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Searching for the Truth About Lutefisk Among the Lutefisk Lovers

November 26, 1991 GMT

WASHBURN, N.D. (AP) _ The steamed-up church windows were visible a block away. It was a tell-tale sign that lutefisk, the lye-cured codfish favored by Scandinavians, was being boiled inside.

Lutefisk (pronounced LOOT-eh-fisk) has a horrible reputation, a strong fishy odor and a somewhat wobbly texture. If it was a living, breathing person, it might feel entitled to file a slander lawsuit, based on the things that have been said about it.

But you shouldn’t always believe what you hear.

Only at a Lutheran church dinner where white Scandinavian foods - mashed potatoes, lefse and lutefisk all smothered in butter - dominate the plates can lutefisk be properly judged.

The annual lutefisk feed at the First Lutheran Church on Oct. 27 was to begin at 3 p.m. But by 2:20 p.m., the sanctuary had become a holding room for about 75 people who plunked down $7.50 for the meal.

Has Pastor Owen Gaasedelen ever had parishioners arrive 40 minutes early to sit on hard pews waiting for his sermon? Probably not.

Ticket-takers politely pointed folks toward the food in the church basement, where steam was pouring from boiling kettles full of the fish. The five-man cooking crew attempted to vent the strong aroma of uncooked fish straight out a window with the help of a fan.

The cooks were raving about the delicacy they were creating, all 650 pounds of it.

″We haven’t lost a soul on lutefisk yet,″ said ″Stork″ Nordqist, the chief cook. ″But a few have choked on meatballs.″

Meatballs, a decidedly non-Nordic staple since they contain spices, were on the menu for the benefit of other ethnic groups in this town 40 miles north of Bismarck.

Over in the preparation room, Elmer and Arlene Schwarz were seated on plastic mini-chairs usually occupied by Sunday school kindergartners.

Yes, Elmer admitted, ″I taste the lutefisk just to say I did it.″

One diner suggested, ″One thing about eating lutefisk. You can wear dirty socks and nobody’ll even notice.″

Lutefisk doesn’t stink after it’s cooked, and it looks like lots of other fish. There’s no secret recipe - lutefisk is just fish, salt and water. Lye is used to preserve the fish, which is boiled thoroughly so that the chemical is removed.

Judge for yourself. Simply being in the same room with it won’t hurt you. But you might be smothered by the hospitality of Scandinavian Lutherans.