A taste tradition: Lutefisk, lefse, rommegrot draw stalwart Scandinavians to area's traditional church suppers
Tucked in the corner of a busy kitchen in First Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks, a team of white-clad "lutefisk chefs" led by Carrol Juven hover around steaming vats of the traditional Norwegian fish.
Like a well-oiled machine, the chefs are calm and collected as they carefully lower metal baskets of filets into hot saltwater, surrounded by workers making mashed potatoes, slicing lefse and delivering platters of food to the serving table.
Juven, 82, tests the water temperature and checks to see if the lutefisk is properly cooked by inserting a large meat fork into it.
"If it drops from the fork, it's done," he said.
He should know; he's been at this for more than 50 years.
At this Dec. 8 lutefisk and meatball dinner, "The fish was absolutely awesome—big filets," Juven said.
About 150 pounds of lutefisk had been flown here from Norway a few days earlier, and was never frozen, another factor in achieving the best taste, he said.
"We wash it down, then it's cut into serving-size pieces, then it goes into baskets and reserve trays," he said.
The fish is cooked in saltwater that must be between 160 and 194 degrees, he said. "You never boil it. You don't let it boil."
Other preparation methods come up short, he said.
"At many of the churches, they try to bake it—and that doesn't work."
Juven, who owns and operates Juven Travel and Tours in Fargo, has been to Norway 174 times, he said, and has witnessed the holiday tradition that's been passed down to generations of Americans of Scandinavian descent.
"It's a delightful experience to enjoy the lutefisk and to preserve the delicacy," he said.
'Very good lutefisk'
Elaine Einarson was impressed.
"This is very good lutefisk," she said.
She and her husband, Einar, were among the more than 200 people who streamed into First Presbyterian Church for the dinner.
"We come to dinners like this every time they have it," said Einar Einarson, seated next to his wife at one of the big round tables.
"She likes the lutefisk, and I like the meatballs," he said.
But Einar isn't "anti-lutefisk."
"It's good fish," he said. "I just can't have the butter."
Judy Simmons, who was working the dinner, said she and other church members made 627 meatballs two days ahead of the event.
"I didn't know how to make lefse; I'd like to learn," she said. "I love rolling (the dough)."
Simmons grew up attending dinners like this at "little country churches" in the area around her rural Langdon, N.D., home.
"I've been going to these dinners since I was 6 years old," she said. "They served turkey or ham for those who didn't like lutefisk. My dad really loved it."
At many dinners, the distinctive aroma of lutefisk may be off-putting, she said, but Juven and his team have mastered the art.
"That's one thing they've perfected, the smell. You can't smell it three miles down the road."
Juven was invited by First Presbyterian to prepare lutefisk for the dinner. He was joined by Larry Skalet, Ken Hawkins and Calvin Jokstad, all of Fargo.
"Calvin is 92," Juven said. "He's a connoisseur of lutefisk."
Juven and his helpers have prepared lutefisk for large crowds, especially this time of year when there's a flurry of church-sponsored dinners.
""We do about 20 every season," he said. "And we're happy to do others—like fundraisers for schools and churches."
Passing on the tradition
About whether young people will carry on the tradition of eating lutefisk during the Christmas holiday season, the Einarsons are skeptical but encouraged.
"I'm not certain about that, but I think some of them will," Einar said.
There is cause for hope in the Einarson family tree.
"My 11-year-old granddaughter wants me to make it for her," Elaine said. "She wants to try it."
The Rev. Spencer Homan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, is not so sure.
"At last year's dinner, I was the youngest person in the building," said Homan, 41. "We served about 160—and all of them, I would say, were 50 and older."
Some who attended came from as far as an hour away, he said.
Among his congregants, "the belief is that lefse will stay, but lutefisk is probably going to go out—it probably won't last the next few generations."
For his part, Homan said, "I don't hate lutefisk, but I don't love it. Does that makes sense?
"The special way (Juven and his team) make it here, it's not like Vaseline. It's shipped in fresh, and prepared right."
This is the fourth year the church has hosted a lutefisk and meatball dinner, said Bonnie Jacob-Forseth of Grand Forks, a church elder who heads the hospitality committee.
With a total of 213 diners served, the event was "way bigger than last year," she said. "We were surprised."
She attributes the good turnout to favorable weather and positive word-of-mouth.
In the past, poor weather and sporting events reduced attendance at the dinner, she said.
"We did more advertising this year, and word-of-mouth helps—most people say good things about it."
'Like kittens in a creamery'
Juven and his crew travel year-round to prepare lutefisk for church dinners and other events, he said. "We'll go anywhere in the area."
They have gone as far as Rugby and Watford City, N.D., to prepare lutefisk for appreciative Scandinavians.
At churches in Fargo, such as Hope and First Lutheran, the dinners draw hundreds, said Juven.
"When you're cooking for 600 or 700, you're looking for a chair soon."
Juven is well aware of the varied responses when the word "lutefisk" comes up in conversation.
He's heard plenty about it at the dinners where he's served as chief lutefisk chef.
"It's fun to hear these people and their reactions—'nobody likes lutefisk'—but you can't hardly get into the place," he said.
"Once you get started, they're like kittens in a creamery."