PARK RIVER, N.D. – It took a pandemic to remove lutefisk from the annual Park River Bible Camp menu.

After 44 years of serving lutefisk, this year ham and meatballs will be the headliners at the Sunday, Sept. 27, dinner, which, for the first time, will be held at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Park River, instead of at at the bible camp northwest of town.

Bible camp dinner organizers doubted that members of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church congregation would appreciate the odor of lutefisk lingering in the air for weeks, so decided not to serve it this year, said Rebecca Kjelland, Park River Bible Camp's executive director.

The location of the dinner was moved from the bible camp to the church in Park River because it is a more central location to serve takeout food, Kjelland said.

While the meatballs and ham can be cooked at the bible camp kitchen and transported to Our Saviour’s, packing up and moving the lutefisk isn’t feasible, Kjelland said.

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Preparing the lutefisk is a lengthy process that begins on the Friday before the dinner, when the fish is put in a water-filled horse trough lined with plastic and soaked for 24 hours. Then it's rinsed and soaked in water for another 24 hours before volunteers fillet it and cut it into portions.

“You boil it in special pots that have been used for 43 years,” Kjelland said.

Dinner organizers know that the lutefisk will be missed because the dinner annually draws about 700 people, according to Kjelland.

“People would come out of the woodwork for this lutefisk. It was odd. People either love it or hate it,” Kjelland said.

Mother-in-law Sheryl Kjelland is one of the lutefisk lovers – though as a child she didn’t appreciate the odor of the fish.

“I thought it was stinky,” she said, noting that she started overlooking the order and liking the taste when she was dating her now-husband Orville Kjelland.

”It has to grow on you,” said Audrey Blair, who was forming meat into balls on the other side of the counter from Kjelland.

Kjelland and Blair, two long-time bible camp dinner volunteers, were part of a crew of about a dozen who were making meatballs for the dinner on Friday morning. The volunteers used 175 pounds of hamburger and pork sausage, mixed with 25 pounds of bread crumbs, several dozen eggs, 15 pounds of onions and assorted spices for the meatballs.

Lynda Hurtt, a dinner co-chair, was mixing the ingredients. A veteran of making meatballs for many bible camp dinners, Hurtt knew how many bread crumbs to add to the meat by feel as she mixed it with her gloved hands.

“This seems mushy,” she said, as she reached for a bag of bread crumbs and poured them into the bowl.

On Sunday, the meatballs will be added to 15 pounds of gravy and sold, in individual takeout containers, as part of the dinner that also includes mashed potatoes and gravy, ham and lefse.

Volunteers prepared enough food for 400 takeout dinners. The bible camp staff and board expressed hope they will sell out of the dinners. Proceeds from the dinner are even more important to the bible camp’s bottom line this year because the annual events that it hosts, such as a diabetes camp, that are major revenue sources, were canceled because of the pandemic, Kjelland said.

The cost for the takeout dinner, which will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, is $25 at the door and $20 for pre-sale.