I spent a significant portion of my life, some would say my formative years, as a resident of the Midwest. And in the Midwest, lutefisk is kind of a legend. While many Midwesterners go their entire lives without actually encountering it, lutefisk holds something of a bogeyman status for Midwestern adults: “If you don’t like the meal I’ve fixed for you, dear, tomorrow you can eat lutefisk.” Although the name is derived from the somewhat unappetizing combination of Norwegian words for “lye” and “fish,” most of the reputation of the substance is just the stuff of legend and fear. Lutefisk, properly prepared, is perfectly safe to eat. The Wisconsin legislature has, in fact, made this explicit by including lutefisk as a named non-toxic substance (Wisconsin statues, Chapter 101). And there are those who not only eat lutefisk willingly, but who profess to enjoy it.
Take our neighbors, the congregants of Bethany Lutheran Church, for example. As you drive by the church building just south of Bigfork on Highway 35, the sign flashes in glowing green letters, “Annual Lutefisk Dinner November 9.” It seems not so much an announcement, but a statement of values: “We eat lutefisk, and we’re proud of it.”
I decided I had to find out what this lutefisk thing was all about, so I had coffee with Beverly Ostroot, one of the planners of the annual Lutefisk Dinner. I found Beverly a charming, attractive woman; a testament to the fact that a lifetime of eating lutefisk will have no ill effect. “It’s our 93rd annual lutefisk dinner,” she told me. “The first was to welcome home the men who had been fighting in World War I. And, except for a couple of years, we’ve kept it up ever since.”
So what is lutefisk? “It’s usually made from codfish,” she said. “Dried cod is soaked in a bath of lye to rehydrate it. Then it’s soaked again in water to remove the lye. It’s generally eaten with salt, pepper and lots of butter. The taste is actually quite mild, the butter and seasonings being the dominant flavors.”
So how did it get such a terrifying reputation? “Although the flavor is mild, the smell of it cooking is quite pungent,” she clarifies. “Some people find the smell really unpleasant. So, while we have the dinner in the church basement, we cook the lutefisk outside in a tent.”
Do a lot of people come to the dinner? “We usually have about 700. We serve dinner from 3 to 8 p.m. and folks come from all over, several from as far away as Missoula. It’s really popular around the dinner hour, say 5:30 to 6:30. You might even have to wait half an hour to eat. But you wait in our sanctuary with the rest of the folks and get a chance to talk with your neighbors.”
Does everyone eat the lutefisk? “Not everyone, but we have ham and Swedish meatballs as main dishes, too. And, in addition, we have potatoes, squash, cole slaw, lefse, and Scandinavian cookies. But, usually, several at each table enjoy the lutefisk. Sometimes they even have contests to see who can eat the most.”
Is lutefisk a delicacy in Norway? “Not so much, as I hear. Much of Norway is close to an ocean and it’s easy to get fresh fish, which is preferred. Lutefisk, as I understand it, actually became much more popular when Scandinavian people moved to this country, settling mostly in the Midwest, which is quite distant from the ocean. Without express delivery, it was hard to get fresh ocean fish. The preserved lutefisk was a substitute that at least gave them a taste of home. And they ate it, not every day, but to commemorate special occasions. We follow that tradition, scheduling our dinner close to Veterans Day each year, as our first dinner was to honor veterans.”
The 93rd Annual Lutefisk Dinner will be hosted by Bethany Lutheran Church, 8559 Montana Highway 93, on Saturday, Nov. 9 from 3 to 8 p.m. The cost is $15 for adults and $5 for kids. For more information, see the website at www.bethanybigfork.org. There’s a map on the website to help you find the church. Or you can just follow the scent.
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