We are a tough and scrappy lot, we lutfisk lovers. We wait all year long for the lye soaked debauchery, and when lutfisk season is finally upon us we immerse ourselves and our meal in cream and melted butter. The experienced among us travel with allspice in our pockets and purses, and we gladly share the seasoning with tablemates.
My mother fondly recalls Christmas Eve dinners with my father’s family. The first course included lutfisk, and as soon as plates were clean my aunties would hustle from guest to guest retrieving the silver which was placed in a bath of hot soapy water so it wouldn’t tarnish. Lutfisk dinners at our house died with the relatives, replaced with gravlax and herring and the occasional decadent spoonful of roe. But the ritual calls to me. It isn’t just about the fish, although made properly it can flake like walleye fillet from a clean lake. When we share lutfisk repast we honor those who came before us.
Working the lutfisk dinner at American Swedish Institute every year reminds me of my past in food service. It is exhilarating, exhausting, occasionally terrifying. The guests tell me stories about their first lutfisk meal and how their great grandmother’s house smelled when they arrived for Christmas dinner. I meet folks like Jim “Nordblad” Harris who runs the Lutfisk Locator (a website that provides addresses and dates for area lutfisk dinners). I hear statistics about a lutfisk eating champion (“He can eat seven pounds in under hour!”) and am awed. Little kids nod enthusiastically or scowl and shiver when I ask how they liked their fish. The regulars need someone to listen to their complaints or compliments on how things are different from the way they used to be. It isn’t always easy to face change. Yet regardless of the changes, the soul of the ritual remains unaltered.
Jim “Nordblad” Harris