The hallowed lutefisk supper
My golly, it's already a New Year, and for the first time in my 85 years, I didn't get my 2021 annual lutefisk dinner of the year, something of a record I guess, because I always try to cram in one slippery meal before Christmas. I was hoping to partake at the West Wind's annual fish feed, but was saddened to hear that feast had to be cancelled because of supply shortages.
I thought my stomach was growling, and now I knew it was because this stomach hadn't received its annual cleansing with the lye or whatever treatment turns cod into a board. I wondered why until I got a phone call from an old friend and neighbor in Ellsworth, who served me lutefisk when I was selling one of my books at Our Saviors Lutheran Church in rural Ellsworth. Her name is Audrey Halvorson, and ever since I ate her lutefisk several years ago, I've called her the Queen of the Pierce County Lutefisk Conspiracy. I grew up near Audrey in Trempealeau County and attended college with her, but I never knew about her skills with the slippery fish until I moved to River Falls.
Turns out Audrey had phoned to tell me that Our Savior's was carry-out only this year and that there was some nice leftover fish in a cooler in the church basement and that it was for sale. Unfortunately, Ruth and I are leaving for Charlottesville, Va. to visit my sister Kip this week. I called Kip to see if she'd like me to bring me to bring some of Audrey's fish along. Her reply: “DEFINITELY NOT!”
Kip was not balking because it’s illegal to bring such stuff into Virginia, but unfortunately, unlike her brother, Kip is not a fan of lutefisk. This was made known to a much larger public almost 50 years ago, when I wrote a story about the Wood family that appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune and eventually landed me a job at that hallowed newspaper. Here's a sample from what made Kip famous even unto Minnesota: The November evening is dark and crisp as we pile out of the family Chevy to partake of the 1950 season's first church supper. Climbing up the steps of Pigeon Falls' high-spired white frame “Upper Church,” we catch our last glance of the white moon sitting up there in the blue-black sky and simultaneously catch our first waft from the church basement—a whiff of lutefisk.
“Uff da, I hope they got meatballs, too.” It's Kip, my sixth-grade sister sounding her oft-tobe- heard culinary judgement. “Keep quiet and fill up on lefse and sugar. You always seem to manage with that on Christmas Eve,” says Ma, who doesn't favor making a scene.
Through the double doors and into the crowded vestibule we go. A blue-haired lady at the desk sells us mimeographed tagboard tickets proclaiming the event: PIGEON FALLS LUTHERAN CHURCH SUPPER/Lutefisk-Lefse-Meatballs-Potatoes/ Rutabagas-Slaw-Pie/Adults $1.25/Children .75/ “Velkommen!” Murmurs of expectation rustle about the little room. “It shooer iss cheaper dan serving da stuff at home.”
“Yah, and yew keep dat smell outta da house, tew.”
“Yah, but day shouldn't let people eat all they vont—some make pigs outta demselves.”
“At least we got here early enough this year,” Pa says. We proceed into the church with something less than ascetic reverence. Reverend Einar Christopherson gives us each a number, that all-important number, but he's so imposing we daren't look at it right in front of him. He asks us in his basso profundo to take seats in a pew and wait for our numbers to be called.
Into the pew we slide, a pew rubbed lustrous by more than 60 years of navy blue pinstripes and black plush overcoats. We glance at our numbers. “Five hundred and twentyseven?” grumbles Pa. “Five hundred and thirty?” whimpers Kip.
“Shh—maybe they're already into the four hundreds,” suggests Ma.
“ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY THROUGH TWO HUNDRED AND NINETEEN,” shouts a ruddy fellow framed by the door which leads to the odorous basement. “Why an odd number?” asks brother Doug squirming. Pa has the answer. “It's old Archie Webb's fault, he usually eats through five sittings. That rich old sonofa….”
And we all sing. Hymn after hymn after hymn, as people slowly file out and down the basement stairs as others enter a pew late, finished with the cursed milking. Finally, in the middle of the fourth time through “Living for Jesus,” our numbers come up and we proceed numb-reared to the basement, where yellowed maps of the Holy Land, the Cradle Roll and last week's S.S. attendance deck the halls.
Here come the red-armed husky ladies with mammoth porcelain bowls of fluffy mashed potatoes, platters of speckled potato lefse, pitchers of melted butter from the Pigeon falls Creamery Ass., and lutefisk, all shimmery flakey, slipping and sliding around on the biggest platters of all.
It was, as you might guess, worth the wait. Except for Kip, of course, who wished she had gone to Girl Scouts, as did lots of Tribune readers who wrote me telling me to be nicer to my sister. And thank you, Your Highness Audrey Halvorson, for eliciting fond memories.
Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.
BY DAVE WOOD