This story is part of Wisconsin Life’s Food Traditions series.
Lutefisk is a Scandinavian delicacy. It’s cod or whitefish that’s been dehydrated and preserved in lye. To prepare it, cooks rehydrate the fish and wash all the lye out.
It’s a polarizing dish; some people grow up loving it, while others despise it. But that doesn’t stop people from packing into the basement of the Christ Lutheran Church in DeForest every year. For months, volunteers plan the dinner and cook everything from scratch, including 1900 pounds of lutefisk.
Church members Dan Paulson and Joan Scholz have been involved with the dinner since about 1975.
“When people were immigrating to this country from Norway, they preserved [the fish] and they put in their suitcases,” said Scholz. “It was a way for immigrants to bring their native food here.”
“At Christmas, my father was 100% Norwegian, my mother 100% German, so I’m just confused,” said Paulson laughing. “But at Christmas we had the lutefisk dinner; my father on my left, my uncle on my right. They passed that dish back and forth between the two of them. Back then, I couldn’t stand the smell. Finally, when they killed all the taste buds in my mouth, then I started loving it.”
Paulson emphasizes it’s an acquired taste, but his sons loved it right off the bat.
In the basement kitchen at Christ Lutheran Church, massive kettles of boiling water steam up the room. Dozens of volunteers buzz around while working their stations: they’re rolling silverware, serving drinks and food, melting butter butter in big Nesco roasting pans, and separating the bones from the fish.
“Yep, when you get to be a bone picker you never get rid of his job,” laughed Janice Tipple of Windsor.
Tipple said she became a member of Christ Lutheran Church because of the lutefisk dinners.
“Really, I did! Yes!” said Tipple. “We’d been coming to this lutefisk dinner long before we became members. It was the best lutefisk dinner. We decided, well, we need to become members of this church.”
“That’s one way to pick a church,” joked someone from across the kitchen.
Today’s menu not only includes lutefisk, but Swedish meatballs with gravy, mashed potatoes, rutabagas, coleslaw, baked goods, pies, lefse, and of course, melted butter. Plenty of it.
The dining room is packed with not only church members, but with people who traveled from across Wisconsin for this meal. Members of the Erlandson/Bunster family are beaming as the crowd around a table, passing dishes back and forth to one another. Many of them traveled from Antigo, Wisconsin for the lutefisk dinner.
“This is a generational type of thing,” said Matt Erlandson of Madison. “Our grandparents, great-grandparents we were raised having lutefisk and lefse for Christmas. The smell one can never forget.”
“[The smell’s] not good,” Wendy Bunster of Antigo quickly chimed in. “It has to do with the lye flavor. Ask him, he travels to all of them practically.”
She laughed while pointing at Dale Erlandson of Antigo.
“Ask me how I found the lutefisk. I said there was a truck went by and we just followed our nose,” says Dale Erlandson. “My nickname is Swede. That might have something to do with the fact that I like lutefisk. And also, because it’s a good fish. They cook the lutefisk just perfect.”
“Our patriarchs here have been eating fish since they could crawl,” added Matt Erlandson. “It wasn’t our favorite as children but it’s really grown on us and now it’s a great tradition.”
(This story originally aired November 29, 2013)
SONG: “Oh! Lutefisk” by Uncle Torvald’s Norwegian Memories