Last weekend, on our first cold, snowy night, I attended my first lutefisk dinner. Lutefisk is a Nordic food tradition of preserving cod fish with lye. You know, that stuff used in soap making or added to oven cleaners and drain openers? Yup. That’s the stuff. “This is totally not a metaphor,” I kept saying.
If you google “Lye” you will also find that it brings up articles related to “tissue digestion.” A friend reminded me that lye’s also used to make bagels so I felt a little better. After the fish is treated with lye, the flesh takes on that striking jello-like consistency. After a six-day soak in water, it’s fit for human consumption.
Both of our families have Scandinavian roots. However, neither of us have ever eaten lutefisk. Jake grew up in a Baptist church, while our contemporary Lutheran church did doughnuts upstairs rather than church basement potlucks. This all changed last weekend when we met a small group of friends at Immanuel Lutheran Church to partake in their 67th annual Lutefisk Dinner.
My sister-in-law tried to prep me. Turns out her side of the family goes every year. They even have an after-party. “I skip the lutefisk dinner and meet everyone at the after-party,” she said. “You can smell the lutefisk from the parking lot,” she added, suggesting that we wear clothes that we don’t mind smelling like fish.
Immanuel’s lutefisk dinner is a big deal. I suppose it makes sense that after 67 years, the church can operate the dinner like a well-oiled machine. First, you RSVP for one of three seatings. When you arrive at the lutefisk dinner during your appointed time, you pay for your tickets at the front desk where a staff member assigns you a number. Finally, you head into the sanctuary and perch on a pew until the host calls your ticket’s number.
When we entered the sanctuary, the host wrote 430 on the big board.
“We’re going to be here for a while,” I thought.
But time passed quickly. We chatted and the hosts interspersed announcements and history about the lutefisk dinner. The man who sat in front of us had randomly walked by the church. He noticed the festive crowd and bought an impromptu dinner ticket.
“What’s lutefisk?” he asked us. We tried to explain the tradition of preserving fish with lye and then soaking it for days to be edible again. “What’s lye?” he asked? We tried to make it sound as appetizing as possible. It was hard.
To our surprise, the hosts called out numbers in big batches. Soon enough, it was our turn to follow the man holding up a big sign of a fish on a stick. We filed into the basement where volunteers led us to an open table where we joined a gentleman who has attended the dinner for years.
Dishes of lutefisk, swedish meatballs, boiled potatoes, cranberry sauce, lefse, and peas awaited us. We passed them around family-style along with pats of butter, coffee, sugar (for the lefse and coffee), cream sauce and melted butter.
These days, the lutefisk producer does all of the hard work so that home cooks just have to heat the product. The gentleman at our table described how his wife used to soak the lutefisk herself. “Once she dropped the fish skin on the floor. Even the cat wouldn’t touch it!” he added. We must have passed him the lutefisk platter at least three times.
Out of nowhere, my in-laws, donning their best Scandinavian sweaters, swooped in and showered us with their best lutefisk-eating advice. “The peas are fresh from the can!” one exclaimed. “See you at the after party!” Jake had visited their table earlier and observed that it actually looked like one member of their group ate a few bites of lutefisk while the others made fun of him or her.
Jake and I returned for seconds. We had braced ourselves for something that smelled and tasted so horrifying that it kept my sister-in-law far from the church grounds, spurred legends and lore, and even compelled Andrew Zimmer to describe it as “one of the worst foods in the whole world” on Bizarre Foods. To our surprise we found that we didn’t hate lutefisk. In fact, we kind of even liked it.
Lutefisk’s texture is indeed, strange, but the flavor didn’t strike us as any stronger than baked cod. And the church didn’t smell any stronger than a fish fry might. It’s true what they say about needing to cover the lutefisk with melted butter or cream sauce (I’m partial to the cream sauce). Watch out of the occasional bones. They aren’t hard to find, since the fish is soft like jello. At the end of the meal, volunteers brought over baskets of cookies and little cups of fruit soup while young people offered tubs of pickled herring for sale.
We accepted the sweets and passed on the herring. Enough adventures in preserved fish for one evening. Jake and I have had our fill of lutefisk for the foreseeable future, but we’d totally do it again.