Lutefisk dinner at Cambridge Lutheran

Pastor Andy Romstad
Cambridge Lutheran Church

My mother is the last Romstad left who cooks lutefisk. Without an ounce of Scandinavian in her, she brings German efficiency to the process—she cooks it in the microwave. It cooks faster. It smells less. It tastes great. There is less residual aroma. Mother was at the Cambridge Lutheran lutefisk dinner a few years back. Someone new to lutefisk asked her what to put on it. She pointed to the variety of sauces, saying, “Norwegians use butter, Swedes use white sauce and cats use sand.”

Another first-time lutefisk eater was standing right in front of a giant bin of lutefisk. “Where is the lutefisk?” she asked. The server pointed to it. She hadn’t recognized it as fish. She thought it was coleslaw or jello or something. Each year, Jim Ryberg, a lutefisk server, encourages the young children to eat it as they come through the serving line. “If you put butter on it, it tastes just like ice cream,” he tells the kids. (What is that bible verse about leading children down a wayward road?)

The Lutheran fight song, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, speaks of “Hordes of devils filling the land.” That will happen soon, Thursday, Nov. 3, as Cambridge Lutheran hosts its 87th Annual Lutefisk Supper. The halls will fill as lutefisk pilgrims journey to Cambridge to feast on the “piece of cod which surpasses all understanding.” Neighbors may wonder if it is Christmas Eve or Easter or something. No, just lutefisk lovers on pilgrimage.  The regional lutefisk tour website is lutfiskloverslifeline.com.

The meal is from 3 to 7 p.m. Leaders buy 1000 pounds of lutefisk—sometimes 1100 pounds for good measure. We “eat local,” getting the lutefisk from the Day Fish Company in the nearby town of Day. They have the best fish I’m told. I’m not sure where they get it but I’m not asking. The less you know, the more enjoyable the experience. Someone gave me a lutefisk mug with this two-step lutefisk recipe: “Step 1: Take one lutefisk; Step 2: Throw it out.”

Lutefisk groupies will show up en masse in Norwegian Sweaters and Swedish Sweaters (which are very different, of course). They wear them in the same way rock and roll groupies wear t-shirts of their favorite bands—like AC/DC or Metallica—with elaborate designs intended to communicate something about the wearer. (True lutefisk devotees will have handmade sweaters, of course, preferably made in the old country.)

Under the sweaters may be lutefisk t-shirts. One retired lutefisk leader wears a t-shirt that asks, “If you don’t tell your children about lutefisk, who will?” The most popular t-shirt is of a Viking ship about to sink. The captain is yelling, “Somebody’s got to sit in back with the lutefisk!”  My t-shirt says, “Lutefisk—Just Say No!”

“Just Say No” tends to be the opinion of people who find the lutefisk feast to be downright odd. But these same folks are spending hundreds on Vikings tickets or painting their faces black and silver for KISS concerts or watching NASCAR races for hours. Pick your poison. Seth Godin explains it like this: “Human beings can’t help it: we need to belong. One of the most powerful of our survival mechanisms is to be part of a tribe, to contribute to (and take from) a group of like-minded people.”

Godin gets it. It’s not about the lutefisk! But, then again, it is. I just got an email: “Your website calendar states that there will be a “Lutefisk Dinner” Nov. 3. I thought you would want to know that the correct Swedish spelling is ‘Lutfisk.’” Someone takes it seriously.

Snobs generally point out that no one in Scandinavia will eat the stuff. But that is not the case. Wine bars in Oslo have begun serving lutefisk as a delicacy. Lutefisk is cool again.

“Love it or loathe it—or love to loathe it,” says the October 2011 Viking. “Lutefisk is back and enjoying a gourmet upswing… landing on swank restaurant plates [in Oslo] at roughly 350 kroner ($64 USD).” So, you can go there and pay $64 or come here and pay a lot less. The choice is simple. It really is “a heck of a deal.”

The great thing about the Lutefisk supper is how it serves as a great unifying force between area Lutherans and the Baptists. It is the only time of year that the Baptists show up at this Lutheran church in droves. I’ve literally seen them converge upon one another and hug. The lutefisk dinner is just a big love fest! And then they take all the earnings and give it away – usually to hunger causes or youth events.

These two groups probably will never agree about infant versus adult baptism, but as far as lutefisk goes, they’re all on the same page (apart from how to spell it). It brings all these Swedish Baptists and Swedish Lutherans together under one roof. It puts them in the same pews. It gives them a common cause—joyfully disdaining the “fish which surpasseth all understanding.” It is a good recipe for community and spiritual unity.

But if you’re still not sure that the Lutefisk Dinner is the opportunity of a lifetime, you may direct your questions to our new Lutefisk Hotline – 763-689-1869. Charlie Johnson is ready and waiting for your call. If you have questions, Charlie has answers. We hope to see you Nov. 3. Bon appétit.

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