WORTHINGTON — If you are a native Minnesotan with Scandinavian heritage, you've probably at least heard of lutefisk, if not partaken of it at least once.
If not, let me introduce you.
Lutefisk, meaning "lye fish," is prepared by soaking a dried white fish filet in a lye solution (you know lye — it's that soap-making chemical that you aren't supposed to touch with your bare hands because it will burn you, and if you add it to water too fast, the water can boil) for several days, then rinsing and cooking it.
Many legends attempt to explain the origin of the mysterious dish. Vikings may have used lye because it reconstituted the preserved fish much more efficiently than other methods, but the true reason is unknown.
Although modern science teaches us that it's probably not a great idea to consume lye, many Scandinavian-Americans still honor their heritage by serving lutefisk during the holiday season.
I've been hearing about lutefisk for almost the whole time I've grown up in Minnesota, and I still have so many questions.
Why would anyone want to eat lye? Nobody knows. Doesn't it basically turn the fish into Jell-o? Yeah, pretty much. Don't you know we don't have to rely on primitive preservation methods anymore? Absolutely.
Minnesotans are a hardy bunch. We go running outside all year long. We don't let frozen lakes get in the way of our fishing obsession. (I personally have jumped in Lake Superior in December, just for the fun of it.) Why should I be surprised that my fellow Minnesotans are still eating lutefisk?
So when I heard about the First Lutheran Church's lutefisk and meatball supper, I wanted to attend. My ancestors were Danish, not Norwegian, but I believe in honoring other cultures. Many of my neighbors here in Worthington come from lutefisk-loving families. I had to see for myself.
Luckily, those who prepare the food for this particular supper prefer to soak the fish in salt water rather than in lye, achieving a similar effect.
I've got to say, I had a great time. My colleague Julie and I sat by Jane and Bob Benson, lutefisk supper veterans. They were so gracious about introducing me to the new food, showing me how it's traditionally eaten and explaining some of the history.
Going through the buffet line, I only took a little lutefisk because I fully expected to fight a gag reflex.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Lutefisk tastes fishy, but otherwise doesn't really resemble a fish at all. It's gelatinous almost to the point of viscosity. I described it at the moment as "fish-flavored tapioca pudding." It was weird, to be sure, but not in a bad way.
I witnessed little old ladies going back for seconds, returning to their tables with mountains of lutefisk drowned in melted butter. These Nordic-originating folks aren't eating this holiday delicacy just to honor their ancestors; they legitimately enjoy the ancient fare. And you know what? I did, too.
Not only did I have a meaningful cultural experience, but I discovered a surprising new taste and made wonderful new friends.
Thanks to everyone who worked hard to make the lutefisk and meatball supper happen. I'll see you next year.