BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE
Because I am not a member of the American Swedish Institute, I had to shell out an extra five bucks for my ticket to the annual ASI lutefisk dinner, which was held on Nov. 20 this year. The things I do for journalism. And maybe for curiosity. There are a surprising number of hulking blond Minnesotans named things like Anderson and Jensen and Peterson who are still lutefisk virgins! Some of them may even be members of the ASI and have lots of felt things and those cute horses in their homes.
I even dressed up and arrived promptly. This had better be worth it, I thought. Not wanting to prejudice the experience, I waited till it was over to do any supplemental research. But of course I had heard tales over the total of 25 years I have lived in Minnesota, with a 13-year gap when I lived in England.
The dinner took place in the event hall one floor up from Fika. The massive queue of people waiting to be seated at Fika prevented me from being wistfully jealous of the Fika diners. I went on up. There was a cash bar and a free punch bowl. I registered (no line) and grabbed a cup of punch and found my table. The table contained one couple, one single guy and four other single women, although two of them were friends of each other. We all chatted, and I told them about Southside Pride and how I would be writing about this.
There was soft classical-ish music to accompany our dining, but being a hearing aid user, and what with the low-level din of a crowded room, I couldn’t really hear it. The table had a plate of lefse, rye crispbreads, and rye bread to share, and by each seat a pretty little cup of rice pudding with a ginger cookie lid. I tasted the punch. I hated it. Not a good start.
The smell of lutefisk is legendary. I noticed that although I could smell it faintly (it can only charitably be described as rotten fish) when I first walked in on the ground floor, it seemed the closer I got to the dining hall, the fainter it was. When they brought the plates in, I steeled myself for that smell up close, but there was none. I even sniffed at my plate (journalism!), but nothing. The plate also contained (I learned this was traditional) boiled potatoes, boiled green peas, and home-pickled cucumber, which I expected, and also three meatballs, which I did not expect.
As the plates were distributed, three bowls of sauces, all different, were placed on the table. My tablemates and I had much discussion about what the sauces were, and I am still none the wiser. One was butter sauce, which seemed to be melted butter, thickened with something, maybe flour, then allowed to go semi-hard again, i.e., it was not pourable, but rather a blob. Here’s what I ate – all the potatoes and all the cucumber, three baby bites of lutefisk, one with each of the sauces provided, and a third of a meatball. I don’t like meatballs. Lutefisk literally tastes of nothing. It’s the most nothing-tasting thing I have ever tasted. The texture can vary depending on cooking methods. This batch was somewhere between moistly fibrous and Jell-O.
After the main course, I eagerly ate the rice pudding, which was just OK. My favorite part of the meal was the ginger cookie lid on the dessert, and my second favorite part was the pickle. After most of the diners were finished we heard some lutefisk stories/jokes, then sang the lutefisk song. All in all it was a fun and very Minnesota experience, but not very satisfying in a culinary sense. I had lutefisk breath for about 20 hours after the meal (imagine if I had eaten the entire portion).
Two days after the lutefisk meal, where I told everyone pretty confidently that I have no Scandinavian DNA whatsoever, I was visiting my sister, the genealogist, in Kansas City, and discovered that DNA tests have revealed significant DNA in our family associated with both Sweden and Norway. Maybe if I had known that before the dinner I would have eaten more of the lutefisk. But probably not.