How I stopped worrying and learned to love St. Olaf's lutefisk

This is it. After hearing how gross it is for the past seven years, I'm about to try lutefisk.

I'm at St. Olaf College's grand meal, the one it serves in Stav Dining Hall for its annual Christmas Festival. The place is packed and noisy, as is Buntrock Commons, the building in which it's located.

Parents, alumni and students are bustling around on floors, which are decked out for the festival. Little food and trinket sellers have put up tables. Buses are waiting outside to take folks to the big performance at Skoglund.

And those piles of backpacks outside the Stav? Out of control.

I hear one woman tell her friends as she goes past the cashier:

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"This is great. I'm so pumped."

I join the traffic jam in the cafeteria and line up to get my vittles. When the student in front of me has his turn he tells the woman behind the counter:

"I'll have one of everything -- except the lutefisk."

No one seems to be ordering it. I ask the woman whether many students eat it. Nah, she says, shaking her head.

But I will. Soon I'm ready with my meatballs, potatoes, ham, stuffed pork loin, beats, lefsa (still don't know what that's good for) and the infamous lutefisk -- with some white sauce that I'm hoping will make it go down more easily.

I also gaze in admiration at the dessert case -- more than half a dozen cakes and pies.

I take some cherry pie and a caramel-looking cake I don't recognize, but which looks scrumptious. I comment to a parent that the food looks amazing. She assures me:

"My daughter comes home, and my cooking can't keep up."

Still, I need some moral support. So I stroll along the tables looking for someone who's eating lutefisk, someone to sit next to. No luck. Can't find one portion in the whole place.

I have to go upstairs to finally find a table that's having it: The Nelsons and the Strutzels.

Maggie Strutzel encourages me, saying it's pretty good -- just a food that needs salt and pepper: "It's peasant food."


But freshman Margaret Schweiger, who's also at the table, tells me:

"I'm not going to eat anything that's soaked in stuff that people use to conk their hair."

Freshman Chris Wellems, who's also there, is more scientific:

"It tastes like fish jello."

That's reassuring.

But I bite in.

And it's ...

Not too shabby.

Wellems is right. Lutefisk -- at least this lutefisk -- is pretty mild, almost bland. It's a bit firmer than jello, but Wellems is pretty close. I'd say it's between jello and sashimi.

This small group of lutefisk veterans swells again when freshman Cameron Amirfathi arrives with a serving on his plate. We all talk for an hour about travel, languages, St. Olaf's musical heritage, Persia, Arkansas. These are some bright and well-rounded kids.

I now look at the other diners with disdain. I've joined an elite group here at Olaf. Sure, I may not be part of the Ole community, but I've found a little bit of the fellowship that I've been hearing about all day.

It's the fellowship that comes with having broken bread with Oles, eaten lutefisk ... and liked it.