Dozens of Minnesota Scandinavians and the people who love them flock to the VFW Club in Litchfield every Thursday from November through January, where a $20 bill will get you a big steaming hunk of the frequently mocked fish dish known as lutefisk. It comes with meatballs, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and the potato flatbread known as lefse — all of which helps to make up for the dubious entree.
"Butter helps it slide down your throat," said Dennis Voss, the husband of a Norwegian-American, revealing his own survival secret for stomaching the gelatinous blob as they dined with friends on lutefisk amid a bustling lunchtime crowd.
America's rising foodie culture has inspired a new generation of chefs and adventurous eaters who have mined ethnic and antiquated food traditions to create gourmet delicacies. Even Scandinavian cuisine, not usually considered the most savory, is sharing the spotlight. It's winning plaudits at restaurants from Minneapolis's nationally recognized Bachelor Farmer to Copenhagen's world-renowned Noma, where globe-trotting diners wait months for reservations.
But lutefisk, a dried white cod reconstituted in caustic chemicals, is one heritage dish that has remained stubbornly unimproved. Yet it lives on in places where people of Scandinavian descent are numerous.
A list of churches, Scandinavian cultural gatherings, restaurants and clubs that serve lutefisk runs to 22 pages on one website dedicated to the dish, showcasing sites in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, the Dakotas, Montana, Washington as well as snowbird outposts like Arizona and Florida.
Every year come the holidays, a loyal legion shows up to partake. While their ancestors needed hardy food that wouldn't spoil, lutefisk fanciers agree the reason to eat it now is less obvious — or entirely lost on most people.
"You have to try it at least three times," says Voss, 79.
Tradition — and even the ridicule lutefisk widely evokes— provide much of the answer.
The heart of lutefisk country is west of Minneapolis, where eastern river valleys flatten into western prairies that were heavily settled by Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Further west from Litchfield, a sign in the tiny town of Madison welcomes visitors to "Lutefisk Capital U.S.A."
The VFW's lutefisk special comes in "Ole" (large) and "Lena" (small) portions. The fish resembles a quivering hunk of white Jell-O, and is served with an equally snow-white cream sauce and a small cup of melted butter, which really does help. The demographic is noticeable: "You got to have white hair to eat it," said Voss.
Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis, a major supplier of lutefisk, said he's read histories that trace the dish to the time of the Vikings. The unusual process of drying and later re-hydrating it was born of necessity in a part of the world where long winters required creativity in food storage and preparation.
"It wasn't about enjoying food, like the Italians," said Dorff, whose company still buys all its dried ling cod for lutefisk from Norway. "It was about sustenance."
The tenacious blandness has provided fodder for everyone from amateur humorists like Jim Nord Harris, the Minneapolis-area retiree who runs the LutfiskLoversLifeline.com web site, to Minnesota's homegrown satirist Garrison Keillor. Harris, whose mother was Swedish, uses that country's spelling; Norwegians add the `e'. Most pronounce it LOOT-uh-fisk.
"Ole and Lars were talking," Harris said, mining his arsenal of lutefisk jokes. "Ole says to Lars, I've got these skunks living under my porch. So Lars says, just throw some lutefisk under there. A week later Lars asks Ole, did you get rid of them skunks? And Ole says I sure did, but now I've got Swedes living under there."
Chefs who have found redeeming qualities in other bland Scandinavian staples have mostly avoided the lutefisk challenge. On the menu at Minneapolis's Fika, a restaurant at the city's American Swedish Institute, you'll find grilled white asparagus in an emulsion of shallot and pine essence, topped with house-made gravlax and syrup made from pine cones and pine buds. At Bachelor Farmer, owned by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton's adult sons and which recently landed a spot on Bon Appetit magazine's 2012 list of the 10 best new restaurants in America, you'll find a modern take on Swedish meatballs and other Scandinavian-inflected delicacies. But no lutefisk.
Paul Berglund, the chef at Bachelor Farmer, never tried lutefisk until recently. He found it "not that gross."
Michael Fitzgerald, the chef at Fika, finally learned to cook the fish in November when the institute threw its annual lutefisk dinner, serving about 400 people. He poached it with white wine and herbs, then baked it for about 20 minutes. "It didn't turn out too bad," he said.
That's in contrast to the traditional preparation: drop it in boiling water for about 8 minutes.
"If you overcook it, even by a minute or two, it's going to take on a kind of unappealing jelly consistency," Dorff said.
Berglund said he wouldn't rule out putting lutefisk on the Bachelor Farmer menu someday. "But only if I could figure out a way to do it that would make it nearly impossible to dislike," he said.
Dorff said his lutefisk sales drop about 5 percent every year, but he has no plans to stop making it. They still sell about half a million pounds a year, he said.
A recent visitor asked Dorff if he really likes lutefisk. There was a very long pause.
"Yeah, I do," Dorff said. "It's just one of those things. I'd prefer a piece of halibut or some crab legs. But I like it. It's got butter on it. Butter is good."