Although the doors don’t open until 11 a.m., the parking lot is already filling up on a Friday morning at Lakeview Lutheran Church in Madison, Wisconsin. Inside, volunteers busily set tables, stir boiling pots and dish out plates of food they’ve been planning and preparing for weeks. Outside, pink-cheeked diners decked in Nordic sweaters head up the steps, eager for their annual taste of lye-soaked cod drenched in melted butter.
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“I like lutefisk! It tastes good to me,” says Nelson Walstead with a laugh. Walstead, a Norwegian-American, is the chief organizer of Lakeview Lutheran’s annual lutefisk dinner. “It makes me feel good to know we are keeping the tradition alive, and that we’re passing this on to the next generation,” he says.
It seems only natural that the descendants of the Vikings, perhaps history’s greatest tough guys, would celebrate a food prepared with a caustic and highly dangerous substance. Lutefisk—codfish (fisk) preserved in lye (lut)—is both a delicacy and a tradition among Scandinavian-Americans, who serve the chemical-soaked, gelatinous fish with a warm and friendly smile. Lutefisk, or lutfisk in Swedish, is a traditional dish in Norway, Sweden, and parts of Finland.
But today, Scandinavians rarely eat lutefisk. Far more lutefisk is consumed in the United States, much of it in church and lodge basements. In fact, the self-proclaimed “lutefisk capital of the world” isn’t in Norway but in Madison, Minnesota, where a fiberglass codfish named “Lou T. Fisk” welcomes visitors to this lye-fish loving town. The lutefisk dinner is an annual fall and winter tradition at scores of Lutheran churches and Nordic fraternal groups throughout the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest or anywhere with a large Scandinavian-American population. Strangely, these children of immigrants celebrate a tradition that connects them to their ancestral home, even as many Scandinavians have moved on.
“These dinners represent important traditions in both families and communities, and for some, they are a valued connection to culture and heritage,” says Carrie Roy, a Scandinavian cultural scholar and creator of the film Where the Sacred Meets the Quivering Profane: Exploring the Public and Private Spheres of Lutefisk “While the food tradition certainly originated in Scandinavia, the immigrant communities—especially their churches and cultural heritage lodges—have played a major role in developing the phenomenon of lutefisk dinners.”
Lutefisk starts as cod, traditionally caught in the cold waters off Norway. It’s then dried to the point that it attains the feel of leather and the firmness of corrugated cardboard. Water alone can’t reconstitute the fish, so it’s soaked in lye. Yes, lye, the industrial chemical used to unclog drains and dispose of murder victims, the one that explodes when it comes in contact with aluminum. Incidentally, it’s the same chemical that gives pretzels that deep, shiny brown, cures fresh olives for eating, and what makes bagels gleam; these foods just don’t advertise this fact like lutefisk does. The fish is then repeatedly rinsed before being shipped off for cooking and eating. But it’s still so close to toxic that the state of Wisconsin specifically exempts lutefisk from classification as a toxic substance in Section 101.58 (2)(j)(f) of its laws regulating workplace safety.
A strong fishy odor wafts through the stairwell at Lakeview Lutheran as diners dig into steaming platters of lutefisk served family style. Melted butter sits in ceramic pitchers for easy pouring, though other dinners feature a mustard or cream sauce. The fish itself is flaky and a slightly translucent white in color. While still firm in places, the fish tends to be slippery and a little squishy, and the whole platter quivers a bit as it makes its way down the table.
The rest of the meal is a fairly standard slate of starchy seasonal fare: mashed potatoes with gravy, creamy coleslaw, cranberries, green beans and a big bowl of mashed rutabagas that are nearly indistinguishable at quick glance from the mashed potatoes. A pile of rolled lefse, the Scandinavian potato flatbread similar in appearance to a flour tortilla, sits in the center of the table beside sticks of butter and bowls of brown sugar, lefse’s usual dressing.
Lutefisk is a polarizing dish, even among those at the dinners.
“I won’t touch the stuff. My wife was the Norwegian one,” says Ed, who has come to Lakeview’s dinner for a decade or more. “I like to come, though. And I really like the lefse!”