POULSBO — The First Lutheran Church is celebrating its 100th anniversary lutefisk dinner Oct. 20, but before we get into that, we need to get some things straight.
First, lutefisk is not “lye-soaked cod,” Margene Smaaladen said. Sure, lye is used early in the processing — lye is used to cure many types of food — but by the time your fish is cooked it’s been through a lengthy soaking and washing that removes all of the lye. (To be fair, we wouldn’t say lye-soaked olives or lye-soaked hominy, would we?)
Second, Gordon Stenman said, lutefisk tastes good and is good for you. If by some Internet miracle Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor reads this, he’ll bust a gut laughing for sure. “[A]fter it is soaked and reconstituted and the lye is washed out and it’s cooked, it looks more fish-related, though with lutefisk, the window of success is small,” Keillor wrote. “It can be tasty but the statistics aren’t on your side.”
Phooey, said Stenman. According to MyFitnessPal, a nutritional database, a 1 ounce serving of lutefisk contains 7 calories, 0.1 gram of fat, 0.2 grams of carbs and 1.6 grams of protein. The church’s dinner attracts visitors from as far away as California and Arizona. And it’s a multicultural crowd; Stenman says he’s visited with lutefisk fans of Chinese and Korean ancestry. And a Norwegian man visiting relatives in Silverdale told Stenman that attending the Poulsbo church’s dinner was the best culinary decision he’d ever made. (Take that, wit of Wobegon. Some 1,100 to 1,300 lutefisk dinner guests a year can’t be wrong.)
Third, the lutefisk dinner is culturally significant to Scandinavia’s children in America; it’s an occasion for social interaction with others and it’s a cultural tie that binds. (So cool it on the lutefisk jokes; you wouldn’t make fun of menudo at a Cinco de Mayo celebration, would you?) Lutefisk is a familial food, in which the entire family – or in this case, community – helps prepare. Some 1,050 people-hours went into that dinner you’ll eat on Oct. 20. Here’s the breakdown, according to Smaaladen’s website:
Lefse, 360 hours; meatballs, 250; salad, 100 hours; waiters and waitresses, 100 hours; potato peelers, 90 hours; ticket sellers, 45 hours; dishwashers, 40 hours; miscellaneous other details, 40 hours; clean-up, 30 hours.
The lefse? As you read this, potatoes are being peeled and the lefse dough is being made, mixed, balled and rolled.
All told, volunteers will prepare 2,000 lefse, 2,000 pounds of lutefisk, 650 pounds of potatoes, 325 pounds of meatballs and gravy, 100 pounds of cabbage, and three boxes of apples.
“The lefse-making is a three-day process and we have probably 40-plus volunteers that show up,” Smaaladen said. “Same goes for the meatballs – all hand-rolled and cooked, but that takes place one day before the dinner so the meatballs sit in the cooler overnight and absorb the flavors of the gravy.”
That’s quite a feat.
“We have served as many as 1,500 in one day,” Smaaladen said. “One thing I am pretty proud of [is] that even though we are serving huge numbers of people, the Health Department does a surprise inspection every year and for the last 10 years or so, we have gotten 100 percent.”
Speaking of feats, Smaaladen has chaired the dinner for 20 years; she and Stenman have been involved with the dinner for about 50 years. “We both agreed that we would stay involved until the 100th anniversary, so both of us will let the youngsters take the reins next year, although I’m sure we will both continue to help in smaller ways,” she said.
Margaret Graves, Poulsbo Sons of Norway queen and lodge publicity director, has helped at the Sons of Norway dinner (the next is Jan. 28) for five years. She said she’s confident there are enough younger people to keep the lutefisk dinner tradition going.
“We don’t all like lutefisk, but we come down and help,” she said of the emerging generation. Boys are most involved in preparing the lutefisk; girls gravitate to the krumkakke, lefse and meatballs, skills that she learned from her older sisters.
Graves shies away from lutefisk because she’s not a “fish person”; she doesn’t care for the texture or the “fishiness.” But, she said of lutefisk, “It’s looks like something that might be good for you.”
Of her generation carrying on the lutefisk dinner tradition, she said, “I think there’s enough younger people to carry it on. But we can always use more.”
The lutefisk dinner is also a way for the community to help take care of itself. The dinner is an annual fundraiser for church missions, raising as much as $11,000. This year, the money goes to Martha & Mary.
The 100th annual Lutefisk Dinner Fundraiser is Oct. 20, 11:40 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Lutheran Church Christian Center on 18920 4th Ave. NE, Poulsbo. Tickets are $23 for adults; children younger than 12, $5; children 5 and younger dine for free. The dinner is served family style – all you can eat, beverage and dessert included. After dinner, enjoy coffee and live music by the Clover Blossom Band.
Here’s the menu: Lutefisk served with melted butter or cream sauce, Norwegian meatballs and gravy, potatoes and lefse, dinner salad and fresh sliced tomatoes, krumkakke and sherbet, and coffee, tea and/or milk.
It’s easy to feel the immigrant history here. Norwegians began migrating to Poulsbo in the 1880s, attracted by land and marine resources similar to those in the land of their birth; like many of the volunteers helping to put on this dinner, Stenman’s grandparents arrived in Poulsbo in the 1890s. One of the guests at the dinner will be Valborg “Volly” Grande of Tacoma. Her father, J.T. Norby, was pastor of the church — it was Fjordeford Lutheran then — when the first lutefisk dinner was held in 1913. That dinner, on Feb. 21, was held in the Ladies Aid Hall. The committee-in-charge was composed of women whose surnames you might recognize: Bjermeland, Sonju, Thompson, Torgeson.
The dinner raised $26.80, roughly $628 in today’s dollars. The dinner, dubbed “a resounding success,” prompted the organizers to purchase a new cookstove and make the dinner an annual event.
Grande was born here in 1915, the year of the third dinner.
“It’s the best lutefisk dinner anyplace,” said Grande, who will be attending with her daughter, son-in-law and two friends. “I live in Tacoma and they have them here, and I go to the dinner in Gig Harbor. But they are never like [Poulsbo’s].”
What makes Poulsbo’s better? “They know how to make ‘em. They don’t overcook the lutefisk,” she said.
Grande doesn’t put much stock in lutefisk jokes. She compares the taste to boiled cod with salt and pepper. If you don’t like that, well, there’s always the meatballs, she said.
— Say what?: A couple of sources told me it’s pronounced lute-fisk. Mrs. Grande told me it’s pronounced luda-fisk. A third party said either way would get me in the door at the dinner.
— What is it?: In short, lutefisk is dried cod that is reconstituted by soaking first in a water and lye solution. The lye is removed by soaking in cold water that is changed daily. This process takes about two weeks. Then the lutefisk is ready to be cooked.
— Old family recipe: According to the website, MyLittleNorway.com, lutefisk was first mentioned in literature in 1555, when Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus described how to prepare and eat lutefisk; lutefisk was featured in the first-ever printed Danish cookbook in 1616.
— Lutefisk, love it or leave it: Vogue magazine food critic Jeffrey Steingarten wrote that lutefisk is not a food but “a weapon of mass destruction,” but Archbishop Magnus wrote centuries earlier that the dish was “highly valued, even by kings.”
— Lutefisk’s comeback: According to most statistics, more lutefisk is consumed in Wisconsin than in Norway (though Madison, Minn. — not Madison, Wisc. — claims to be the Lutefisk Capital of the U.S.).
But lutefisk is making a comeback across the Atlantic. According to the Norwegian Seafood Export Council, a 2005 survey found 20 percent of Norwegians ate lutefisk during the Christmas holiday season. And sales of lutefisk to restaurants and catering companies in Norway increased by 72 percent between 2005 and 2008. According to MyLittleNorway.com, “Statistics show that the biggest consumers of lutefisk are middle-aged, medium income, highly educated men – but the women are catching up.”
— The food that made Vikings great: We’ll check our jokes at the church door, but we’ve got to include this one, courtesy of Jeffrey Steingarten: “Lutefisk is the Norwegians’ attempt at conquering the world. When they discovered that Viking raids didn’t give world supremacy, they invented a meal so terrifying, so cruel, that they could scare people to become one’s subordinates.”