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They come for the lutefisk, stay for the lefse

Sunday's lutefisk and meatball dinner at First Lutheran Church in Worthington includes two seatings, at 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. Tickets will be available at the door, and meals can be purchased to go.

WORTHINGTON — No one seems to know just when First Lutheran Church in Worthington began the tradition of serving a lutefisk dinner, but it's known that it was started by the men of the church — the Lutheran Brotherhood.

A file folder roughly three inches thick contains important information dating back to 1971 — how much lutefisk was prepared, how much was served, what it cost and what was done with the leftovers — but veteran volunteers know the feast on fish soaked in lye likely dates back decades before that.

A couple of significant changes have taken place since those early days. For starters, the women were eventually allowed to join in the feast. The second is that the lutefisk is no longer soaked in lye. Instead, it's bathed in saltwater.

Lutefisk aficionados haven’t minded the change. In fact, the volunteers who serve up the gelatinous-looking white fish year after year have been told their lutefisk is the best around. First Lutheran Church’s annual lutefisk and meatball dinner draws in groups from Marshall, Luverne and northwest Iowa.

“They come from surrounding communities,” said Judy Selberg, the lead coordinator for the event, which is happening Sunday with seatings at 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. at the church in downtown Worthington.

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“It always amazes me that these older people will pile their plate with lutefisk,” added Aldyne Robinson, who has volunteered to help with the church fundraiser for years. “We have a ‘seconds’ table, and they just come and fill it full.”

Robinson said she’ll stick to eating the meatballs.

“I tried lutefisk four times,” added Selberg. “I don’t care for it — I never did like it.

“The ones who like it really like it.”

The lutefisk is served with melted butter or a white cream sauce. Ron Hallstrom and Loren Bauman are in charge of its preparation, and they have 300 pounds of lutefisk to prepare for Sunday’s dinners. They’ll start soaking the fish around 6:30 a.m. Sunday, and begin cooking it about an hour before the meal is served.

For those unsure about putting lutefisk on their plate, there’s always the Swedish meatballs. Terry and Linda Neugebauer coordinate the meatball preparation, and brought a group together Thursday night to mix up the ingredients, form meatballs and bake them at the church. Sunday morning, the meatballs will go in roasters.

There’s a lot of preparation that goes into the annual lutefisk and meatball dinner. Aside from the two meat options, there’s boiled potatoes, green beans, giftas (a layered salad featuring soda crackers, cranberry sauce and whipped topping), lefse, rice pudding with lingonberries, pickled beets and a wide variety of cookies, including krumkake, rosettes, spritz, Swedish oat cookies, Danish puffs and cutouts. Pickled herring and lefse can also be purchased to take home.

Earlier this week, about 40 volunteers gathered to make the lefse. They spent seven hours in the church kitchen and Centennial Hall on Tuesday rolling out the potato mixture and grilling it on lefse griddles. That was after spending Saturday boiling and peeling all of the potatoes.

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Attendees will consume about 40 dozen lefse sheets during Sunday’s dinners, which is about a fourth of the 152 dozen sheets they made on Tuesday. What's left will be packaged and available for sale on Sunday.

“We sell out every year,” said Selberg. “They really like our homemade lefse.”

While she knows they could sell much more lefse, Selberg said the seven-hour day of lefse making is already long enough.

Everyone has their favorite way to eat lefse, but those who have never tried it may want to spread a little butter and sprinkle a little cinnamon-sugar or brown sugar on their sheet.

“My husband always liked it with peanut butter,” Selberg said with a roll of her eyes. “Getting it right off the griddle with butter is my favorite.”

Selberg, who is only partly of Scandinavian descent, didn’t grow up on lefse. It wasn’t until she joined First Lutheran Church that she took lessons in making it from Marge Larson.

“Years ago, they used to have people donate lefse and rice pudding,” Selberg said. As time went on, it was decided that a lefse-making day at the church would ensure a consistent product. As for the rice pudding, that's now purchased from a local store.

The church sold nearly 300 meals last year, down a bit from the year before because, for the first time in the dinner’s history, the event had to be rescheduled due to weather.

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On Sunday, many of the church’s members, including the youth, will help with the event — doing everything from selling tickets at the door to serving the food to washing the dishes.

“Our congregation is so good that you rarely get turned down when you ask (for help),” Selberg said, noting that as some of the volunteers get older they are in need of more people to take charge.

While the event is a fundraiser, Selberg sees it more as an opportunity for church members to work side by side and get to know each other better.

Still, past events have helped purchase everything from kitchen appliances to ceiling fans and tables and chairs for Centennial Hall, griddles for making lefse, new kitchen counters and flooring and to support youth ministry in the church.

“It doesn’t go to the general fund — it’s special things for the church,” Selberg said.

Sunday’s dinners are scheduled to begin serving at 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., with a Santa Lucia program in between. To-go meals are available, and shut-ins are welcome to call the church Sunday morning at 376-6148 if they would like to purchase a meal and have it delivered within the city limits.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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