BEMIDJI— A couple years ago, I spat in a tube and mailed it off. A few months later, long-awaited results alerted me that I wasn’t who I thought I was – at least, genetically. No, I’m not adopted nor is the mailman my real father.
I learned I’m part Scandinavian.
And this week, I didn’t have to go far to experience a long-standing Minnesota tradition coupled with a piece of my heritage I’ve been excited to partake in since moving here.
With lutefisk suppers feeding Minnesotans in churches and basements across the state, I found -- only minutes from my home -- the opportunity to taste the divisive Scandinavian fare that locals either love or love to hate.
Although “Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern dubbed lutefisk one of the world’s top five notorious foods, I became less concerned about tasting the lye-soaked cod when I arrived and saw a great many cars surrounding Aardahl Lutheran Church, a white picturesque chapel set along a dirt road in rural Bemidji.
The distinct odor of fish overlaid by the familiar aromas of cooking beef and vegetables filled the humble space, and upon purchasing my ticket, I realized there were over a hundred folks ready to dine before me.
Close to 450 meals were to be served that evening -- with days of preparation and 88 years of tradition behind each bite.
More Norwegian-Americans live in Minnesota than any other U.S. state, and a large portion of the ancestors of Swedish and Danish immigrants to America also call this place home. So, I was surprised to learn that Scandinavians rarely eat lutefisk – many in the Motherland actually shy away from it – and far more is consumed in the States now.
As I sat on a pew waiting for my dinner number to be called, I looked around and saw that my brown hair was outnumbered by gray and white. These aging, smiling faces -- the children of Scandinavian immigrants -- were also anticipating the sound of their own number, the only hindrance in their way of tasting a slowly fading tradition that connects them to their ancestral home.
Once I was called, I was seated at a long communal table with dishes served family style. As someone who has fallen for the convenience of couch-sitting in front of the television during mealtime, this was a refreshing change albeit out of my comfort zone.
Despite disassociating myself with much of the millennial stigma, the idea of eating and socializing with strangers still concerned me. But my worry was in vain as my dining companions were sweet kind-hearted veterans of lutefisk suppers.
A platter of lefse with its accompanying stick of softened butter and bowls of white and brown sugar littered the table, and my companions were quick to show me the ropes of dressing the flatbread.
Other dishes on the table included coleslaw, corn, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and an apple pastry and coffee for dessert.
A big bowl of meatballs swimming in brown gravy also caught my eye, but I told myself I would resist the nostalgic warmth of childhood until I tasted what I set out for.
And when I was handed a pitcher of warm melted butter, I knew it was time.
The lutefisk jiggled and wiggled and -- when the light caught it just right -- appeared translucent and foreign to me. As I was instructed, I coated it in the butter and then grabbed a forkful.
The fish’s smell and taste wasn’t as off-putting as I had been told or imagined, and my first thought was “It’s not bad.” Besides getting past it’s jellied consistency, I found lutefisk to be a mild fish dish whose taste didn’t match its notoriety.
As the supper came to a close and phone numbers were exchanged, I recognized that my dinner companions and I sat down as hungry strangers but would be leaving as sated friends.
For me, creating a bond over jellied fish was one for the books, but for folks like my new friends, it’s an aging yet beloved tradition that still thrives in the heart of Minnesota.
As generational customs come and go, I sincerely hope this is one that stays around.