Lefse & Lutefisk & Rømmegrøt, Oh My!
By Wendy Allen | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Ole and Lena were sitting on the porch and smelled an awful smell. “Dere must be a skunk under da porch!” exclaimed Lena. “Vell,” said Ole, “just throw some lutefisk down dere. It’ll be gone in no time.” Lena considers this and says, “Ooo, vell, I don’t mind da skunk so much.”
Poor lutefisk, that quavering dollop of codfish-flavored Jell-O and today the butt of so many jokes. The Scandinavians way back in my ancestry cringe at the jokes and the mocking accents and at how poor old Ole is always made out to be a dope. I go along with it because, let’s face it, some of those jokes really are funny and “UFF-da” is a fantastic non-expletive; but in the back of my mind I know real culture goes much deeper than the caricatures and stereotypes. Food and its accompanying tastes and aromas remind us of history that gets forgotten when not directly in front of us.
Lefse and lutefisk are white and bland and simple. The humble, long-storing ingredients are the flavor of poverty and survival, of northern climates with short growing seasons. Lefse, with its intricate process and special tools, is the taste of a culture of builders—of great ships and snug homes and large stone hearths. Lutefisk, soaked in lye and smelling of feet (if fish had feet), invokes a vision of very large, very tough men.
Lefse started out as an unremarkable flour pastry. It’s believed the potatoes—the ingredient that makes this food really special—only became an element when Scandinavians came to Ireland, where potatoes were a staple and more plentiful and nutritious than flour.
Lutefisk origin stories, on the other hand, are all over the map. Both Norwegians and Swedes claim to have invented it. One legend says some dried cod fell into a vat of lye by accident, but the people were too poor to throw it out, so they rinsed it off and ate it anyway, eventually finding that soaking in lye was better than water at rehydrating the cardboard-like dried fish. Another legend claims it was St. Patrick’s attempt at poisoning Viking raiders in Ireland, but the Vikings were too tough to kill and instead called the dish a delicacy. (A nice story if you ignore the fact that St. Patrick lived long before the Vikings came to Ireland.)
Today, Norwegians in Norway eat these foods around the holidays to remember the old ways, like we do, but there you won’t find lutefisk suppers in church and lodge basements every weekend throughout fall and winter.
Caricatures and stereotypes aside, these and other traditional dishes represent a bond we as descendants of immigrants hold to (and hopefully continue to hold to): a bond of community. The real story of lefse and lutefisk is the people surrounding these dishes, and of them there are many. People gathering in home kitchens and church basements for the smelliest, happiest get togethers you've ever seen.
About 30 miles southeast of La Crosse on highway 14, you pass through a little town called Westby, pop. 2,253. There’s the Uff-Da Shoppe, Dregne’s Scandinavian Gifts and Ole and Lena’s coffee shop. The welcome center is a Norwegian stabbur (a log storehouse shaped like a T), rosemåling (traditional decorative painting) decorates doorways, and the high school football team is the Norsemen. There’s even a giant Viking pointing the way to the school from Main Street. This little town loves its Norwegian heritage.
Esther Erlandson is a member of the Westby Coon Prairie Church’s “Holy Rollers,” a group of women who have been making lefse together since the late-1970s. Today there are 20 of them, and these ladies turn hundreds of pounds of potatoes into dozens upon dozens of delicious lefse for the town’s annual Syttende Mai (17th of May) Festival honoring Norway’s independence day, the church’s harvest dinner and other local events.
When asked whose recipe they use, she laughed. “When you have many women in the kitchen, they all have the best recipe.” Over the years, the group has combined and compromised and finally settled on their recipe: six cups riced potatoes, one and a half cups flour, one teaspoon salt, and three tablespoons oil or melted butter.
“No, that’s not a secret,” she assured.
But it takes more than simply tossing the ingredients together. More than once, Esther emphasized the potatoes have to be just right, not over- or undercooked. The riced potatoes cannot be cooled in the refrigerator or else they’ll pick up moisture. The dough should be pricked to prevent bubbling and burning. There’s a special grooved rolling pin with a cloth sleeve for rolling out the dough and a simple flat stick for flipping the lefse.
Although these days many folks use a modern “lefse plate,” a round, metal, electric griddle that gets hotter than a stovetop, the process remains exactly as it has for generations.
“I think it’s important for our children to carry on some of these traditions. They’ve got so many distractions nowadays that it’s good for them to remember something old. As far as the lutefisk, I guess that would be something harder to pass on because of the smell. And if they don’t want to eat it, I really don’t blame them. But lefse, I think lefse is really special.”
Walking up to the church, the smell wasn’t what I’d been expecting. I’d read about lutefisk aromas that would waft to the far ends of the parking lot, but here, though undoubtedly in the air, this odor was surprisingly mild. The annual lutefisk supper at Vermont Lutheran Church in rural Black Earth is the first of the season around southwestern Wisconsin. No one—not even the 70- and 80-year-olds—can quite remember when the dinner got started, only that it began with chicken “sometime in the ‘30s” and changed to lutefisk “sometime in the ‘40s.” The Vermont Church lutefisk supper is lauded by many as the “Cadillac” of these fishy meals, serving 700 pounds of lutefisk, 6,500 meatballs and so much more. In other words, these folks know their lutefisk (and lefse and everything else Norwegian).
Behind the church stood a row of 55 gallon tubs manned by three men and one young “apprentice”—the rinsing station. The key to reducing the smell and improving the taste is in soaking and rinsing the lye off the fish. In the case of a meal serving more than 1,000 people, that process takes three days and four changes of water.
The small-ish kitchen had at least ten people crowded around multiple ovens and sinks cooking, stirring, ladling and washing, plus serving volunteers hurrying in and out. The men led the lutefisk-boiling while the women dished up meatballs, potatoes, green beans, cranberries, krumkake (a special waffle cookie rolled into a cone) and other traditional Norwegian cookies, and rømmegrøt, a silky dessert pudding made of sour cream, milk, flour, butter and salt sprinkled with cinnamon. And doused in butter, of course, in true Norwegian form.
I was very much in the way, but Greg Herrling pulled me over to one of the stoves. I looked in the pot and there it was, happily bubbling away. “You can’t cook it too long or it can get soft and slimy. See here?” he said, motioning to a huge warmer filled with lutefisk. “It should be nice and flaky.” And it was. Greg clearly knew what he was doing.
Greg dumped a freshly boiled batch into the warmer, and yes, it did jiggle like white Jell-O just as I’d read; but I was again surprised by the not-unpleasant smell. This wasn’t at all like I’d been warned.
The moment of truth: Greg mashed a potato, plopped a wiggly, flaky fillet of lutefisk on top and doused it all with melted butter. “You’ve never had lutefisk before?” he asked.
“Nope, first time,” I said. A few men and women around the kitchen paused to watch my first bite. I sniffed, tasted, picked a bit of bone out of my mouth and surprised everyone: “I like it!”
“You’re a very good sport!” said Greg., but a volunteer quirked an eyebrow, believing nothing until I finished my portion.
Huddled in a corner enjoying my last meatball and a dish of rømmegrøt, I watched volunteers young and old bustle bowls of steaming food to waiting tables. Many of the people didn’t belong to the church—weren’t even from the county—but had driven miles to this meal. For the food? While it was a well-done meal, it was still Norwegian fare—bland and white, with a meatball, sprinkle of cinnamon and an endless supply of butter for flavor. They may initially come for the lutefisk experience, but whether they realize it or not, they keep coming back year after year for something else.
The organizers are proud of their event and connected by the cooperation it takes to make it happen. Even strangers like me could sense something special in this room that goes beyond Norwegian heritage but which is very much grounded in it, and we are invigorated by it.
“It’s our way of honoring those people out there,” said softspoken Dave Dybdahl, gesturing to the headstones extending out back of the church.
“It’s not just the quality of food that people love here,” said Ingerid Kvam, church council president and full-blooded Norwegian. “There are a lot of churches that serve it, but what Vermont Church has always preserved is that Norwegian identity. It’s part of who we are. There’s that strong sense of culture here.”
Marguerite Parrell may have put it best: “Norwegian or not, we’re all descendants here.”
I walked back to my car with a butter-and-sugar lefse roll in my hand and the scent of lutefisk clinging to my hair, feeling energized not only by the food but by the sense of community inspired by these simple foods.
As fall marches onward and we are wrapped in winter’s darkness and chill, shared experiences such as this remind us of those who have gone before. And of each other.