Fear the Fish

Why even Norwegians are divided on the wonders of lutefisk.

There’s a saying that half the Norwegians who immigrated to America came in order to escape the dreaded lutefisk, and the other half came to sing its praises.

For the uninitiated, lutefisk is a dried white fish that is soaked in lye (a caustic solution often used for making soap) and then boiled or baked and served with white sauce or butter. The dish was created before modern refrigeration and has become legendary for its strong odor and gelatinous texture. Today, bumper stickers proclaim “Just say no to lutefisk.” Garrison Keillor wrote that lutefisk looks like “the desiccated cadavers of squirrels run over by trucks.” Some say it will turn your cookware black and the smell will drive you right out of the kitchen.

So who in their right mind would eat this stuff?

More people than you would think. Last November, the Sons of Norway had to turn people away after serving lutefisk to nearly 200 people. This year, that group will make the controversial fish dish again — for the 104th year in a row.

“I haven’t missed a dinner in six years,” says Al Gravos, who sports a Viking pin and a trim white beard. A third generation Norwegian, Gravos remembers eating lutefisk when he was a child.

“My dad used to say if you stick your fork in it and the fork doesn’t turn black, it isn’t any good,” jokes Gravos.

Joanne Medhus, membership secretary for the Lodge, is another lutefisk fan.

“You betcha I like lutefisk,” she says. There’s a hint of sing-song in her voice, even though she’s not Norwegian.

Lodge trustee Gary Larsen oversees the dinner along with his crew. He admits that lutefisk is not for everyone but says the Lodge has ordered about 230 pounds of lutefisk from, Norsk Star, a Whitefish, Mont., fish company, for the dinner.

Norsk Star’s owner, Tristan Thomas, is no stranger to the stuff — he’s a fifth-generation lutefisk maker.

“You hear all these horror stories — all these urban legends about lutefisk turning cookware black and making kitchens stink. I want to change the stigma,” Thomas says.

“Fish that is not flushed properly has a bad smell and a caustic nature. People didn’t take pride in making it,” he adds, blaming the dish’s negative reputation on his competitors’ poor-quality product.

Thomas starts with the best, biggest cod fillets and saturates them in a brine solution for four days. Next, he flushes the fish for five days with clean water from his own personal well. “I take pride in making it,” Thomas says. In fact, he has shipped 5,000 pounds of lutefisk across America since October.

“You get this soft, delicate fish. The process removes the fishy taste. Ours is very user-friendly. It tastes good and doesn’t turn to Jell-o when you cook it. I just have to get it in the mouths of the right people,” says Thomas.

If you are still not convinced that fish soaked in caustic chemicals is your thing, don’t worry — it’s not the only thing on the menu at the Sons of Norway dinner. They’ll also serve traditional meatballs, boiled potatoes, lefse and vegetables. For dessert, there’s cake and rommengrot, a rich pudding made from sour cream.

Like most Scandinavian seafood dishes, lutefisk wouldn’t be complete without a shot of aquavit. “I have mine with a beer chaser,” Larsen says of the throat-burning 80 proof liquor distilled from potatoes. “It goes really well with lutefisk.”

“When you have bad lutefisk, you really have bad lutefisk, let me tell you,” says Larsen with a big, hearty laugh. “If you get good quality, people come back.”

Gravos, Medhus, Larsen and a handful of other volunteers are assembled in the Lodge kitchen to turn out hundreds of lefse — a delicious cross between mashed potatoes and fresh tortillas — to be served with the fish. Laughter and a mouthwatering aroma fill the air as Larsen rolls a ball of potato dough into a thin, pizza-sized round and carefully places it on a 16-inch circular griddle to cook. The timing is crucial: The pancakes need to brown but can’t stay on the griddle long or they become hard. At just the right moment, Larsen loosens his lefse from the griddle with the help of a long wooden paddle. “Ah, perfect,” he says.

“I’m a young guy here,” Larsen points out, noting that 70 percent of the lodge’s members are older than him. He’s 65. He says the annual dinner is their way to keep the heritage alive and pass it on to the younger generations.

At 90 years old, Ellen Dahlen has earned the position of quality control.

“That’s not quite done enough,” she says, rejecting a less-than-perfectly-browned pancake. She helps with the dinner every year but admits, sheepishly, “I don’t really like lutefisk, but lefse is OK.”

For Dahlen, who joined the Lodge in 1969, it’s more about the camaraderie than the cooking.

“My husband was a true Norwegian. After he got sick and passed away, I had this to come to. It’s my home and I love it,” she says. “I’m scared to death I’m going to end up in a nursing home. This keeps me alive.”

The Sons of Norway Lutefisk dinner will be held on February 20th from 12-3PM at the Lodge at 6710 Country Homes Boulevard. Tickets can be purchased for $17.50 by calling 326-9211.

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