Sons of Norway in Bremerton cooking up something fishy

Elaine Lovlie stands with a pan of lutefisk ready to be served at last year’s Sons of Norway Lutefisk and Swedish Meatball Dinner. - Courtesy photo
Elaine Lovlie stands with a pan of lutefisk ready to be served at last year’s Sons of Norway Lutefisk and Swedish Meatball Dinner.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

For Svenn Lovlie, a Bremerton resident who came from Norway in 1957, the gelatinous cod known as lutefisk was something he had to eat as a child — not something he wanted to eat.

“When you’re over in Norway, when my mother put something on the table, you ate it,” he said. “There was no second choice.”

Now, in the U.S., the dish is celebrated among Norwegians, and approaching Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s the season to feast on it.

Lovlie will be one of the cooks who will be boiling the traditional dried fish soaked in lye Sunday at the Bremerton Sons of Norway’s 75th annual Lutefisk and Swedish Meatballs Dinner. The fundraiser will run from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Oslo Lodge at 1018 18th Street in Bremerton.

Lutefisk is a popular dish served at Sons of Norway lodges throughout the Puget Sound region during the holiday season. No one knows that better than the lone provider of the Norwegian-style fish on the West Coast, New Day Fisheries in Port Townsend.

New Day Fisheries began producing the fish when it took over a Poulsbo fishery 29 years ago, said owner Scott Kimmel — the product is still known as Poulsbo Lutefisk.

The cod is caught in Alaska and then salted and dried. After being soaked in water to clean off the salt, it is then soaked in lye, a preservative technique used by Norwegians hundreds of years ago before they had access to refrigeration. It is then soaked and rinsed in fresh water for several days and distributed to customers.

Today, New Day Fisheries sells about 30,000 pounds of lutefisk a year to groups like the Sons of Norway throughout Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Idaho. Kimmel said it is the only lutefisk supplier left on the West Coast.

October through December is the only time of the year there’s a demand for the cod, Kimmel said, and so it’s the only period of time it’s produced. In the off-season, some frozen lutefisk is occasionally sold.

The fish used to be more popular, Kimmel said.

“A lot of the old Scandinavian people that liked it and ate it have passed on,” he said. “The younger generation isn’t quite so fond of it.”

Neither is Kimmel.

“I’m not a huge fan,” he said, insisting, “We do make very good lutefisk and a good quality product.”

The Bremerton Sons of Norway has served lutefisk to Scandinavians since 1935.

For Deanna Dowell, Sons of Norway publicity chairwoman, the fish is an acquired taste.

“When I was small, my grandfather used to ask me to take a taste of the lutefisk,” she said of her childhood in North Dakota. “I didn’t like it at all.”

But now, she likes it a lot, she said. She said the lutefisk of her childhood was more gelatinous, but is cooked better in Bremerton.

Lawrence Greaves, who has helped cook the dish for 25 years, said if it tastes bad, it wasn’t cooked right. Greaves orders the lodge’s fish from New Day Fisheries, which sends the cod in long strips that lodge members cut up and boil.

Dowell said she is always surprised to see how many people enjoy the dish, even children who try it for the first time often like it.

"It always amazes me how many children come in - and of those children, how many really like lutefisk," she said.

The Sons of Norway used to serve about 1,000 people at the annual dinner, but since then, attendance has dwindled to about 500 as older generations have passed away.

“It’s the old folks’ meal,” Dowell said.

Ron Jorgenson, who has helped cook the fish for about 10 years, said lutefisk fans travel all over the region from October to December to enjoy the meal at different lodges - everywhere from Poulsbo to Gig Harbor to Tacoma.

“They wait in line to get in there,” he said. “I think it’s the camaraderie of being together.”

In addition to the lutefisk, the lodge will serve Swedish meatballs and lefse, a potato flatbread. The meal will also include traditional Scandinavian cookies, lots of them. Almost 10,000 cookies are baked during a five-week period in August and September by members of the Ladies Club and are often sold out.

But the lutefisk is the main draw, Dowell said.

“It’s really a neat, neat tradition to have,” she said. “You’re proud of eating lutefisk."

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