Lutefisk Pilgrims

Pastor Andy Romstad
Cambridge Lutheran Church

One of the great generational divides is Lutefisk. Older generations of Scandinavians treat Lutefisk like it is a spiritual pilgrimage. There is a great void in their spirit if they miss out. Lutefisk generates life. Lutefisk brings joy to their spirits.

So, they pile into their Buicks and Chevy’s and Ford 500s and hit the road. Thirty or 60 minutes or up to two hours they’ll drive for a meal. They’ll tolerate sitting in the back seat. They’ll tolerate you-know-who’s driving and the possibility of hitting a deer on the way home.

Why? They’re part of a movement. It’s for the cause. They’re ‘On the Road’ with Jack Kerouac (released when they were teenagers). This is a quest. This is about meaning and belonging. This is about gathering with your tribe. These are your people. You don’t skip the family reunion. You just go. These are your origins. This is who you are.

Lutefisk suppers are upper-midwestern family reunions of the people like you – a group which is not getting any bigger. This is not simply some meal. This is certainly not a church fundraiser with profits going to worthy causes (like kids and hunger).

This is a Grateful Dead concert. This is Phish Live. So put on your t-shirt. Or, in this case, your Norwegian Sweater (or whatever Swedes and Danes call Norwegian sweaters) and get there early. There’ll be a crowd. There’ll be a party. There’ll be coffee. There’ll be shopping at the boutique.

My Norwegian sweater is handmade. That has more snob appeal than these mass-produced sweaters made by Dale. Real Norwegian hands made it. (I’m hoping it wasn’t in some Scandinavian sweatshop.) The truly devoted will be impressed.

Younger generations find Lutefisk as appealing as Lawrence Welk who, being from North Dakota, surely ate Lutefisk and who uttered with a thick Scandinavia accent the famous words, “Ah one and uh two and a…” That is, if these young people have ever even heard of Lawrence Welk. His PBS reruns are pretty far down the dial from The Real Housewives of Orange County. (And they think lutefisk is sickening?)

If you eat lutefisk, you probably vacation in Branson and serve peas with dinner. Lutefisk is worse than either. This yellowish jello-like soup sits on your plate. You’re not quite sure where it came from, what it once was or what is in it.

Every year people say that the generations of Lutefisk eaters are coming to an end. Yet, attendance at the suppers stays the same. The big fear is not that people won’t eat lutefisk. The big fear is that we’ll run out of lutefisk before all the pilgrims have had their fill.

They fit Seth Godin’s definition of a tribe, “a group connected to one another and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” (Tribes, Seth Godin)

Lutefisk is simply a tool to communicate the deeper truths of shared origins.

These crazy lutefisk pilgrims traveling for fish soaked in lye may be mad but they’re mad in a good way like Jack described in On the Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything … who burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Or, perhaps, “like the fabulous yellow fish sliding across their plate.” They’re mad alright.

So don’t think of lutefisk as some crazed culinary oddity. These are pilgrims, on the road, gathering with their people, sharing ancient ritual. This is about origins and ethos and roots. They are traveling to remember that not only did their ancestors eat the slimy yellow fish, but they did so to survive, long enough to make it to the new world.

If you think words can explain this, you’ll never understand.

Andy Romstad is Sr. Pastor at the Cambridge Lutheran Church. On Nov. 7, they’ll be serving 1000  pounds of Lutefisk. You’re invited.