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Annual Church Feed Raises Question

Why are you consuming this smelly poverty food?

 My wife and I recently attended a clandestine gathering that was limited to just a select few. You couldn’t attend this meeting unless you knew the secret password: lutefisk.

The confab had been promoted on Facebook, so maybe it wasn’t exactly a secret. But those who attended were certainly among the few who enjoy consuming lutefisl – or, as it was in my wife’s case, were able to tolerate being in the same room while their spouses gorged on the gelatinous gunk.

There are a lot of ways to fix fish other than drying it in the sun and soaking it in drain cleaner. Why eat fish that was prepared in such a manner? That was a question I tried to answer when my wife and I attended the annual lutefisk feed at Lake Campbell Lutheran Church.

We strolled into the sanctuary and my olfactory system instantly transported me back to boyhood Christmases at my grandparents. There was the aroma of browning Swedish meatballs (for the lutefisk agnostics) and the starchy steam from boiling potatoes. Overwhelming it all was the pungent perfume of stewing lutefisk.

As my wife and I waited to be seated, I overheard talk of lutefisk suppers that are held at other venues. This information was shared in a conspiratorial tone, as if such gatherings were somewhat illicit.

The seating was family style, which lent itself to convivial conversation. In addition to the lutefisk and meatballs, there were whipped potatoes (you could taste the physical exertion that mashed them) and sheaves of lefsa. Our server, Kathy, brought us dessert cups of sweet soup. When the stewed fruit and savory spices hit my tongue, my mind exploded with primal memories of holiday feasts during my childhood.

I told Kathy that my wife wouldn’t be partaking of the lutefisk. Did that mean I could have twice as much?

“You can have as much lutefisk as you want,” she assured me. Music to my taste buds!

Over the course of the evening, I asked several people why they were consuming this smelly (according to lutefisk infidels) poverty food?

Many of the answers along the lines of, “I don’t know, it’s just that my folks always had it for Christmas.” One guy, who stated that he’s of German descent, said that his Norwegian wife can’t stand the stuff, but he loves it. I shared this news with my German-heritage wife. I wondered if she could yet be converted and was told that the odds of this were approximately the same as a snowball surviving a bonfire.

The most important exercise one can perform at holiday meals is pushing back from the table. After consuming several slabs of lutefisk, an older gentleman seated near me said, “I’d better quit or I won’t be able to drive!”

We can all agree that DUL – Driving Under the influence of Lutefisk – should be avoided. I imagine the breathalyzer test for DUL is pretty straightforward: “Phew!” says the patrolman, “What have you been eating? Step out of the car and walk a straight line! No, face away from me!”

A dozen kitchen volunteers kept things running at a brisk pace. Phyllis Pates, one of the volunteers, invited me into the galley to see how the sausage is made. Or, in this case, the fish.

Phyllis’s husband, Mark, was tending several large pots of boiling water. I asked Mark if there was a secret to perfectly cooked lutefisk.

“Not really,” he replied. “You just put it in boiling water and take it out when it’s tender.”

I asked Phyllis about the financial end of the lutefisk fund-raiser.

“Last year, we made $4,000, which helped us heat the church and keep the lights on,” she replied. “We went through 250 pounds of lutefisk and 72 pounds of butter.”  

But even Phyllis and Mark couldn’t really say why they choose to eat lutefisk. Perhaps the answer is in the old country.

Two of my cousins and their husbands recently visited Norway. They were able to find the small wooden churches where our ancestors had worshipped. Churches that have Gothic steeples and look very similar to Lake Campbell Lutheran.

Phyllis Pates
My cousins learned that our forebears had been crofters, tenant farmers who had been relegated to some of the least-desirable farmland. Hardscrabble parcels where they scratched out a meager existence and ate cheap dried fish that they rehydrated with lye water. They led the sort of lives that might cause one to gaze longingly at the western horizon and think about that place called America.

Maybe there’s no good explanation for liking lutefisk. As Phyllis’ T-shirt said, “Lutefisk: The piece of cod that passes all understanding.”


Jerry Nelson’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at and in bookstores nationwide.

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