(Don't "get" the title of this post? Read this and this.)
Still, faithful Lutherans and proud Norskes belly up to the table and slop it down at church supper after church supper, weekend after weekend each fall. I remember going to towns we otherwise never had the occasion to travel to and finding churches we had never been to otherwise in order to pay, get a number, and then sit in the pews upstairs until enough people had cleared out of the overstuffed basement to allow another batch of people downstairs for their meal. The standard procedure is to be seated on either side of a series of long tables scootched end to end and set with placemats and flatware, pots of coffee and pitchers of water, bowls of melted butter, and platters of lefse pre-buttered and accompanied by sugar bowls. (Never heard of lefse? Read this and this.)
At some suppers the food is served family-style; church workers emerge from the kitchen with serving bowls and platters and pass food around continuously, noting who is just arriving and who is about ready to leave. Other times one might have to go through the serving line at the counter between the kitchen and the dining area, dishing up one's own food. The saving grace of a lutefisk supper is that the "fish" is but one of many items served. A good lutefisk supper also has hearty meatballs and gravy on the menu, which means that children, Norske-by-marriage spouses, and sane Scandinavians have something to eat, too. That's in addition to mashed potatoes, corn, coleslaw, dill pickles, and any number of other side dishes to complete the meal.
It had been years since I had been to a lutefisk supper . . . until tonight. The local Sons of Norway lodge serves a lutefisk supper on the last Sunday of each September (it's a requisite of maintaining their charter, I think), and when I saw that announced recently, something Scandinavian stirred in my blond-haired, blue-eyed soul. I looked at my blond-haired, blue-eyed wife and daughters and announced, "To this supper we must go." And go we did . . . without telling our children anything about it in advance.
The supper began at 4:30 P.M., and we arrived not long after to find the dining area already full. The Elks Lodge was the site of this non-church-related event, and it was filled with diners of all denominations. After paying, we entered the dining room and immediately lowered the median age of those in attendance to a much younger 65 years old. We went to the serving line and dished up raw vegetables, black olives, coleslaw, cooked peas and carrots, boiled potatoes in melted herb butter, meatballs in gravy, lefse, and . . . lu-te-fisk! When the girls saw the opaque Jell-O-like blocks (with a see-through quality to them somewhere between that of a jellyfish and an X-ray) wobbling in their metal tray, they asked what it was. I lied, "It's just fish" and scooped some onto their plates. The unsuspecting girlies just continued on their way, and we found ourselves a table amidst the sea of bluehairs.The lutefisk was every bit as delicious as I remembered, and I wisely alternated bites of it with samples of the other food on my plate. In no time the lutefisk was in my stomach, and what remained on my plate was the majority of every other food item to enjoy. Whew. The girls? They were not so lucky. Abigail and Suzanna, in particular, started with the non-lutefisk food and, enjoying it, continued to eat it, leaving them with mostly lutefisk and little of anything else left on the plate before I noticed what they were doing. "No!!" I screamed, but it was too late. They were faced with room-temperature-and-cooling lutefisk blocks sitting in hardening butter and no meatballs to wash it down.
Still, there is no sympathy to be shown when it comes to lutefisk. I told them to take a bite, and they tried, but it was a struggle even to coax the fish gelatin onto a fork or spoon. That was their first clue. Suspiciously, they looked at me over the tops of their glasses and said a hesitant "Da-a-a-ad?" I held firm and urged them onward. Each girl got some lutefisk into her mouth, and then the entertainment began (well, for Susan and me--not for them). There was the initial chewing followed by the suspended animation of the jaw muscles while the tongue tentatively poked at the cod pudding coating it. Then the taste buds were activated and, in concert with the nerve endings that register a food's texture, they sent a message to the brain to eliminate this potentially poisonous substance immediately.
Knowing better than to spit out "perfectly good food" in my presence, however, the girls instead froze and let their facial expressions do the talking. "Grimace" is an appropriate word for what I saw. They looked at me with eyes that seemed to say, "Dad, you cannot possibly understand what is happening inside my mouth right now. I don't mean to be rude, but something has gone horribly wrong in the preparation of this food. This is unlike any fish I have ever eaten--and I love fish. How do I get rid of this crap without making a scene?"
I hardened my heart and shot them a look that definitely said, "Look, for 15 or so years, I regularly forced that crap into my gullet in the name of honoring my heritage, and, by God, so can you!" Just to be clear that they understood the message, I told them outright that we don't eat lutefisk because it's good; we eat it because it's something that North Dakotan Norwegians do. Oh, sure, some people may try to boost their image in others' eyes and lie by saying that they actually like lutefisk, but nobody ever buys that. We all understand that to back down from the cultural dare that is lutefisk is to lose face in the eyes of your people and to have your commitment to your Scandinavian heritage called into question. We can be honest about the stink of boiling lutefisk and the gag-inducing texture of it in the mouth, but we can not refuse to eat it.
So eat it we did. Each bite for the girls was like another mile marker in a marathon; and each time that their lutefisk-stuffed chipmunk cheeks emptied again, I knew that they were one bite closer to claiming triumph. Klingon honor is to be found on the battlefield; Norske honor is to be found on a buttery dinner plate flaked with the rubbery detritus of a finished lutefisk supper. The reward tonight was a trip to the dessert table, featuring sandbakkels, rosettes, krumkake, sugar cookies, gingersnaps, almond cookies, and brownies. We were disappointed that somebody in the local Sons of Norway lodge is under the mistaken impression that a shaker of store-bought cinnamon-and-sugar blend is a suitable substitute for bowls of white and brown sugar as toppings for buttered lefse, but beneath that foreign cinnamon flavor, the lefse was tender and could have been truly delicious.
(In this community, however, cinnamon is a primary ingredient in homemade chicken noodle soup, too. Somewhere along the line, every spice except cinnamon must have been jostled out of some immigrants' covered wagons on the bumpy trails into the Badlands. How else to explain its inappropriate inclusion in a savory food like chicken broth or a bland food like buttered lefse with white sugar? It's a mystery.)
With any lutefisk supper, one of the most important parts is to see and be seen (to prove, I suppose, that you have actually stood up to the challenge and to be held in esteem by your equally brave and virtuous Scandinavian neighbors), and we saw and visited with several people whom we recognized. I also spent some time at the informational stand that the Sons of Norway lodge had set up near the entrance to provide details on what membership in the organization has to offer. The lutefisk experience activated something inside me, and when we got home, I signed us up. Yes, we're now Sons of Norway, too, with all the benefits to be derived from membership thereof.
Keep your eyes peeled, Faithful Reader. Next autumn you just may be reading about the Mobergs' working our shift in the kitchen for the annual lutefisk supper . . . and, afterwards, burning our clothes and washing the smell out of our hair with canned tomato juice.
So proud to be Scandinavian! Ya, you betcha!