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Tolerated, for tradition: Lutefisk a holiday ritual

Hy-Vee meat specialist AnnaMaria Gallegos holds a cut of lutefisk in the meat department at the store in Worthington. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — It wiggles and it jiggles, it doesn’t smell the best and, according to the brave who’ve tried it, it doesn’t always taste real good either.

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Yet, there’s a whole contingent of folks who hold out their holiday plate in anticipation of a good helping of lutefisk this time of year.

Lutefisk. Isn’t that fish that’s been soaked in lye?

Well, yes. At least that’s how it was preserved back in the day. Not so much anymore.

Long identified as a tradition among Norwegians, the cod fish actually has broader appeal among all Scandinavian countries. Even some Germans have been known to develop a taste for the, er, treat.

“At first, it probably wasn’t too wonderful, but after you have it every year, you develop a taste for it,” shared Naomi Evensen of Worthington. As a child, she grew up with lutefisk served during the holidays.

Evensen, at three-quarters Norwegian and one-quarter Scotch, is among eight local individuals who gather each December to share in a traditional Scandinavian meal of lutefisk, meatballs, mashed potatoes and assorted vegetables. The accompanying after-dinner desserts can include rice pudding, lefse and other tasty Scandinavian treats.

“As Norwegians, you like to keep (the tradition) up,” she said. “You hate to have it disappear.”

Lola Lindquist has prepared the lutefisk for the group, which once numbered 16, in each of the past 39 years.

“The first year I must have volunteered because the person hosting it the first year wasn’t raised with lutefisk,” Lindquist recalled.

Both Lindquist and her husband Gary grew up eating lutefisk as a Christmas Eve tradition.

“When I was a child, my parents went to the grocery store and took it right out of a barrel of lye,” she recalled. “They took it home and soaked it to get the lye out. Grandmother came on Christmas Eve and boiled it.”

Now that she’s the cook, Lindquist uses a different method — she bakes the lutefisk.

“It doesn’t smell as much,” she said with a laugh.

Lindquist prepares the lutefisk by putting it in a cooking bag with holes poked through the bottom of it to allow liquid to drain away from the fish. She places the cooking bag on a rack with a pan below to catch the liquid and bakes it at 400 degrees for up to 40 minutes.

Lindquist said the fish stays firmer by baking it.

Still, most people have to put something on their lutefisk before they eat it.

“Probably the best part of the lutefisk is the salt and the butter,” she said. “My husband, as a Swede, grew up with a white sauce (ladled over the fish).”

Vona Mae Vihlen, a full-blooded German who married a full-blooded Swede in husband John, said she learned all about the best way to flavor lutefisk after they married and she shared her first Christmas with her Swedish-rooted family.

“They just told me to put lots of butter on and the cream sauce and lots of salt and pepper, and I’ve grown to like it,” she said.

The Vihlen family prepares a lutefisk meal by boiling the fish — a process that requires a watchful eye.

“If it would get overcooked, they would just throw it out — it looks like wallpaper paste then,” said Vihlen. “It should be flaky.”

The Vihlens, of Round Lake, prepare lutefisk every year for the holidays, and even stock some in the freezer so they can enjoy it other times of the year. By making it a holiday tradition, they hope their children and grandchildren will continue the custom.

“Some like it very well, and some take just a little bit. We tell them they have to taste it or they’ll lose their inheritance,” she added with a laugh.

John’s advice to the grandkids: “Don’t say no until I have fixed it for you. I will present it to you at its very best.”

The Vihlen recipe for lutefisk includes adding the fish to boiling water and boiling it for about five minutes. Any longer and you might end up with that gelatinous consistency that no one wants to eat.

Joining lutefisk at the Vihlen holiday table are meatballs, potato sausage, mashed potatoes and Yiftas, a lingonberry salad with soda crackers and whipped cream. Cranberries are typically substituted because lingonberries are more difficult to find and more expensive.

Back in Worthington, Evensen was the one to host the local couples this year for their 39th annual meal of lutefisk.

“We have that basic friendship that just goes from one year to another — we have to have lutefisk,” she said.

And if there’s a non-Scandinavian member in the group, that’s OK too.

“We don’t really discuss who’s what, but we do tell Norwegian jokes,” Evensen said.

Norwegian jokes or lutefisk jokes? Hmm, she’s not telling.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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