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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Prairie Ethnography (1)—Lutefisk Dinner

[a] With trimmings RF
I settled into the middle of the smooth, wooden pew. It was a clear, October Saturday in southern Wisconsin, and the Orfordville Lutheran Church was filled with a Sunday morning service-sized crowd. The altar area conveyed the calm, embracing theological narrative of Missouri Synod Lutheranism. Doves mingled with candelabra and pulpit, with just one (major) thing askew. Dwarfing the altar was a screen showing a slideshow of the church, its history, its Norwegian roots, and the heartbeat of life circulating the church calendar.

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
The sacred space above ground was merely the holding pen on this day. The real event was downstairs, in the basement. There, teeming energy and rumbling stomachs turned toward cranberries, meatballs, coffee, milk, drawn butter and the pièce(s) de résistance—lutefisk and lefse. It was the Orfordville Lutheran Church's annual Lutefisk Dinner, and Norwegians of a certain age drive from all around the countryside to pay $15 for unlimited helpings of lefse (a food most everyone likes) and a form of codfish that has been soaked in lye before being rinsed and processed for cooking. The culinary result is a plate that looks a little like the South Korean flag—mostly white, with dashes of cosmologically-patterned color to provide balance. Dominating the scene is a hunk of gelatinous ocean steak, all but wriggling in front of you.

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
And then, in the late-1990s, I boarded the next ship for Wisconsin, and lutefisk started appearing in everyday vocabulary again. You see, there are plenty of Norwegians in the Midwest, and Wisconsin was one of the destinations for the first wave of settlers. My great grandmother was born in the Wisconsin countryside in the late-nineteenth century, and both my grandparents and parents grew up around the rich, fertile soil on the eastern border of North Dakota and the western border of Minnesota. Lutefisk dinners—almost always prepared at home—were the order of the (holi-)day.

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
It has become a mixture of business, fundraising, and community pride linked to a taste that will not die. The question of its future is another one, though. Will it trickle to a halt when my generation heads to that great plastic tub of lye in the sky? Let's not kid ourselves. The clienetele is distinctly, well, middle-aged, and getting up there would be a generous way of putting it. I asked several of the servers (well-brushed junior high school and high school students serving the church on an autumn weekend day) if they liked lutefisk. Nope.

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
So what do we make of lutefisk? Is it going to have the resilience of sumo wrestling and Beijing opera? Is it going to be a steady force of culinary culture on the Scandinavian-American prairie?

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.

1 comment:

  1. I like lutefisk! But I do have to ask my grandmother to make it special, and in that case she acquires frozen lutefisk from... somewhere and we stick it in the oven. Which begs the question, where did her mom get a cod to soak in lie in nuclear missle silo land in Central Montana? We are also able to order lefse from this fine Central Montana enterprise:

    Also, no MONGOLIANS think that sumo is boring. (Looks like the yokozuna might like some lutefisk too).