I Am A Norwegian
By Wayne Pike
“Ich bin ein Berliner” is what John F. Kennedy said when he went to Berlin, Germany. He meant to say that he was one with the people of that city, but to the Germans it came out as, “I am a doughnut.” Although I am no John Kennedy, I would like to claim that “I am a Norwegian” by my actions. Of mostly German blood, I make this claim to Norwegian ancestry because I have become an eater of lutefisk. I have come to dine on lutefisk at regular intervals at a neighboring Lutheran church. They have a lutefisk dinner every November and I am a regular.
The first time I attended was when I was just out of college and new in their town. I went alone and ended up seated with seven ladies whom I shall describe as small in stature and relatively mature, having already outlived a husband or two. The serving began with the mashed potatoes, rutabagas, lefse, and meatballs. The lady across the table from me took each serving dish from the server, helped herself, and then passed it on to her buddy. By the time the dish reached me, there was still plenty left. That is, until we got to the lutefisk. I could not believe the heaps of jiggly fish the ladies piled on their plates. When the lutefisk platter got to me, there were just bits of slippery white material left. I didn’t know it then, but I found out later, that the ladies were sorting through the good stuff and leaving me with the overcooked and bony leftovers. When the server brought seconds and then thirds, the pattern was repeated. Those ladies loved their lutefisk and were not about to let my presence slow them down or impede their consumption. I get along well with older ladies and they generally take to me, but watching them eat lutefisk unnerved me. It was like sitting among a pack of coyotes gorging on a fawn.
From then on, the experience has been much better. I have even learned some of the terminology of lutefisk. For example, to establish myself as an eager eater, I learned that it is polite and appropriate to ask questions of my table mates. “Have you been to many fish suppers this season?” is a good way to start followed by, “How have you found the fish this year?” Asking about their attendance at fish suppers is simply a way of finding out how gullible your dining companions might be. Referring to lutefisk simply as “the fish” is a signal that you know all about it, almost as if you had gone out and caught it yourself. The rest of the chatter waits until later because everyone very quickly jams their mouths full of lefse, one of the true delights of the evening.
This time I found myself seated next to a true “fish” connoisseur. His last name was Carlson and I suspect he just might have been a Norwegian. He was from one of those towns in Iowa that is named after some tree by some river like Pine River or Oak Lake or maybe it was Cedar Falls. Anyway, he and his friend, a wizened and tattooed old salt, were making the lutefisk supper rounds. The two of them made it to a different lutefisk feed every night. This night they were about a hundred miles from home and loving every minute of it. Carlson rated the lutefisk as excellent and the value of the supper overall as, “One of the best. But, they are all good.” He said that what made this one exceptional was that they served rutabagas instead of some lesser vegetable like corn and they served a selection of desserts. Carlson went after lutefisk like a walrus goes after a seal. He troubled me to pass him “the fish” several times after the rest of us had filled ourselves to over stuffed status.
My own consumption of the revered fish was somewhat more subdued. On the first round, after Carlson had meticulously chosen his serving, I boldly selected two slabs of lutefisk, each about the size of a deck of cards. I immersed it in more melted butter than is good for anyone. The fish was as good as I remembered. I added a bit of salt and pepper to give it some texture. There were only a couple bones. My only complaint was that I was sitting under a ceiling fan and the melted butter congealed around the fish faster than I would have liked. I had to eat fast.
After the supper, I went to visit my friend, Dwain, a good Norwegian who first got me going to the lutefisk dinner. I stopped at his house only to learn from his wife that he was still at the church cooking lutefisk. She was not a lutefisk eater and had not been at the church at all that day. When the lutefisk chef got home, he walked over to give her a hug and she promptly responded, “Get away from me. You smell like dead mice.” That hurt.
Oh, did I mention that I am a regular lutefisk eater? This makes twice that I have had lutefisk. The first time was twenty-six years ago. I am looking forward to my next regular lutefisk dinner. Like I said, “I am a Norwegian.”
Wayne C. Pike
Writer • Teacher • Speaker
Rochester, MN 55906-1911