Editor’s Note: Thanksgiving is the time for a traditional meal… but it’s not the only traditional meal that turns up in the fall in the midwest. In parts of Wisconsin with Nordic heritage, lutefisk suppers centered around that famously pungent form of air-dried, lye-cured fish are still common, and one of the most popular is at Vermont Lutheran Church in Black Earth, a half hour west of Madison. Chicago food historian Peter Engler invites us inside that alternative fall tradition, where volunteers prepare and serve over 1000 pounds of traditionally-cured cod to the sold-out crowd in the church basement. His photos and descriptions begin below.
On the third Saturday of October, lutefisk lovers flock to Black Earth for what many consider the best dinner in south-central Wisconsin. As they have for years, volunteers at Vermont Lutheran Church prepare over half a ton of cured codfish as well as many meatballs, plenty of potatoes and lots of lefse.
While waiting for tables to become available, most guests relaxed in the church’s beautiful sanctuary. I chose to wander around, watching the volunteers prepare rounds of lefse (a soft flatbread), pots of egg coffee, and of course, the lutefisk.
Rolling out large rounds of potato dough to make lefse requires lots of skill and some specialized equipment. Rolling pins, both grooved and spiked, and heavyweight Amish denim cloths are important tools.
Here a young volunteer checks lefse on the cooling rack to be sure it’s ready to be cut into wedges.
Old-fashioned egg coffee is made by mixing a couple eggs, shells and all, into ground coffee…
… which gets boiled in these old pots. The eggs help settle the coffee grounds and provide extra body. Very good coffee, by the way.
Back in the graveyard the soaked lutefisk gets hosed down before cooking.
The small kitchen in the church’s basement had been cranking out lutefisk all day. Here, the head lutefisk cook gets an encouraging pat on the back as he heads into the last hour of cooking.
The star of the show. Several heaping platters of lutefisk were demolished by our table of ten. I was amazed at the quantity some guests were able to put away.
Meatballs were also available as well as boiled potatoes, green beans, an excellent cranberry sauce, lefse and pitchers of melted butter. Pour it on until pools form on the plate… then you’re ready to eat!
What’s the perfect dessert to follow all that butter? That’s right, rømmegrøt, a sour cream pudding swimming in more butter. A small bowl of this stuff nearly did me in.
And of course a platter of butter cookies. Some seriously talented bakers were at work here. That coffee was an absolute necessity at this point.
I’ve eaten lutefisk a number of times but never particularly enjoyed it. This was by far the best I’ve had. I never thought I’d say it but I wouldn’t mind finding another church dinner before this year’s lutefisk season is over.