A loved and hated tradition: Lutefisk

by Amy Doeun

Contributing writer 

Members of the North Chisago County Historical Society gathered at the Rushseba Town Hall Feb. 7 to hear a talk about one of the most loved and hated Scandinavian traditions: lutefisk.
Marilyn McGriff is the local historian who gave the presentation. She began by giving some background about her life.
“I grew up just a mile from the Day Fish Company in East Central Minnesota,” she said. “It is west of Braham about 10 miles between highways 65 and 47. When I was growing up, it was quite a viable cross-roads community. We sold our milk to the Day Dairy. There was a feed mill, garage and tavern.”
The creamery eventually closed. It had owned and maintained a locker plant as a service to its members.
“It was a big walk-in freezer with drawers where the patrons of the cooperative community could store their frozen meats and vegetables,” McGriff said.
McGriff remembered that when the creamery closed, the buildings were vacant for awhile. Then brothers Walter and Roy Bolling “came along and bought the locker plant and turned it into a lutefisk processing plant.”
By this time, McGriff had moved from the area, but when she came back she recalled how the Day Fish company had already become a classic.
“People would go there, and it smelled so bad your clothes would pick up the smell,” she remembered. “The place screamed ‘novel.’ I started writing a local history mystery (featuring the Fish Company).”
She began by gathering “all the lore about lutefisk.”
McGriff’s grandmother had come from Norway. She grew up on the coast of Norway and had access to fresh fish all year round. McGriff said she remembers her saying, “Why would I eat that stuff (lutefisk) when I had fresh fish?”
Lutefisk is made by taking dried cod and reconstituting it in a solution of lye and water. The Day Fish Company still ships in bales of dried cod from Norway.
“They have it in this lye solution and have to rinse it several times,” McGriff said. “The customers can pick out what they consider to be the choice pieces of fish. They are one of only three (companies that make lutefisk) in Minnesota. They provide most of the lutefisk for church dinners.”
During the holidays, many churches and social organizations hold lutefisk dinners. One traditional way to eat it is to warm the lutefisk and cover it with cream gravy.
“I find it curious that it (lutefisk) has been preserved as a Scandinavian tradition,” McGriff said. “Why has this one endured? You hardly find in Scandinavia today.”
McGriff said candidly that there are many more traditions that she finds much tastier, but it is interesting that this stinky fish is the one that has continued.
Her new book, “Caught in the Lye,” takes place in and around the Day Fish Company.
“Lutefisk runs through this whole book, and the smell of it and the fact that it is still a tradition,” McGriff said. “I discovered stories that people would tell me about their experiences with lutefisk. I am a local historian, so I have a lot of stories from doing research. It was really fun to be able to weave them in. Most of the stories in the book are real and did happen, maybe not in the same context and time frame, but they did happen.”
“Caught in the Lye” is available at Scout and Morgan books and Memorial Hospital Gift Shop in Cambridge as well as Braham Country Floral.
For more information, visit www.marimaconline.com.

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