Lutefisk tradition lives on, but interest might be declining
JANESVILLE Lutefisk might be one of the funniest foods on the planet, but it has its serious side as a cultural symbol for Norwegian-Americans.
The traditional dish is still a must for many at Christmas and other festive occasions. More than 500 Norwegians and guests were expected for the annual Lutefisk dinner Saturday at the Sons of Norway Nordland Lodge in Janesville.
But interest might be flagging.
“Lutefisk dinners are dying,” said Bonnie Forslund, who along with Pat Mahlum is co-chairwoman of the annual lutefisk feast.
The fish starts out as cod in the North Atlantic. It is caught, cut into filets and dried. Then it’s rehydrated and soaked in lye. The lye is rinsed out before cooking, and if you’ve heard anyone complaining about the smell, it’s probably the smell that comes naturally from fish.
All the processing gives the fish a gelatinous texture, which is probably why lots of people can’t stomach it. But the gleam in the eyes of the hundreds of diners on Saturday showed that Lutefisk has undeniable charm.
“It’s one of those things. You either love it or hate it,” said Doug Mahlum, Pat’s husband. Doug was one of a handful of men who prepared the fish Friday and cooked it Saturday.
Whether you love it or not might depend when you were first exposed to it.
“I grew up with it back on the farm,” said Mahlum. The farm was in Rock County’s Luther Valley, a Norwegian stronghold.
Norwegians who settled in the Midwest at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century can still be found in large numbers in a broad swath from northern Illinois through Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Millions claim Norwegian descent today, but will traditions like a lutefisk supper continue further into the 21st century?
Forslund and Mahlum, two white-haired ladies, spend the year planning the meal. They’ve been doing it for 15 years. This year they ordered 350 pounds of lutefisk and with an army of dedicated helpers prepared 5,000 meatballs and 75 dozen Norwegian cookies, among other delights.
Women do a lot of the work, but the fish is the men’s domain.
And because it’s a guy’s club, the lutefisk jokes can be off-color. Here’s one that can be told in a family newspaper:
“One guy told me he tried to feed it to his cat, and the cat took one whiff of it, and they couldn’t find it for three hours,” Doug Mahlum said.
There’s a Lutefisk Hall of Fame online, where in which features plenty of humor, including a lutefisk-tossing contest in Minnesota.
Farmer Orlando Kjernes of rural Edgerton, 87, grew up speaking Norwegian and eating lutefisk.
“It’s got to be cooked right,” he said.
It can turn to a jelly if overcooked.
“It’s got to be flaky,” Kjernes added.
“You gotta put a lot of butter and salt on it,” Kjernes advised a first-timer.
“It’ll keep you living longer, like me,” Kjernes said with a twinkle in his eye, so it wasn’t certain whether he was joking.
“I think lutefisk shows you how hard up the Norwegians were when they came here,” said one of the lutefisk chefs, Sam Niehans, who like several of the meal preparers is Norwegian by marriage.
White hair is the norm for the meal, although there is an occasional younger person. Norwegian is spoken here and there, mostly for greetings before the conversation returns to English.
The wait staff is Norwegian, teen-aged and younger. They work for tips and absorb the culture.
Thirteen-year-old Brandon Teadt of Algonquin, Ill., said he could see himself running the dinner 30 years from now.
“I don’t know if I could, but I would want to,” Brandon said.
Brandon’s sister, Alissa, 16, likes lutefisk, while fellow server Aly Niehans, 14, Oshkosh, does not.
“It’s like slimy and gross,” Aly said.
“I’ve learned to love it. I think it’s something you have to have a couple times and have it forced down your throat,” Alissa said.
Diners on Saturday could be seen going back for seconds and thirds.
“One guy last year got six (helpings),” Aly said. “We had to tell him to stop.”
Pat Mahlum said the ladies don’t make lefse, the traditional flatbread, anymore. Most lodge members are 75 and older, and they’re not up to it. So the lefse is purchased.
“But we do have some younger people, our nephews and nieces just love this kind of stuff, but they’re so busy with their children,” Pat said wistfully.
Still there’s hope. Mahlum even has a 12-year-old niece who has been making the pastry known as krumkake since she was 6.
Pat wonders every year, after a 12-hour day at the Saturday lutefisk dinner, how long she and Forslund will be able to go on.
“We always say, this is it—this is the last time,” Pat said. “Then Sunday I call her and say, ‘OK, I’m ready.’”
And the planning begins.
More Norwegian treats
The women of the Sons of Norway hold an annual sale of traditional pastries. If the pastries consumed on Saturday are any indication, these goodies are works of art for the eye and the tongue. The sale is set for 8 a.m.-noon Dec. 8 at the lodge, 418 W. Milwaukee St., Janesville.