Scandinavians’ Strange Holiday Lutefisk Tradition

People in the Old Country won’t touch the stuff, but immigrants to the American Midwest have celebrated it for generations

Lutefisk is both a delicacy and a tradition among Scandinavian-Americans. (Courtesy of Kyle Nabilcy / Flickr)

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“It’s a symbol of solidarity,” says Hasia Diner, a professor of immigration history at New York University. “Foods like lutefisk could have been markers of poverty in the past, but by eating them in the more prosperous present, they serve to remind consumers where they came from and how far they have come.”

Professor Diner notes that it’s common for subsequent American-born generations to find these immigrant foods offensive. “Some individuals may find them disgusting, but they still offer markers of past authenticity,” she says.

So perhaps the nauseating aspects of lutefisk are also part of its appeal to Scandinavian-Americans: Eating dried cod cured in lye feels counterintuitive enough to forge a real connection to the practices of their ancestors.

Volunteers at Lakeview Lutheran cooked up 1,000 pounds of lutefisk for the November 4 dinner. They also rolled and grilled 235 dozen sheets of lefse, a labor-intensive process that began in the church kitchens in September. The lutefisk dinner, now in its 60th year, attracts nearly 1000 people to the table. Proceeds support the church’s outreach and mission work.

“It’s a ton of work to pull this off every year,” says Dean Kirst, pastor of Lakeview Lutheran. “But it helps us remember there was a time when our European ancestors struggled and suffered a lot even if we’re in more prosperous times now.”

It’s not all Scandinavians at the dinners. Pastor Kirst runs to the fridge to get a bottle of soy sauce for a Chinese-American woman who prefers her lutefisk with an Asian flair.

Even in the United States, the future of these dinners is uncertain. As the immigrant generation grows more remote from its roots, lutefisk consumption has declined. Those who love it tend to be those who grew up eating it, which is happening less and less. To tap younger eaters at home and abroad, in 2001 the Norwegian Fish Information Board launched a promotion to brand lutefisk as an aphrodisiac using a slogan that roughly translates as “Lutefisk lovers love more.” Olsen Foods in Minneapolis also markets a lutefisk TV dinner for the busy working family.

Pastor Kirst has seen a decline in attendance at his church’s lutefisk dinner. “People just don’t have the time they used to to devote to pulling off the dinner, and our membership is changing,” he says.

But among the traditional, lutefisk remains a cherished part of the holiday season. Many will travel from church to church throughout the fall and winter to get their fill of lutefisk, history and good Scandinavian cheer.

“It’s the combination of good food—we make good fish here—and tradition,” says Walstead. “I hope it never stops.”

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