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The Summit lutefisk supper, held in early November, is one of the state's largest.
The Summit lutefisk supper, held in early November, is one of the state's largest.

A Christmas Ode to Lutefisk

Dec 19, 2018

I heard a story once that the grocer in my hometown ordered a barrel full of lutefisk in preparation for the holiday season. When the truck delivered it, the driver left the barrel sitting outside the back door to the store. Unfortunately, lutefisk delivery day also happened to be garbage day, and when the refuse wagon made its way down the alley behind Main Street just a few hours later, the garbage man tossed the barrel of fish in the back and went on his merry way.

I honestly have no idea if this is true. It seems like just the type of mix-up that could plausibly occur in a small town, but it could also simply be one of the countless jokes that have emerged over the decades with the much-maligned lutefisk as the punch line.

Our Norwegian ancestors delighted in a Christmastime lutefisk meal because it connected them to their homeland. Over the years, however, the funky fish has fallen out of favor, especially, it seems, with South Dakotans of my generation. It could be because cod that’s been soaked in lye doesn’t necessarily conform to today’s prevailing culinary attitudes that tend to favor fresh, organic ingredients that have never seen a whiff of pesticides or herbicides. Still, there are those of us who look past that minor detail and enjoy a piece of lutefisk this time of year. Whether it’s because we truly love it or we simply want to celebrate our cultural heritage and preserve memories remains up in the fishy air.

My grandmother deserves credit for introducing me to lutefisk. Grandma came to America from Norway in 1916. She took a housekeeping job with another Norwegian family, married one of the boys and became the matriarch of a huge family. By the time I came along in 1979, Christmases at the farm were loud and crowded affairs.

The one constant presence at these gatherings was a boiling pot of lutefisk. Grandma initiated all of the grandchildren early in our lives. She fed us a small spoonful of lutefisk as soon as we could consume semi-solid foods, and the portions slowly grew as we aged. The experiment failed with several of my cousins, but, incredibly, I did acquire a taste for it.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my childhood years coincided with a golden age of lutefisk feeds. There are far fewer today, but at least one church in my hometown always had one. Relatives owned two small town cafes, and each one hosted a lutefisk feed. Pulling up in front of the cafe on a frigid December night, its front windows completely steamed over from the lutefisk boiling away in the kitchen, remains a fond memory.

My lutefisk consumption declined precipitously after Grandma died in 2003. The cafes were sold, and lutefisk suppers in general declined. Many dark, lutefisk-less winters passed. Then, in the fall of 2016, I traveled to Summit, home to one of the longest running lutefisk feeds in South Dakota. All the sights, sounds and aromas from my childhood came rushing back. Most importantly, the perfectly cooked, flaky piece of lutefisk that I enjoyed brought me right back to Grandma’s table. And isn’t that where we’d all like to be during the holidays?

Here’s hoping your Christmas season is merry and bright — and that your lutefisk isn’t mistaken for trash.

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