“Dead fish walking!” shouted Dave Lambert as steam undulated from the large stainless steel boiler just out back of the Poulsbo First Lutheran Church’s Christian Center.
Beside Lambert, Erik Swanson hoisted two mesh nets, knotted at the top and filled with chunks of lutefisk, from the boiler into another pot to drain before being served up to the hungry patrons at the church’s 107th Lutefisk Dinner.
For the third year running, Lambert and Swanson wore the distinguished crowns of “lutefisk cook” for the annual dinner, which — due to an unfortunate lack of cooks with the know-how to prepare some 700 pounds of lye-cured cod — did not take place in 2016 (making this year’s dinner actually the 106th, but who’s counting?).
Since its revival in 2017, the dinner has become something that Lambert and Swanson take quite seriously, with Lambert even donning a literal crown in honor of the occasion. And how does one get in the mood to cook well-over a quarter-ton of the divisive Scandinavian dish? By starting with a hearty breakfast, of course.
“Rye crisp and pickled herring,” Lambert said. “You’ve got to get in the mood.”
“It was actually really good,” Swanson added.
“That’s Red Apple, man,” Lambert said, plugging the Viking Way grocery’s traditional pickled herring recipe which has gone unchanged for a half-century.
The kitchen inside First Lutheran bustled with activity as volunteers shuttled serving plates, filled with the nearly-translucent fish, to the tables. Another volunteer untied the mesh nets and upended them into a warming pan and in doing so released another plume of steam along with the faint but unmistakable wafting scent of cooked fish.
Potatoes, lefse, salad and Swedish meatballs all competed for space on the diners’ plates, but for the most part front and center sat a serving of lutefisk, in many cases glistening with a rapidly melting pad of butter. As Lambert noted out back, lutefisk makes for a fine butter delivery system.
First-time lutefisk-ers Ed and Aida Asuncion said they loved their first tastes of lutefisk. While Ed said he hadn’t tasted anything quite like lutefisk, he likened the adventurous nature of trying the fish to the time he tried haggis, which he added also proved to be a pleasant surprise despite its reputation.
Not everyone seated at the tables were local, either. Sitting together were Lois Peterson, Anita Puzon and Carolyn Goad. Peterson made the trip to Poulsbo all the way from Gresham, Ore. Pastor Kent Shane said Peterson wasn’t the only one to travel many miles in their pursuit of lutefisk.
“There was a gentleman, he came from Sequim, he’s 103,” Shane said. “He’d been here many times … he said it gets better every year.” Shane also mentioned another visitor who had traveled all the way from Georgia as well.
Shane’s wife and fellow pastor, Alison Shane, relayed similarly pleased diners’ sentiments to the cooks in the back.
“I’m coming out occasionally to give them reports on the fish,” Alison said referring to a notepad. “‘It’s better than what they give us in Sweden,’” she said one visitor told her. “‘I attend six or seven of these a year and this is the best one,’” another told her. “A longtime member of this congregation says, ‘this is my third year of actually eating the lutefisk, last year I had two bites, this year I had seconds.’”
Shane’s last comment elicited no small amount of Viking-like jubilation from those preparing the lutefisk.
When it comes to the lutefisk dinner, Kent Shane said the event truly serves as an opportunity for the community to come together in the name of charity.
“It’s a great community collaboration, the Slippery Pig [Brewery] comes up and they cook the fish. We had folks from Sluy’s [Bakery] help us with the meatballs and the rolls and all of that.”
Shane noted that last year some $3,000 was raised at the Lutefisk Dinner, the lion’s share of which was donated to the local Martha & Mary Health and Rehab Center. Shane also noted that those who missed out on this year’s lutefisk dinner could still offer some support through the Microbrews for Martha & Mary fundraiser at Western Red Brewing in Poulsbo from 4 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26, where $1 from every pint sold will go to benefit the group.