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GENERATIONS: Art Lee: The rise and fall of lutefisk suppers in the North Country

"A Nation of Nations." That's the United States. An estimated 104 nations sent millions of their citizens to America.

Art LeeThe United States was and is "A Nation of Immigrants." The only native Americans are, of course, Native Americans, whom Columbus called Indians, suggesting most incorrectly that they were all originally from India. Whatever the naming mistake for the new future citizens, each immigrant brought automatically with him or her three things: 1) language 2) religion 3) culture i.e., their ways of thinking—including eating choices, that is, their special ethnic foods they once knew so well.

These early arrivals to the U.S preferred, if feasible, to live among folks who also came from the same country. The immigrants' cultural patterns of living—including foods to eat—could and would be continued in their new land. After all, "you are what you eat." And initially there were few if any outside pressures to alter food choices for these hyphenated Americans. This food freedom concept all changed with World War I, when the U.S. joined the war in Europe in 1917, joining the Allies fighting Germany. Suddenly it became un-American—or worse—to eat cabbage-and-sauerkraut because, after all, the enemy were "the Krauts." To speak German in public was one big "nein"( NO!) and soon German as a language in the U.S. was often perceived as un-American! Under heavy pressures, many schools stopped the teaching of German in the middle of the academic year. The government's pushwas hard and strong and often mean in their concerted effort to BE TRUE AMERICANS! Act American; talk American or else, or else what? Well, expect big trouble, so "Shape up or Ship Out" was a common slogan during this period of wartime hysteria. World War I was the start of forced Americanism, whatever that exactly meant. But what that meant to thousands of persecuted German-Americans remains ugly tales of persecutions that we can still read about today.

The pressures ended gradually after the war ended Nov. 11, 1918. Post-war America was soon summed up nicely by the 1920-elected President Warren G. Harding, whose election slogan was our "Return to Normalcy," even though that word did not then exist; he meant to say normality. This "normalcy" included ethnic groups being again allowed—indeed encouraged—to unite with their own organizations, and to continue their ethnic heritage—including the eating of those special ethnic foods. Sauerkraut-and-cabbage were back on the menu.

Enter the Scandinavians

We come now to Scandinavians in America, with both their churches and secular organizations: e.g., Sons of Norway, Swedish Institute, The Danish Society, with each group promoting their own ethnic backgrounds and heritage, including the foods connected with them—Danish Pastries, Swedish Meatballs, and, yes, Norwegian Lutefisk, in their homes (always for Christmas Eve suppers) and lutefisk suppers in their Norwegian-American churches.

(On a personal note, I grew up in the 1940s in a town that was named—yup—Scandinavia. So Norwegian was it that non-Norwegian Scandinavians living there were considered "foreigners." The high school basketball team cheerleaders in '49 even had a Norwegian language cheer that was special (even as they giggled while leading the cheer ): "Lutefisk og Lefsa, gammel øst og Prim, Scandinavia high school basketball team" (roughly translated to lutefisk and lefsa, old cheese and newer cheese).

In the '40s, the biggest fall event in our town of less than 500 people was the annual Church Lutefisk Supper. And none of this just serving only from 5 to 7 p.m. stuff. Serving the fish started early and ended late; folks came eagerly from all over the region and many were there to eat their lutefisk before 4 p.m, if possible, and later the last folks were still gorging themselves after 10 p.m. Lots of work for the church members. The majority who came bought their tickets—and got ticket numbers—early and then often waited it out downtown in one of the two taverns there. All the help for this ongoing BIG SUPPER were church members; my mother was one of them, who was there to work at the church basement before noon that day and didn't return home until nearly midnight.

Norwegian church Lutefisk Suppers have either ended (as it did in my hometown) or declined in numbers of churches still serving lutefisk, as has been the case in the Bemidji region. And by today, most churches have designated "meatballs" to being the main menu offering. Last month, the local Sons of Norway's annual Torsk Supper had to drop its offering of 'torsk' (a close relative to lutefisk) because torsk became too expensive and so it became simply a meatball supper. This alteration of menus— adding meatballs, despite the groans of the fish purists—became a pattern for most North Country church suppers over the years as one after another dropped lutefisk, staying only with meatballs. Now in Bemidji, there are only three churches left who serve lutefisk: First Lutheran and Calvary Lutheran in town and Aardahl Lutheran out in the country.

Why the changes? Who went? And who still attend these Lutefisk and Lefse suppers? Answer: it's primarily the older generation who still attend—and wouldn't miss it. How old? Well, at last year's supper, I overheard two of the younger waitresses semi-discussing the happy feasting patrons sitting out there at their tables in the crowded, noisy dining room, scarfing up their lutefisk and lefse and boiled potatoes, all that food drowning together in a sea of melted butter in their overfilled plates. They obviously were a happy bunch of seniors again enjoying themselves for a meal from their past that they loved so well. But what the young ladies then said to each other was snarky and a bit harsh but probably accurate:

"It looks like an old folks convention," and the other replied, "I think their average age is 102."

"Yeah, and many of them have a grandkid with them — but they're eating only the meatballs."

"Yes, their taste buds haven't been dissolved by the lutefisk."

Even with exaggerations, they inadvertently and indirectly predicted the future ending of lutefisk suppers in the North Country. Their impending collapse is that simple. The younger generations for the most part do not like lutefisk; attendance at the dinners will thus drop dramatically after the current generation of old-timers is gone. So the end is clear, but not yet near. Hence this prediction: in about 20 years, lutefisk suppers will be gone, too. Just meatballs for future suppers (or maybe ham and/or chicken ) will head the menu. But everywhere meatballs. Always meatballs. Uff da. The moral of this tale of woe: Hurry up and get to the only lutefisk-and-lefse suppers this year at either First Lutheran (Nov. 1) or Aardahl (Oct. 11—that's tonight!) or Calvary Lutheran on Nov. 29 — or attend all the suppers while there's still time! Then someday—it comes sooner than you think—you attendees can say when it's your turn to become The Older Generation and you're home sitting there alone in your rocking chair, combing what's left of your thinning white hair, reminiscing out loud: "Yeah, I can remember attending church lutefisk suppers years ago. Sure loved that stuff. Long gone now. Those were the good-ol'-days. I think. Weren't they?"

PS: Meanwhile, I hope you like meatballs.

(Note: An earlier version of this column omitted Calvary Lutheran Church as holding a lutefisk and meatball supper.)