pronounced loo-tah-fisk, is the stuff of myth and legend in these parts. Stripped to its basics its simply cod, dried to preserve it and then reconstituted later with water and a little bit of lye. For centuries this dried, then re-moistened, fish has been sustenance for people in Scandinavian countries. In Minnesota it has become, for the most part, an Advent food, and church basements around the state draw the faithful to meals.
The legendary aspect of lutefisk is purported to be its smell, taste, and texture. There are songs, jokes, and stories galore about people being driven from buildings by the smell, then assaulted by the taste. Yet, still the people come when its served, hundreds of cars tonight in the parking lot of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
With years of such stories in my head I had a certain amount of trepidation as we came to Mount Olivet’s door. I had never had lutefisk and just a few steps from the door of the church’s basement loomed a crowd of several hundred afficianados, dressed in Scandinavian sweaters, and ready for the action.
The first thing I noticed was the smell, actually the lack of it. Led to believe that fumes of fishiness would reach out and strike me down from a distance I waited for the rush of fetid wind. Nothing. Sure, there was a smell of fish in the breeze but nothing that you couldn’t find in any Long John Silvers.
Walking through the buffet line I looked over the lutefisk sitting in the pan. It looked like, well, fish. I put it on my plate, added some white sauce and butter and went to my seat. So far so good. Maybe the worst was still to come.
I cut the lutefisk with my fork and put the piece in my mouth. Here, I thought, would be where the legend would come true. Here would be the foul taste or jellied consistency that made the dish infamous. Nothing. It tasted like what it was, cod with white sauce and butter. The consistency was a little jelly like but nothing watery, blubbery, or disgusting. Looking about the room I noticed no one was reeling, retching, or running out of the room holding their stomach. Just eating and talking, and, of course wearing really neat sweaters.
The meal finished I pondered a bit. Two answers seem to present themselves. Either I must have come upon the one palatable lutefisk dinner in the whole state of Minnesota or the legend is just that, a legend. I’m leaning towards the whole thing being a legend, an Ole and Lena joke with food as the punch line. Stories beget stories and this one may be a whopper writ large. Or perhaps its a conspiracy, people who love the food protecting it from becoming popular with all the associated burdens of faddishness.
Still I survived my first encounter with lutefisk quite nicely, thank you and while I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it I consider the myth “busted”.
Now if I can just find one of those sweaters…