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Throughout the Upper Midwestern U.S.A., many folks celebrate Christmas with a very unique food: lutefisk. The gelatinous, strong-smelling fish delicacy faded from popularity in its native Scandinavia decades ago. But Scandinavian-American communities have made lutefisk a cherished part of the holidays.
“My sister is absolutely passionate about it and could eat it every day of the Christmas season,” says Bruce Karstadt, president and CEO of Minneapolis’ American Swedish Institute. “Others in the family are not as passionate; I like it. Everyone has a different reaction: some like it, some tolerate it. But it’s still important to continue—I’ve had it every Christmas my entire life!” In addition to his professional role at the Institute, Karstadt has Swedish heritage and grew up in Lindsborg, Kansas (a.k.a. Little Sweden USA).
Whether it’s spelled lutefisk or lutfisk (the former spelling is Norwegian, the latter Swedish), the dish dates back centuries.
“This stems from an ancient way of being able to preserve food,” explains Chris Dorff, president of Minneapolis-based Olsen Fish Company. “In Norway, they could hang fish out and it would naturally dry. Lutefisk is reconstituted [dried fish]—we put it in a series of baths. One of the baths uses a caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), which is used as an ingredient to [help the fish] soak in more water and fluff up to its original state.”
Photo Credit: Olsens Fish Co.
“You take a pound of dried fish, and by the time you’re done soaking, you have eight pounds of ‘fresh’ lutefisk,” says Dorff.
In a typical year, Olsen Fish Company produces 300,000 to 350,000 pounds of lutefisk. While the majority is destined for retail, about a third is sold in bulk to Lutheran churches, Sons of Norway lodges, casinos, and restaurants for annual lutefisk dinners—meals held throughout the Christmas season in communities with Scandinavian-American heritage.
“We’ve always served 500 to 600 people,” says Jeff Johnson, lutefisk chef for Faith Lutheran Church in Spicer, Minnesota. “We start at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and get that many through before 7 o’clock.”
Lutefisk is just one of the foods on the buffet table. Faith Lutheran’s spread also includes meatballs, lefse (a soft Norwegian flatbread), potatoes and gravy, and Scandinavian desserts like ginger cookies, krumkake (waffle cookies), and rosettes (star-shaped, deep-fried cookies).
“In more normal times, there would be dozens and dozens of lutfisk dinners at different churches, lodge halls, and places like the American Swedish Institute,” says Karstadt. “I think it’s a homage to one’s heritage: This is a dish that harkens back to days in the 19th century when Swedes were immigrants to the U.S. due to difficult living and working conditions in that country. [Lutfisk dinners have] become a moment when families can gather and remember their ancestors and past traditions, and attempt to carry it on with the next generation.”
Photo Credit: Jeff Johnson
“Everyone is proud of their own heritage, it doesn’t make a difference where you come from,” says Johnson. “Everyone has their own traditional foods. It’s a way to hang on to history—everyone needs that.”
The coronavirus pandemic has put large gatherings on hold this holiday season, however. While most organizations opted to cancel their lutefisk dinners, some have pivoted to socially distanced drive-thru events.
“Our mission is to be a gathering place for all people,” says Karstadt. “[Due to the pandemic] our gatherings have primarily been virtual. But this is an important tradition people depend on us to sustain. We thought, if we couldn’t offer it as a sit-down dinner, why not try it as a take-out and drive-thru dinner? It’s a means many restaurants have gravitated towards.”
Each of the American Swedish Institute’s to-go meals included baked lutfisk with butter and cream sauce on the side, Swedish meatballs, baby red potatoes, cucumber salad, lefse, rice pudding, and a pepparkakor cookie (a Swedish cookie similar to a gingersnap).
Photo Credit: Jeff Johnson
Despite the non-traditional format, the community response was overwhelming. “People are grateful we’ve managed to continue the tradition,” says Karstadt. “We sold around 240 tickets, and if we could have managed the capacity to do it two, three, four times, we would’ve sold out.”
Johnson similarly didn’t hesitate to adapt Faith Lutheran’s annual lutefisk opener to a drive-thru event. “You need to do things to keep the tradition alive,” he says. “If you don’t do it, who’s going to do it next year? Everyone’s gotta help each other out. If you don’t get people in to start eating lutefisk when they’re eight years old, it’s hard to get them to start eating it when they’re 42.”
In lieu of a buffet dinner, Faith Lutheran sold meal kits with one and half pounds of lutefisk from Olsen’s Fish Company (enough for two generous servings), Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, and lefse. “And the most important thing you’ve got is the secret lutefisk recipe!” says Johnson. “I think some people signed up just for that.”
Patrons picked up their food curbside and prepared it at home. “Everyone that responded back said they really enjoyed it, said they should’ve ordered more,” says Johnson. “We had people who just wanted to order extra fish.”
For those who do want that extra lutefisk, Olsen’s Fish Company lutefisk is available at grocery stores under a variety of brands. Dorff notes that the majority is sold in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota, but he also ships lutefisk to western states with significant Scandinavian-American populations (including Montana and Washington) as well as Canada’s prairie provinces, where many Scandinavians settled in the 19th century. There’s also a demand for lutefisk in Arizona and Florida, where many Midwesterners relocate for retirement.
Although plenty of people are very passionate about lutefisk, Dorff notes that demand is about half of what it was when he started in the business 20 years ago. However, he’s optimistic about the future. “There used to be rapid drop-offs [in demand], now it’s flattened out,” he says. “People embrace tradition, even if it’s not their tradition. [Our society is] more of a melting pot now, but there seems to be enough people who want to enjoy it, to celebrate tradition and family and holidays.”
Dorff’s prediction: “It’ll be around a long time, I’m confident of that.”
The American Swedish Institute is a museum and cultural center with exhibitions exploring culture, migration, the environment, and the arts, informed by enduring links to Sweden. FIKA, the ASI’s cafe, serves lunch, espresso, and pastries, with an emphasis on New Nordic cuisine.
The Midtown Global Market is an internationally-themed indoor public market with food vendors, retail stalls, and cultural events.
Sibley State Park offers opportunities for camping, birdwatching, hiking, canoeing, fishing, and cross country skiing. Hike Mount Tom for a view of the surrounding forest, farmland, prairie knolls, and lakes.
Monson Lake State Park is a popular spot for fishing and birdwatching, and the park also features a campground and picnic area.
Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist focusing on food and travel. Her writing has been published in Hemispheres, Midwest Living, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Wine Enthusiast. She blogs at tangledupinfood.com.