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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Fringe Foods: Lutefisk dinner at Lakeview Lutheran Church in Madison
Scandinavians concoct a blessedly rare congregation of whitefish and lye
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Lefse, cole slaw, cranberries, and lutefisk make for a smörgåsbord of goodness at Lakeview Lutheran.
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

Leave it to the descendants of the Vikings to celebrate a food prepared with a caustic and highly dangerous substance. Those were some bad-ass guys. Sure, you can get some bad French cheese that'll make you sick, or a spoiled hunk of Italian ham. Admit it, though; each are awfully good-lookin' and safe iconic eats.

But lutefisk... Boy, lutefisk. You just can't argue for many other well-known cultures that embrace a dish so funky, so weird, and so potentially dangerous to prepare. And it's especially jarring to be served such an unusual dish by such warm and friendly folks. They're smiling like they really don't realize they're serving you a holy heapin' helping of chemical-soaked, gelatinous fish.

As usual, an examination of this fringe food leads to necessity as the mother of abomination. In this case, the whitefish -- alternately cod, haddock, or pollock -- is dried to preserve it. Sure, you think... that makes sense. Dried or salt-cured fish takes a good couple days to reconstitute in water. So far, so good. But then you've got the same time sensitivity that you'd have with fresh fish, so you've got to do something to stave off spoilage. You might just eat it right then. The Scandinavians soak the fish in caustic lye.

Yes, lye, also known as sodium hydroxide. The stuff that'll blind you. Burn you chemically. Explode when in contact with aluminum. And incidentally, the same stuff that makes pretzels and bagels nice and shiny-brown on top. The lye denatures the protein in the fish, similarly to any heating process, but is then rinsed away thoroughly before cooking and eating. Sure, it's so close to toxic that the Wisconsin State Statutes specifically exempts lutefisk (PDF) from being a legally toxic substance, namely in Section 101.58 (2)(j)(f). But that doesn't mean it isn't safe to eat.

Lutefisk is pretty darn strange, though, and oftentimes smelly. You've got to find a good chef that'll make lutefisk the right way, otherwise you'll be holding your nose a la all those drama queens on YouTube. Fortunately, here in Wisconsin there is no shortage of traditional lutefisk done right. I found an open seat and a welcoming grin last Friday afternoon at Lakeview Lutheran Church on the north side of Madison.

The lutefisk feast is an annual occurrence at Lutheran churches in areas with large Scandinavian populations -- see: small-town Wisconsin, much of the Dakotas, Seattle, the entire state of Minnesota. Throughout November, these churches will clear out a basement or meeting room, dust off the Nesco roasters, and line up the buffet. And for the squeamish, there's always more than just lutefisk.

Lakeview Lutheran sticks pretty close to tradition (that's why they call it that), and serves up a starchy and dense bounty of seasonal fare both familiar and otherwise. Mashed potatoes with gravy, creamy cole slaw, and cranberries shouldn't surprise anyone who's eaten a Thanksgiving Day meal. Other churches offer green beans, whole boiled potatoes, or peas. Lefse is a potato flatbread almost indistinguishable from a tortilla. It's good for gravy soaking, and is often dressed with butter and brown sugar.

Most folks who don't come for the fish, come for the meatballs. These are your traditional Swedish meatballs, but there are clear differences between church basement meatballs and, say, the ones from an IKEA food court. Lakeview's meatballs are clearly hand-made, and thus the size and stability fluctuates, whereas everything about IKEA's meatballs screams "mechanically mass-produced." The sweet/savory sauce remains, though, and the serving bowls are kept full.

Lakeview's lutefisk doesn't stink, and I mean that in every way possible. Primarily, it truly doesn't smell badly. I could tell as soon as I walked in the front door that fish was being cooked, but that's true of any Door County fish boil or a VFW hall on Friday evenings. Nothing was retch-worthy, nothing approached the stank of durian. I was seated with a happily chatting group of diners at a front table, and loaded up my plate.

Lutefisk still looks a bit like fish. You can tell there's a flake structure there, but none of the flakiness remains. The cells of the whitefish have been so barraged by heat and chemical that they've turned into a loosely-constrained goo. I suspect that a Dr. Scholl's gel insert would have about the same texture.

The most popular way to eat lutefisk is to douse it in melted butter. With this method, I see benefits in that it tastes like butter, and is even easier to slide down the throat. The drawbacks, however, are significant. The butter turns your plate into even more of a gooey soup, and starts to resolidify if you don't eat fast enough. I found it best to pour on a little melted butter, and supplement it with a little soft butter on your plate to apply with each bite.

Like I said, a shoe insert comes to mind when dealing with the texture. So too, do those sticky rubber toys from coin-op vending machines at the grocery store. The fish is surprisingly firm in places, but slippery all over and usually squishy. The fish flavor has been clobbered by the prep process about as much as the fish texture. It's clear why so much butter is added; there's hardly any other flavor left.

This is not a menu item that needs to be available year 'round. It's weird, it's labor-intensive, and it's not exactly a crowd-pleaser. But in a specific crowd, it actually does bring in the droves. I'm not a Lutheran, but I felt that sense of community with the other folks at the table -- strangers, all.

There's only one area lutefisk feast left this year, on Wednesday, December 3 at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Rubicon. Even if you only go for the meatballs, consider making the trip. I bet everyone will be happy to see you, and that makes any meal a good one.

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