The pisces that passes all understanding
Lutefisk as a holiday delight
Tis the season to be jolly … the lutefisk supper season, of course, which in
Minnesota commences in October and concludes in March. Scores of staid
Scandinavian-Americans who are lovers of this luscious delicacy will be
joyously streaming into church basements and other dining rooms to dine on
the “piece of cod that passes all understanding.”
The Twin Cities area shares two distinctions. Not only is it the home of Olsen
Fish Company, billed as the world’s largest producer of lutefisk, but it is host
of what may be the largest concentration of lutefisk suppers in the world.
There is little need to explain this Nordic culinary delight to readers of a
Midwestern Lutheran newspaper. Even non-Scandinavians are aware of
lutefisk (Norwegian – lutefisk; Swedish – lutfisk; Danish – ludefisk) and some
have grown to savor it. Literally “lye-fish,” the dish dates back to days before
refrigeration, when air-dried cod or other whitefish was reconstituted in a
solution of lye and cold water.
Lutefisk was a special holiday treat for some of our immigrant ancestors, and
families often served it at Christmas. Now it is for us “a metaphor of ancestral
solidarity,” as Bill Holm writes, “of eating your way into history.”
Today lutefisk has spawned a veritable industry of humor, including such
musical classics as “O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk” and the “Lutefisk Lament,” as well
as countless Ole and Lena jokes. Also a line of buttons, t-shirts, sweatshirts,
yard signs, and coffee mugs bear slogans like “If Lutefisk is Outlawed, Only
Outlaws Will Have Lutefisk” and “Vikings Were Friendly ’Til They Ran Out of
No, the smell does not make the roses on the wallpaper wither and die. No,
it is not poisonous, and a State of Wisconsin statute specifically exempts
lutefisk when defining toxic substances (101.58).
Yes, lots of people really like lutefisk! Yes, meatballs are served to non-
lutefisk eaters dragged along by family and friends. Yes, we eat more lutefisk
in America than they do in Norway, but a Norwegian friend believes that lye-
fish is becoming more popular there due to all of the fun that Americans
make of it.
Twin City lutefisk lovers have learned that the season is opened and closed by
the Norwegian Glee Club, whose members serve steaming platters of the fish
family style (my favorite way, since one is able to avoid the embarrassment of
standing in line three or four times for additional helpings) at the Lutheran
Church of the Good Shepherd, located on France Avenue in Edina. Diners are
also entertained by the Glee Club with musical selections like “There is
Nothing Like a Cod” (with no apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein). The
early October meal has occurred; another is planned for March 28, 2009.
Some congregations, like Highview Christiania Lutheran Church in rural
Farmington, Minnesota, and Lebanon Lutheran Church in Minneapolis have
already served their meals. Others of all shapes and sizes are yet to come.
(See “The Twin Cities Lutefisk Supper Scene,” right.)
Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, south Minneapolis, called the largest “active”
Lutheran congregation in the world, serves what may be the largest lutefisk
supper in the Twin Cities. Prince of Peace, Burnsville, Minnesota, serves
mashed potatoes mixed with rutabagas, a Swedish specialty called rotmos,
with its meal.
Jim Harris maintains a “Lutfisk Lovers Lifeline” www.lutfiskloverslifeline.com
on the Internet, listing churches and other organizations around the country
that sponsor suppers, and some local restaurants are included.
What might a novice expect at a lutefisk supper? You will learn that it’s a
great social event. My wife and I attended eight suppers last season and
always found friendly people who enjoyed conversation while we dined. Most
have a lutefisk story to share: Did you hear about the grocer in Valley City,
North Dakota, who cured a bad case of eczema on his arms by sinking them
into barrels of lutefisk? Or then there’s the newcomer in Perham, Minnesota,
who wanted to support the supper at a local Lutheran church, and thought
the smell meant that the sewer had backed up. Uff da!
But best of all, you will dine on generous servings of lutefisk, lefse, and all
the trimmings, and it doesn’t get any better than that.
See you there? Ya, sure, you betcha!
The Twin Cities Lutefisk Supper Scene: A Gourmet Guide
Below is a list of some Minnesota lutefisk meals coming up this holiday
season. The list is representative, not exhaustive. (Call the congregation for
November 1 – North Heights Lutheran Church, Arden Hills.
November 7 – Boy Scout Troop 12, Moose Lodge, Maplewood.
November 7 – House of Hope Lutheran Church, New Hope.
November 8 – St. John’s Lutheran Church, Lakeville.
November 9 – Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, St. Louis Park.
November 20 – Elim Lutheran Church, Scandia.
(This meal is sponsored by Gammelgården Museum).
November 22 – St. James Lutheran Church, Crystal.
November 22 – Norwegian Memorial Lutheran (Mindekirken).
December 1 – Zion Lutheran Church, Anoka.
December 4 – River of Life Lutheran Church, north Minneapolis.
December 5 – Mt. Olivet, south Minneapolis.
December 11 – Calvary Lutheran Church, Golden Valley.
December 12 – Prince of Peace, Burnsville.
December 13 – Bethany Covenant Church, Richfield.
January 17, 2009 – First Lutheran Church, Columbia Heights.
March 28, 2009 – Good Shepherd, Minneapolis
What’s the best bet? Let’s just say you should get tickets for the House of
Hope (New Hope) and First Lutheran Church of Columbia Heights dinners as
early as possible!