and/or butter, along with other banquet foods, in a church fellowship hall. What a wonderful Norwegian Lutheran community tradition!
For a description of how the lutefisk banquet tradition is still maintained in by Norwegian-Texans, see “Bluebirds of Happiness, Plus Enjoying a Lutefisk Banquet”, posted at https://leesbird.com/2015/12/11/bluebirds-of-happiness-plus-enjoying-a-lutefisk-banquet/ — a part of which informs us about the lutefisk cuisine arts.
LUTEFISK SUPPER ‘The Lutefisk Supper is one of the most interesting events in Cranfills Gap [a town in Bosque County, Texas] and is centered round a dried fish imported from Norway. The tradition began many years ago sponsored by the Ladies’ Aid [Society] of the St. Olaf Lutheran Church. After several years of time-consuming preparations, organizing, cooking, and serving, the crowds attending the supper became so large that the ladies of the church felt they could no longer carry on this custom so it was discontinued.
In 1965, Oliver Hanson had an idea for a way to financially help the [Cranfills Gap] school’s athletic programs. To do this, the Lions’ Booster Club of Cranfills Gap High School revived the tradition of serving the Lutefisk Supper.
This group took on the arduous task of preparing the fish. The fish comes from Norway in 100-pound bales [i.e., stacks of dried codfish]. The weight of each dry fish is from one and a half to two pounds and has already been split in half. Volunteers saw each dried fish into chunks [note: nowadays the hard-dried codfish is usually cut by a woodshop’s power jigsaw] about four inches long, and then skin the fish of its dry, parchment-like skin. This is a slow and difficult job. Next, the fish is soaked in a solution of lye [a strongly alkaline solution, usually dominated by potassium hydroxide] and water for 72 hours. At the end of these three days, the [now softened] fish is taken out and rinsed and cleaned of any excess skin or any brown spots. Most of the fins are removed. Next, the fish is soaked in a solution of lime [limewater is an alkaline solution of calcium hydroxide] and water for a period of 72 hours. The fish are taken out at the end of that time and carefully cleaned again. After this cleansing, the fish are then soaked in clear water for 96 hours, changing the water every twelve hours [culminating ten days of various soakings of the no-longer-stiff stockfish!]. By this time the chunks have swelled to four and a half to five times the beginning size and are white. At cooking time, the fish are placed into a cheesecloth bag, put into a pot of salted, boiling water and boiled about five to ten minutes. The boiled fish is served with melted butter, white sauce, and boiled Irish potatoes. Plenty of salt and pepper is a necessity!
Lutefisk serves to bring the [Bosque County] community together as an all out effort probably not seen anywhere else. On the first Saturday of December almost every able-bodied person in the Gap community begins his or her assigned task[s]—some bake turkeys, some peel potatoes, some bake pies [one favorite being a combined cherry-and-apple pie!], others donate coffee, tea, or sugar. The person in charge of organizing the dinner assigned duties and food preparation. Tickets are usually sold in advance, but also at the door [of the Cranfills Gap High School gymnasium]. By 4:00 pm the guests begin to arrive. The [high school] cafetorium will seat about 200 people at one time. The food is served family style and high school girls are the waitresses. The boys wash the dishes. Through the years, each December as many as 900—1,000 guests have eaten a very delicious meal.
If a diner is not so certain about lutefisk…[!] turkey, dressing, green beans, [cranberry sauce, in lieu of lingonberries] and pie complete the menu. The cost of the fish has increased from $500 for a 100# bale to $2000 for an 80# box. An adult ticket in 1965 cost $4.50, but today the ticket is $18. In the fifty years the Booster Club has sponsored this traditional supper, $250,000 has been donated to the school towards various projects and improvements.
Betty Carlson Smith added more interest in this event when she began teaching elementary age kids several Norwegian [folk] dances. These dances are performed in the gym for those waiting for their time to be served. Betty has since retired but the dance tradition [in the gymnasium ‘waiting room’] continues. For a very reasonable price there is good food, great service, friendly hospitality, and fun.”
Quoting from Darla Kinney, Charlene Tergerson, Rita Hanson, & Laverne Smith, CRANFILLS GAP, TEXAS: LOKING BACK AND MOVING FORWARD, November 2015 edition (Cranfills Gap, Texas: Cranfills Gap Chamber of Commerce Historical Committee, 2015), page 56-58 .]
Now that’s an ethnic cuisine tradition worth preserving! ><> JJSJ