|[a] With trimmings RF|
In the pews, people talked quietly in groups ranging from two to as many as a dozen. Every once in a while a comment—"...remember that summer?" "...that's Timmy from my Sunday School class; he must be in high school now"—would flutter from the flock. Autumnal sun flowed through stained glass. Everyone (and I mean everyone) clutched little tickets.
Under the church rafters, we were in queue. Every five, maybe ten, minutes the crowd quieted and listened as a slight man with a microphone intoned "...fourteen twenty-one through fourteen twenty-eight"; "is there a group of six ready?"; "do we have a single?...there's room for one more." At each prompt, clusters of gray hair ambled to the portal of promise. Above the door were the words Careful Steps.
|[b] Sushi... RF|
It is an acquired taste.
One normally acquires this taste while growing up. The bar to appreciating this odd immigrant food is set so high that it is the truly exceptional eater who learns to eat it as an adult. Indeed, so odd is this culinary staple that it is not at all unusual for several children in the same family to be split on its merits. My own sister won't touch it, but I somehow took to the soft, gooey texture as though it were just another flavor in the Gerber's panaroma of flavors.
I have enjoyed it ever since, and took it for granted—as the growing Norwegian boy with the French surname on the banks of the Red River Valley—that lutefisk would grace every holiday table. That assumption held well into my twenties, and then I got busy. Certainly, there was no lutefisk to be found during the two years I spent in Taiwan after college, and there was precious little of it anywhere near the shores of Lake Michigan during my graduate studies. Off to my first job I went, in central Maine. There was plenty of seafood—even cod—but no one seemed to want to soak it in lye until it became a wiggly lump of fish flesh. I mean, they ate bottom feeders like lobsters, for Thor's sake.
|[c] Gelatin RF|
Let's just say that times have changed, and there is not nearly as much home cooking of the ubiquitous codfish as in earlier days. In my personal history, I can trace the change to the early-1980s. The surprising thing is that I have found a good deal of agreement about that date (give or take a few years) when talking to lutefisk eaters of all ages. Every time that I ask the question "do you still make lutefisk at home?," I get answers that range from "sometimes" to "not at all anymore." When did the big change take place? About 1980.
Is it Ronald Wilson Reagan's fault?
Well, probably not (although I remain vigilant for clues from the repast). It seems that a little institution—always there, but never dominant until the 1980s—began to take the place of the home-style lutefisk dinner. It brings hungry Scandinavians together in a Durkheimian flurry of social and culinary energy that starts with lefse and ends with pie. Instead of grandma doing the soaking (in lye, remember), the rinsing (an absolutely necessary step, let us not forget), and the baking...other groups have picked up some of the preparatory slack. Now it is Lutheran churches and Sons of Norway posts that sponsor lutefisk dinners that reach out to hundreds (and occasionally over a thousand) hungry connoisseurs.
|[d] Lye RF|
While this might be a little bit of a "generational" thing, I suspect that lutefisk dinners are the last (several generation) stop on the train to oblivion. First, people stopped making it at home. In time, it is quite likely that it will give way to a fully-formed American identity that doesn't require "Norwegian" in front of it and doesn't recognize lye-soaked codfish as either staple or treat.
Still, I can't help but think of my academic roots in ethnography. In China and Japan, I see parallels to the situation, even as I sense that lutefisk can't compete with centuries-old Asian traditions. You see, I have been studying East Asian cultural traditions for almost thirty years now, and in Japan I keep hearing young people say that "Sumo (wrestling) is boring; it is for old people." In China, young people tell me that "Beijing opera is for old people; young people aren't interested in such things." Yet they just keep on going. I would think that the traditions would wear out if I only had my own ethnographic work and anecdotes to go on. That is why doing historical research is so useful to the ethnographer. Even thirty years can't begin to provide adequate perspective to ongoing, even iconic, cultural practices. Imagine my surprise, then, to read accounts in Japan and China from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries predicting the demise of sumo and opera. Young people in the 1890s (in both countries) scoffed at the "olden ways" of their elders. Yet the last time I checked the calendar it was 2011, and the practices just keep on cranking (with an organized crime scandal mixed in here and there for good measure).
|[e] Stalking the wild lutefisk RF|
Nope. Probably not. If you are forty-five years old or more, just keep on eatin'. Lutefisk will stick to the ol' ribs during your lifetime. If you are in, say, your twenties, you had better get your field notebook ready and head out for some serious prairie research before the elusive fish is extinct.
I'll see you in Orfordville, Wisconsin on Saturday, October 27, 2012.