The popularity of the iconic holiday fish is in decline. Its most loyal diners are aging and they're eating less fish at fewer dinners.
Updated: December 7, 2012 - 11:11 PM
The truth is, Beth Giefer's mom sort of tricked her. They're having a Norwegian Christmas celebration, she said. You want to go?
Pat Boyd, Giefer's mom, confessed that she never actually mentioned the lutefisk, but it was a Norwegian Christmas celebration.
In any case, Giefer appeared to be the youngest person at the first seating of a recent lutefisk dinner at Mindekirken, the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church in Minneapolis. She's 47.
From the heads of silver, gray and white bobbing over plates of lutefisk, lefse, boiled potatoes and coleslaw, it's clear that popularity of the iconic holiday fish is in decline. Its most loyal diners are aging and they're eating less fish at fewer dinners. Platters sent back to the kitchen to be heaped with fish for a fourth and fifth go-round now maybe get a third serving, if that, said Tom Lanman of Woodbury, a server at Mindekirken.
Back in 1991, the Day Fish Co. in Day, Minn., processed 65 tons of the stuff. Last year, less than half that much.
Olsen Fish Co. in Minneapolis, the world's largest lutefisk producer, will process 500,000 pounds of cod this year -- still a haul, but off from past years, said president Chris Dorff.
"Every year it definitely drops down a little bit," he said, chalking that up to fewer families willing to buy the notoriously odorous fish in stores to cook at home. "Instead of buying 20 pounds, now they're buying 5."
That's good news for fundraising dinners, of course. Because, despite punch lines about it tasting like fishy Jell-O or its use as drain cleaner, lutefisk still annually stars in dozens of Lutheran church dinners.
That's why Boyd, of St. Paul, and Giefer, of Maple Grove, made their way to the Phillips neighborhood. Boyd no longer cooks it and Giefer had eaten it just once since becoming an adult.
Yet Giefer approached her Scandinavian duty with little complaint -- although adding, at the last moment, a dollop of cream sauce (for the Swedes) to the melted butter (for the Norskies) she'd already ladled on the pale slab of lutefisk.
"OK, you're on," her mother said. "One, two, three. ...
A cultural shift
Lutefisk (or for Swedish diners, lutfisk) holds no romance. It is cod, preserved by drying it of every drop of moisture so it could feed the Norse who lived inland, and enable explorers to carry a source of protein.
"That fish is so dry, it's going to spoil before it's ready if it's just in water," Dorff said.
Rehydrating the fish in a bath of water spiked with lye or, in modern times, caustic soda, crucially hastens the process.
Dorff doesn't think the decline in appetite for the gelatinous fish is a knock on heritage, but a reality of changing families: "I think it's more the melting pot thing," he said. "You used to have Norwegians marrying Norwegians." Now, many ethnic traditions find a place on holiday tables.
As chair of the Scandinavian Studies Department at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., Kjerstin Moody teaches about contemporary Scandinavia. "Cultural traditions and practices are dynamic phenomena everywhere," she said. "They are always shifting and changing."
She isn't persuaded that the dinners' probable eventual demise points to a loss of interest in Scandinavian-Americans' connections to Scandinavia.
"An interest in cultural ties or connections isn't being lost, but there is, perhaps, a shift in focus, and cultural traditions and connections are being considered and practiced in new ways," she said. "It's not an either/or, but in many ways a both/and."
Moody noted the annual Twin Cities' Nordic Lights Film Festival, with movies from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Likewise, Scandinavian foods are having their moment in the aurora borealis, with internationally renowned restaurants, TV shows, cookbooks, and media coverage.
"I think Scandinavian-Americans often remember and practice the traditions they learned in their families, and yet they simultaneously want to stay connected with the Scandinavian world today -- communities like ours that are increasingly diverse, urban, mobile and secular."
Lutefisk long has been a seasonal cafe food in Scandinavian countries as well as in small-town Minnesota and Wisconsin. But even as its audience dwindles here, it's turning up in high-end bistros in, of all places, Norway.
"Some of the finer restaurants in Oslo, they're getting $50 a plate," Dorff said. "It's not as glamorous up in the fishing grounds around the Lofoten Islands, but it's kind of a highfalutin thing in the cities."
In Minneapolis, lutefisk may have a champion in chef Paul Berglund, whose Bachelor Farmer specializes in Scandinavian cuisine.
"What really got me going was finding out that ramen noodles, one of my favorite foods, are made with lye or a similar product, which is what makes them yellow," Berglund said. "If I love ramen noodles so much, and they share a similar ingredient, maybe there's something to it."
The experiments have begun. All Berglund knows for sure is that lutefisk won't get on his menu as a novelty item, "only as a legitimate dish."
Until then, lutefisk lovers can turn to www.LutfiskLoversLifeline.com, a national database of lye cod meals tended by Jim "Nordblad" Harris of Apple Valley. He was dining at the Richfield Evangelical Lutheran Church's annual dinner, which doubles as the annual occasion for Pastor Rolf Olson to don a T-shirt that proclaims: "And in the beginning, God created lutefisk. Oops."
Of course, everyone wants to know who makes the best lutefisk, "but I'll never tell," Harris said, partly because it depends on who's at the stove.
"What's good at 1 o'clock might be terrible by 5 o'clock," Harris said. "Shoot, one piece on your plate might be great and the next piece overcooked. Two minutes is all it takes to ruin good lutefisk."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185
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