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Norwegians know how to party - Bremerton Sons of Norway serves lutefisk for the multitudes
I was told to beware the stuff. Stay away, no good could ever come of it.
But on Sunday I confronted the menace that loomed in Bremerton. It was an imposing sight, hundreds of pounds large, piled in great heaps: It was the wiggly, gelatinous, soaked-in-lye Norwegian lutefisk.
Naysayers have warned me against the fish, but this stuff is celebrated by Norwegians during the holiday season. And at the Sons of Norway Oslo Lodge, hundreds of lutefisk fanatics – Norwegian or not – traveled from as far as Salem, Ore. and Sumner to pile up on the holiday dish at the 75th annual Lutefisk and Swedish Meatballs Dinner.
Any hesitation I might have felt was assuaged by the great pride lodge members take in their fish - in fact, they say Bremerton makes the best lutefisk around.
“We have the best kind,” said Deanna Dowell, the lodge’s publicity chairwoman, adding that at other lodges, the fish is too “gelly.”
These people aren’t afraid to take jabs at Poulsbo, either – oh yes, they go there. Lawrence Greaves, of Finnish descent, who has been cooking lutefisk for Bremerton for 25 years, said he’s the one who showed the Poulsbo lodge how it’s done – it’s their dirty little secret that “Little Norway” needed advice from a Silverdale Finn on how to make a mean lutefisk.
During the dinner, several lodge members sliced away at piles of cloudy-looking fish. The cod, caught in Alaska, came to Bremerton in large bins that morning from New Day Fisheries in Port Townsend, the West Coast’s only lutefisk distributor. Before the fish is sent to customers, it is dried, soaked in lye and rinsed for days. The lodge members trim and chop the fish into chunks and weigh seven pounds of fish, cinched in nylon bags. Each bag was closed off by a thin rope with slices of birch limbs at the end, per Norwegian tradition.
Why the birch on each string?
“You gotta remember, this is the Sons of Norway and that’s the way we’ve always done it,” Greaves said.
This was a popular refrain. Why soak the fish in lye when we have modern refrigeration technology, rendering old-fashioned preservation techniques obsolete? Why is lutefisk a particularly popular holiday dish? No one knows, I’m told by lodge members. That’s just the way it’s done.
After the fish is bagged, it’s submerged in salted boiling water, taste-tested by Svenn Lovlie, the 40-year lutefisk veteran who dips his gloved finger into the water and licks it before placing the fish in the kettles. Seven minutes later, the fish is steamed until servers are ready to bring another filled tray out to the dining room.
“It is wonderful. It is first class lutefisk,” said Ted Fosberg, who grew up in Silverdale, as he ate his dinner.
Currently a Seattle resident, Fosberg said no distance is too far to travel in the pursuit of good lutefisk.
“We’d go to the moon,” he said.
Cindus Al-Mansour, of Orting, indoctrinated a new generation on Sunday, feeding her 8-month-old son, Trenton, bites of lutefisk, as well as Swedish meatballs and the potato flatbread, lefse. He seemed to tolerate the lutefisk, but “he really liked those meatballs,” Al-Mansour said.
She came with her mother, Judy Al-Mansour, and her grandmother, Charlotte Baker, of Sumner, who is Norwegian.
“She starves herself for two days straight so she can eat all the lutefisk and lefse she can,” Cindus Al-Mansour said of her grandmother.
The family travels the long distance to Bremerton because it’s the most authentic lutefisk dinner they’ve found.
“This one is actually the closest to what we’re used to,” Judy Al-Mansour said.
By this time, I was ready to see what the fuss was about. But first, lodge members insisted I take a swig of Linie Aquavit, a Norwegian liquor shipped to Australia and back in oak caskets to age, which, according to those who poured my shot, has a magical ability to help me see colors more vividly, and even fly, among other miracles.
A circle of the volunteers raised their shot glasses in a toast and we knocked back the magical potion – there were no unicorns prancing by, but I was ready to try this lutefisk.
In the serving line, I asked the man next to me, James Mitchell of Hoodsport, about the legit way to eat this stuff – I had the option of covering it with melted butter, a white cream sauce, or both.
“Butter is better,” Mitchell said, who by then was helping himself to seconds. “See all this on my shirt? Butter.”
Mitchell, who sat a few chairs away from me at the table, was a kind coach, prepping me for my first taste.
“You might need an acquired taste for it,” he said, adding that his two children, older than me, don’t like it. “If it so happens you don’t care for it, that’s OK.”
I stabbed a piece of the Jell-O-like fish with my fork. It was translucent and slick, dripping with butter. In my mouth, it had a globby, gelatinous texture. It tasted like fish and butter, that’s for sure – and that’s good. But if this fish isn’t “gelly,” as Dowell says, I’m afraid to know what is.
I washed down bites of the fish with water, potatoes, and Swedish meatballs (or “Norwegian meatballs,” as the server called them) – but I finished the whole thing. Maybe lutefisk wouldn’t be the first thing I’d go for at this dinner, which also served carrots and rice pudding with the meal, but I conquered that sucker.
“I’m still amazed that you ate everything on your plate!” LaVonne Greaves, Lawrence Greaves’ wife, said repeatedly.
“I’m a starving reporter – this is it for me,” I explained, a bit embarrassed.
With a full and happy stomach, topped off with coffee, I thanked the hospitable hosts and said one last goodbye to the folks in the kitchen. But they wouldn’t let me get off so easily. I had to take one more shot of the aquavit, Lawrence Greaves insisted.
“If you only have one wing, you fly around in circles,” he said, persuading me that a second shot would allow me to really take flight.
“Yeah, I guess you don’t get anywhere that way,” I conceded.
With a Norwegian toast and hearty laughs, I was given a proper send-off.
One thing I didn’t expect to learn that day: Norwegians know how to party.