Couple’s idea of fun: Lutefisk outings

Published 3:30 pm Saturday, January 9, 2010

Len and Mavis Brown have traveled 400 miles from their home in a single day for a Scandinavian feast.

They’ve also found it outside of Phoenix. But natives of Norway they met during travels there had no idea what they were talking about.


Email newsletter signup

The much-maligned fish, often served during the holidays, deserves a better reputation beyond lutefisk enthusiasts, the Browns contend. And it may be all in the cook’s experience. Lutefisk’s taste is hard to pin down. The Browns describe it as mild-flavored white fish. But it’s best, they said, when firm, even flaky. Soft or jelly-like, over-cooked lutefisk may be best left on the plate.

And the Browns should know.

The Baxter couple typically travel the region in search of a good lutefisk church dinner. In 2007, they went to 13 lutefisk dinners. In 2008, there were an even dozen. With a few days left in 2009, the Browns had taken in eight lutefisk dinners and were making plans to get in their first of 2010 in January.

“It’s really sort of a fun thing and the people that are at these dinners — they enjoy it,” Len said. “It’s almost entertainment for us to go to these things and we enjoy the food.”

Two of the best on their list are in lake country at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Pequot Lakes and First Lutheran Church in Pine River. They recommend the lutefisk with milk gravy and melted butter, salt and pepper.

Think of it, they say, as Norwegian lobster. It comes with a feast of homemade meat balls, lefse, boiled potatoes, coleslaw and desserts like pie and cookies. At Trinity Lutheran Church in Milaca, the dinner has included Swedish potato sausage and ham and nearly 10 different Christmas cookies. In Scandia, the 150-year-old church fellowship hall includes roasted Swedish brown beans with the meal. There is even an election night lutefisk dinner in Staples. Often the dinners are combined with bake or craft sales.

The Browns both started eating lutefisk as children. Len, who is 100 percent Norwegian, grew up in Remer. Mavis, half Norwegian and half Swedish, grew up in Fargo, N.D. The couple, now married 51 years, met at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

The charm of the churches, servers in traditional Norwegian attire and the mix of young and old from the congregation involved in the dinner all make the feast more than just a plate of lutefisk.

But the Browns also enjoy the helpings of the fish. They attended church dinners, but it wasn’t until they discovered an online list that they began planning out trips for the delicacy.

At, prepared by Jim “Nordblad” Harris, they found dinners listed across the upper Midwest, in snowbird country and across the U.S. Minnesota. Iowa. Wisconsin. North and South Dakota. Illinois. Montana. Arizona. California. Florida. Washington. Texas. Cafes rub shoulders with Lutheran churches and fraternal clubs and other organizations on the list. About 23 pages worth. The dinners typically cost $13 to $17.

When the Browns lived in Phoenix they found the lutefisk dinners had migrated along with the snowbirds, with meals offered in Mesa and Scottsdale where the Sons of Norway Lodge is called the Desert Fjord. The Browns plan to take in some lutefisk when they are in Arizona in February.

“I think he is addicted to lutefisk to tell the truth,” Mavis said of her husband and smiled.

The Browns have traveled to Norway twice and loved the country and the city of Oslo. But lutefisk wasn’t a hot menu item.

“You can’t find lutefisk in Norway and some people have never heard of it,” Len said. When the people are eating fresh salmon, he said, the dried cod is a tougher sell. “We have more of a lutefisk tradition in Minnesota than they do in Norway.”

Lutefisk traces its history back to Norway where the dried cod was kept in lye for preservation before refrigeration was available. When a fish meal was desired, the dried fish was soaked until it was reconstituted to its former form. The skin is removed and the fish cut into chunks. Legend has it the Norwegians prefer the milk gravy topping while the Swedes lean to the melted butter.

Not all their friends are convinced.

“Some friends say you could put cream gravy and melted butter on an old boot and make it taste good,” Len said.

The cordial couple has a solid sense of humor about their lutefisk trips. Asked for a favorite saying, Len replied: “Eating lutefisk makes you smarter.”

“He tells everyone that,” Mavis said and laughed.

When Len told that to an older lady taking tickets at one of the church dinners, he said: “She looked up at me and said — ‘I don’t think it’s working.’”