103-year tradition: Poulsbo First Lutheran Church lutefisk dinner ends

For 103 years, Poulsbo First Lutheran Church’s annual lutefisk dinner was a homecoming of sorts for Scandinavia’s descendants here.


POULSBO — For 103 years, Poulsbo First Lutheran Church’s annual lutefisk dinner was a homecoming of sorts for Scandinavia’s descendants here.

The event was like a crash course in Scandinavian culture. Many attendees wore bunads, or traditional clothing, each with ornamentation noting the wearer’s region of origin. The menu featured lutefisk — cured cod — served with melted butter or cream sauce, Norwegian meatballs and gravy, potatoes and lefse, and krumkake. The event featured traditional music and dance. Guests included people from as far away as California.

The event — which required more than 1,000 manhours to produce — was also a reminder that food on the table wasn’t taken for granted by the grandparents and great-grandparents; they knew how to preserve and store food for tough seasons and lean times. And when times were tough, they survived by pitching in and sticking together.

But alas, one of the oldest traditions in Poulsbo has ended.

There will be no lutefisk dinner this year.

“Our previous fish cookers told us they were unable to cook the fish any longer, and if you don’t have someone who can cook the fish properly, you can’t have a lutefisk dinner,” said church administrator Melinda Madamba, whose many hats include that of volunteer coordinator. “Knowing how to cook lutefisk for 400 people is not a highly sought-after skill these days.”

Margene Smaaladen, former chairwoman of the lutefisk dinner committee and granddaughter of immigrants from Lillehammer, called the end of the annual dinner “a real loss.”

“It was a real important cultural event, just like Viking Fest,” she said. “Lutefisk dinners nationwide have slowly declined in participation, but it was important to the older people here. It was a tradition to them. You’d see tables of 14 to 15 people that would come for our dinner.”

She added, “We sort of have to hang on to those long-running traditions. They make us feel closer.”

The first lutefisk dinner took place on Feb. 21, 1913 (Peter Iverson, the founder of this newspaper, was mayor then. It was six years after the incorporation of Poulsbo and 30 years after the arrival here of the first Scandinavians, who were drawn by land and marine resources similar to those in the land of their birth.

That first dinner raised $26.80, roughly $628 in today’s dollars, for a new cookstove. The 100th lutefisk dinner raised $11,000 for Martha & Mary.

Producing this event, however, was no easy feat. At the 100th anniversary dinner, volunteers peeled 650 pounds potatoes; mixed, balled and rolled enough dough for 2,000 pieces of lefse; made 325 pounds of meatballs and gravy; and cooked 100 pounds of cabbage.

And, of course, the lutefisk — cooks masterfully cooked 2,000 pounds of cod that had been preserved by curing, then washed, then cooked while wrapped in cheesecloth.

At this event, you left your lutefisk jokes at the door. In a 2012 story, Gordon Stenman defended the taste and nutritional value of lutefisk, which was backed by MyFitnessPal, a nutritional database; a 1 ounce serving of lutefisk contains 7 calories, 0.1 gram of fat, 0.2 grams of carbs and 1.6 grams of protein.

One of the biggest fans of the dinner was Valborg “Volley” Grande, who was born in Poulsbo in 1915; her father, the Rev. J.T. Norby, was pastor of the Poulsbo First Lutheran Church — it was Fjordford Lutheran then — when the first lutefisk dinner took place. Now 101, she was reportedly planning on attending this year’s dinner.

Future dinners?Madamba, the church administrator, said other organizations that host lutefisk dinners are having similar problems as Poulsbo First Lutheran’s event and some have gone to presenting the dinners every other year.

Regarding bringing back Poulsbo First Lutheran’s annual dinner, she said, “Discussions are still in progress.”

Madamba grew up in Poulsbo and said she has mixed emotions. “I’m not a particular fan of lutefisk,” she said. “For me, it was the fellowship and the good that came out of it, like the proceeds going to Martha and Mary. It’s a tie to tradition, but over time, sometimes we need to see traditions change — it’s a good thing and a bad thing.”

She said Poulsbo has many cultures today — people of Irish, Mexican and Asian heritage outnumber Scandinavians today — and there’s a need “to celebrate all of these heritages.”

Smaaladen faithfully wore her bunad, which originated in her grandparents’ native Lillehammer, to each Poulsbo First Lutheran lutefisk dinner. She doesn’t intend for it to hang in a closet.

“I’m going to wear my bunad to every Viking Fest,” she said. “I’m being inducted this Saturday as a Daughter of Norway, and I’ll probably wear my bunad then.”

Factoid: According to the website, MyLittleNorway.com, lutefisk was first mentioned in literature in 1555, when Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus described how to prepare and eat lutefisk; lutefisk was featured in the first-ever printed Danish cookbook in 1616.