Cuisine, Molly Reppen — November 10, 2012 at 2:29 am

Lutefisk Links Norwegians in Wisconsin to their Past and Present

The view from Vermont Lutheran Church
The scenic view looking out from Vermont Lutheran Church. Photo by: Molly Reppen

By: Molly Reppen

They have a system.

In the crowded kitchen are the cooks, preparing lefse and meatballs and melting butter in a crockpot. In the dining room are the servers and bussers, waiting on guests.

But the most important thing in the chaotic, yet organized, Vermont Lutheran Church tonight is lutefisk.

Simply, lutefisk is dried cod, but it’s also something much more. Only the bravest of the brave can face the smelly, gelatinous creature. To prepare lutefisk, the dried cod must go through a process of being soaked in water, rinsed, dipped in lye and rinsed again, before you can cook it and eventually eat it.

This odd dish is more than just a fish. It’s a tradition. Lutefisk is and has been a symbol of identity for Norwegian-Americans since their arrival to the United States in the late 19th century. People who attend the lutefisk dinner at Vermont Lutheran Church don’t come because lutefisk is tasty. They come because it means their roots will continue on. Lutefisk means that Norwegian-American culture is here to stay.

Norwegians in Wisconsin

Vermont Lutheran Church in Black Earth, Wis., is an old country church off Highway 78, nestled in the hillside since 1856. The remnants of old farm life still remain in this beautiful Wisconsin countryside. Along with the rural towns surrounding the area, Vermont Lutheran Church’s members take great pride in their very strong Norwegian ties.

Harald Norslien and Dave Dybdahl are two members and lutefisk dinner chairs at Vermont Lutheran Church. Their long and storied history, not only with the church, but with the lutefisk dinner, has gone through good times and bad.

“If we can’t laugh with and at ourselves, we’re in pretty tough shape. The roots run kind of deep, and it’s interesting, ya know,” says Norslien. A 76-year-old man with quirky, knock-knock-joke humor, Norslien has been a member of the church for quite some time. Like other older members in his community, he was born in the area and baptized at Vermont.

“I’ve been singing here since I was two, and that was 79 years ago,” Dybdahl says. “And to this day, I hate the smell of shoe polish. Because when I was having my shoes polished, I knew I was going to sing, and I was scared.”

“That’s the recall of the human mind,” Norslien says.

“This is a very family-oriented church, and I think you’ll find with a lot of country churches, and the cemetery being right out beside the church here, that the ancestry is very strong,” says Vermont Lutheran Church Pastor Chad Christensen, referencing the nearby graves honoring popular Scandinavian names like Olsen and Johnson.  “This Norwegian flavor of things has been handed down.”

For Vermont Lutheran Church, the annual lutefisk dinner held the third Saturday of October is one of three fundraising events of the year, bringing in about $16,000, says Christensen.

“There’s 23 subcommittees. Someone in charge of cranberries, someone in charge of getting the lutefisk that comes from Minnesota. Then there’s the committee for parking the cars, to getting all the waitresses together,” says Christensen. “This wide-ranging scope is pretty important for the church.”

Christensen says the funds raised from the dinner are a source of pride for the congregation. Three-fourths of the money raised at the lutefisk dinner is sent to their Synod benevolence, supporting the larger Lutheran church ministries, says Christensen.

“When it comes around to the dinner, there’s just a benevolent spirit that this money that’s raised doesn’t come back to us,” says Christensen.

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