Las Vegas SUN
The Lure Of Lutefisk: Sons Of Norway Lye In Wait For Big Dinner
Dat lutefisk. Der’s nothin’ like it.
Caught off the shores of Norway, dried into hard slabs, then later soaked in water and lye, its pungent odor wafts from church basements and lodges at annual dinners during wintertime.
Scandinavian Americans can hardly wait to bite into the honored tradition.
“Everybody wants to hold on to a bit of their heritage,” said Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis. “Lutefisk is a big part of Norway’s heritage.”
Though Las Vegas is more than a lake’s leap from Minnesota, and even farther from Norway, the local Sons of Norway Vegas Viking Lodge promises each year to preserve the tradition.
On Saturday its fifth annual lutefisk dinner will serve 200 pounds of lutefisk and boiled red potatoes.
In true Norwegian fashion, lefse (a thin potato flat bread) will be served. Additionally, Norwegian sweaters will be raffled off. It’s likely plenty of Ole and Lena jokes will circulate around the tables.
Those not wanting to nibble of lutefisk can munch on the more than 1,100 meatballs rolled up for the event.
Preparation for the event is immense, lodge members say. But it’s worth it. Last year 280 people attended.
“It’s the biggest fund-raiser,” said founding member Lollo Sievert, who moved to Las Vegas from Norway 35 years ago. “A lot of people come for the lutefisk.”
Lutefisk literally translates to lye-fish. For years it has been the source of humor, mainly from those who grew up disdainful of the aromatic and occasionally overcooked fish.
But experts say newer processing techniques diminish the odor (occasionally referred to as an ammonia-like boiled fish smell). Careful preparation can prevent the clear, Jell-O-like quality the fish is sometimes known for.
Gwen Knighton, president of the Vegas Viking Lodge, said lutefisk is supposed to be white and flaky. Its gooey appearance only happens when the fish is overcooked, she said.
Knighton, it seems, should know. The fact that she celebrates her Norwegian ancestry is unmistakable when walking into her kitchen.
“Uff da” and “Leif Landed First” pins are tacked to a bulletin board on the wall. A ceramic hot pad hanging from a cupboard reads: “Reserved for Lutheran hot dishes.” The red-and-blue Norwegian flag can be spotted among her refrigerator magnets.
Knighton grew up in Minnesota at a time when English was spoken in the classroom and Norwegian on the playground. When she moved to Las Vegas more than 30 years ago, she, as did other lodge members, found herself celebrating her cultural heritage alone.
There were no local Sons of Norway Lodge to speak of. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1990’s when he Norwegians banded together to form a lodge. Until then, those hungry for their heritage became members at-large with the Minneapolis chapter.
“People want to have that connection,” said Arlon Sibert, whose grandparents came from Norway to the United States in the 1800s. “When I came to Las Vegas I wanted that association.”
Finally, in 1992 the fraternal organization would branch out to Las Vegas – an effort initiated by an active Sons of Norway member who moved to Las Vegas from San Diego. During its first year the lodge me with local Swedes and Danes for a Christmas feast. But it would be the traditional lutefisk dinner lingering in the back of their minds.
“We’d been talking about it since we started the lodge,” Sievert said.
Now at more than 150 members, the organization uses social events to keep the group strong.
At monthly meetings Norwegian heritage is presented through guest speakers, videos and occasionally a skit. Norwegian crafts, cookies and lefse at the lodge’s Christmas bazaar.
Its Leif Ericson Dinner celebrates the Nordic explorer with song, dance and tabletop Viking ship races. Its Lapskaus dinner welcomes new members.
In December a Juletre fest includes lodge members clasping hands and walking around the Christmas tree singing Norwegian songs.
Off and on, Norwegian language, cooking classes and rosemaling (painting) classes are held.
Many of its events are fund-raisers for local charities. Scholarships are provided for students attending the Community College of Southern Nevada.
“Our main goal is to maintain the culture and heritage of Norway, as well as socialize with like people,” Knighton said.
With a Smile, Knighton added, God forbid we’d lose those Ole and Lena jokes. What would we do?”
Sons of Norway is one of the longest-in-existence fraternal organizations. Its members exceed 65,000.
The group was organized in 1895 as a fraternal benefit society that aided Norwegian-American families during sickness and death. It later expanded its focus to heritage and cultural preservation.
Years back, a sponsor was needed to prove outstanding citizenship in order to join the Sons of Norway. Today, however, potential members simply need to sign up. A Norwegian background is not even required.
“A lot of people want to find that heritage,” Sievert said. “They can get that just by joining the group.”
Though civic and social organizations such as the Sons of Norway face the threat of dwindling numbers, lutefisk, it seems, is too charming to lose its popularity anytime soon.
Since 1910 Olsen Fish Company has been producing herring and lutefisk, and during the winter months fielding calls from reporters interested in the peculiar cod.
“A lot of people get a charge out of it,” Dorff said.
Even representatives from Fox’s “King of the Hill” have called about the fish. Apparently, Dorff said, they were wanting to include the fish in an episode about a family visiting from Minnesota.
Olsen Fish Company produces 500,000 pounds of lutefisk a year. Eighty percent of it is produced October through December.
“We bring in two semitrailers full of dried cod, stacked floor to ceiling, back to front,” Dorff said. “ Then there is a two-week process of soaking the fish, giving it a variety of baths. At some point, we add the lye, which is a caustic soda.”
The lye helps to burn the outer layer of the fish, enabling the pores to open and absorb more water. It also helps to clean the fish, Dorff said.
“It takes a lot of gallons of water to turn it into lutefisk,” he added. ‘After a series of freshwater baths, a third generation lead processor (dubbed “soaker”) selects the fish that are ready.
“That’s when it becomes an art form, pulling out fillets that are ready,” Dorff said. “He basically touches every single fillet. They have to bend the right way.”
Once processed, the lutefisk is shipped to grocery stores mainly within the five-state area of Minnesota. Thirty percent of the lutefisk is delivered to churches, lodges and organizations.
Dorff expects lutefisk to gain more widespread acceptance.
“As the generations fade away, the tradition kind of slides with it,” Dorff said. “But there are enough people who want to hang onto the tradition.”
Even in Las Vegas, where he supplies the Vegas Viking Lodge.
In fact, Dorff said, “If you ask for lutefisk, you can get it in grocery stores in Las Vegas and Arizona. But there’s parts of the country, the Carolinas, where that’s not going to happen.”
Despite occasional attacks on fish, Knighton and Sibert said there are true lutefisk lovers who will always look forward to the annual dinners.
“It’s a tradition,” Knighton said. “It’s something you grew up with. The ones who like it, just love it.”