LITCHFIELD, Minnesota (AP) — Dozens of Scandinavians and the people who love them flock to the VFW Club in Litchfield, Minnesota, every Thursday from November through January, where $20 will get you a steaming hunk of the frequently mocked fish dish known as lutefisk. It comes with meatballs, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and the potato flatbread known as lefse — all of which helps to make up for the dubious entree.
"Butter helps it slide down your throat," said Dennis Voss, the husband of a Norwegian-American, revealing his own survival secret for stomaching the gelatinous blob. America's foodie culture has inspired a new generation of chefs and adventurous eaters who have mined ethnic food traditions to create gourmet delicacies. Even Scandinavian cuisine is sharing the spotlight, with Copenhagen's world-renowned Noma, where diners wait months for reservations.
But lutefisk, a dried white cod reconstituted in caustic chemicals, is one heritage dish that has remained stubbornly unimproved. Yet it lives on in places where people of Scandinavian descent are numerous.
A list of churches, Scandinavian cultural gatherings, restaurants and clubs that serve lutefisk runs to 22 pages on one website dedicated to the dish, showcasing sites in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, the Dakotas, Montana, Washington as well as winter outposts like Arizona and Florida.
While their ancestors needed hardy food that wouldn't spoil, lutefisk fanciers agree the reason to eat it now is less obvious — or lost entirely. "You have to try it at least three times," said Voss, 79.
The heart of lutefisk country is west of Minneapolis, where prairies were heavily settled by Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A sign in the town of Madison welcomes visitors to "Lutefisk Capital U.S.A."
Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis, a major supplier of lutefisk, said he's read histories that trace the dish to the time of the Vikings. The unusual process of drying and later re-hydrating it was born of necessity in a part of the world where long winters required creativity in food storage and preparation.
"It wasn't about enjoying food, like the Italians," said Dorff, whose company still buys all its dried ling cod for lutefisk from Norway. "It was about sustenance." At Bachelor Farmer, which recently landed a spot on Bon Appetit magazine's 2012 list of the 10 best new restaurants in America, you'll find a modern take on Swedish meatballs and other Scandinavian-inflected delicacies. But no lutefisk.
Paul Berglund, the chef, never tried lutefisk until recently. He found it "not that gross." Berglund said he wouldn't rule out putting lutefisk on the Bachelor Farmer menu someday. "But only if I could figure out a way to do it that would make it nearly impossible to dislike."
Dorff said his lutefisk sales drop about 5 percent every year, but he has no plans to stop making it. Dorff was asked if he really likes lutefisk. There was a very long pause. "Yeah, I do," Dorff said. "It's just one of those things. I'd prefer a piece of halibut or some crab legs. But I like it. It's got butter on it. Butter is good."