POULSBO — Gordon Stenman was seated at the entrance to the gymnasium at Poulsbo First Lutheran Church, taking tickets from guests as they arrived and waited to be seated.
Stenman has been volunteering at the church’s Lutefisk Dinner since 1959, and when asked what keeps bringing him back, Stenman was succinct.
“Lutefisk,” he said. “My mother is the one who got me started; she herself started in 1930. It holds us Scandinavians together.”
Poulsbo First Lutheran Church’s annual lutefisk dinner returned Oct. 21 following a hiatus last year. The event, now in its 105th year, drew a crowd from near and far to raise money for Martha & Mary.
The lye-cured fish has been the brunt of many a Garrison Keillor joke, which the radio personality has related from the fictional Midwest town of Lake Wobegon. Keillor once described lutefisk as “a gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat.”
Keillor’s sentiments, while appreciated for their humor were (for the most part) not shared by attendees of the First Lutheran Church dinner.
In the back corner of the gymnasium is the serving area, and as diners began taking their seats the area hummed with activity. Thick serving dishes were piled with steaming fish and taken over to the tables to be served family-style. Swedish meatballs, steaming and coated in rich brown gravy, were served up in equally large helpings to all the tables. Volunteers worked tirelessly leading up to the dinner, peeling potatoes and making lefse, a traditional Norwegian flatbread.
Back through the kitchen, out a side access door and enshrouded in thick, billowing clouds of steam stood Dave Lambert, owner of the Slippery Pig. Beside him was Erik Swanson, on hand to assist in the methodical cooking of the cured and reconstituted fish, which had been soaked in water for several days. The team passed net-like bags filled with cod, meticulously carved into smaller, manageable chunks for cooking.
Lambert is no stranger to the art of cooking lutefisk in large volumes. The Slippery Pig cooks lutefisk regularly for use in their lutefisk tacos.
“I think I went to my first lutefisk dinner here when I was like 5,” Lambert recalled. “Last year, when I heard it wasn’t going on, we kinda put the word out.”
In 2016, because of a lack of volunteers with the skills or experience necessary to cook 300 pounds of lutefisk, Poulsbo First Lutheran Church went without its lutefisk dinner for the first time in more than a century. Lambert and Swanson would not abide a second year and offered their assistance.
“All I heard was, ‘Oh, it was cancelled this year because we didn’t have anyone to cook it,’ ” Swanson recalled. “ ‘Well, we’ll cook it!’ That’s pretty much how the conversation went.”
When asked why younger generations seem less interested in carrying on the tradition of the lutefisk dinner, originally started in 1913, Swanson pointed to the acquired taste of lutefisk.
“Once you have it, you might understand why it might not be getting passed down,” Swanson joked.
“I blame chicken tenders,” Lambert laughed. “Kids like those better, I guess.”
The Swanson family, however, will not be among those who abandon the tradition. Swanson’s two daughters were working as servers, shuttling dishfuls of lutefisk and meatballs to the tables. His son was busy holding the door for guests as they arrived.
“Volunteering is an important thing for anybody, especially kids nowadays,” Swanson said. “It’s important to get them to volunteer their time. Kids tend not to do that anymore.” Swanson said. This theme was also echoed by Pastor Alison Shane, who said the church was looking to demonstrate to younger folks how lutefisk is prepared and cooked so that the tradition may live on for generations to come.
Back in the gymnasium, nearly all the tables were filled and those who had already stuffed themselves with lefse, meatballs, potatoes and lutefisk were now talking with friends and family as well as the strangers beside them. At one such table sat Austin, Mitch and Karen Brown, alongside Nuel Halvorson. The three Browns had never tried lutefisk, leaving Halvorson the veteran.
“I asked him to describe it to me in the car, what it tastes like,” Karen Brown said. “He said, ‘lutefisk.’ And I would agree with him, there is nothing that tastes quite like lutefisk. It’s unique.”
Much like the taste of lutefisk, the lutefisk dinner itself is a unique event, one which draws young and old from all over the area and beyond. Many people, both of Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian ancestry, sat beside one another and ate with equal fervor and sometimes equal trepidation.
Ron and Elizabeth Lund of Williston, North Dakota attended with their grandchildren, Carl and Ingrid Burchill. The Lunds are no strangers to lutefisk; Ron Lund estimates that he’s been volunteering as a cook at a lutefisk dinner in Williston for the last 35 years. For the youngsters, on the other hand, Saturday was Carl and Ingrid’s first experience tasting lutefisk and reviews were mixed.
“It was pretty good. It tasted kinda like eggs, but with a really different texture.” Carl Burchill said. Seemingly less enthused was Carl’s sister, Ingrid.
“I only tried a little bit because I don’t really like lutefisk, or fish. It was really gross,” she said.
Smiling, her grandfather suggested that the cure for a distaste of lutefisk was simply to eat more lutefisk, a prospect which Ingrid didn’t appear to find agreeable.