American Swedish Institute to host drive-thru lutefisk dinner this year

The institute is keeping tradition alive, but doing it drive-thru style.
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Lutefisk, lefse and potatoes – a common Scandinavian meal eaten by Minnesotans at Christmastime.

Lutefisk, lefse and potatoes – a common Scandinavian meal eaten by Minnesotans at Christmastime.

While some lutefisk dinners have been postponed or canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tradition will continue at the American Swedish Institute – drive-thru style.

Lutefisk, a traditional Scandinavian dish of gelatinous white fish (usually cod) that has been dried and soaked in lye and then re-hydrated before being cooked, is often eaten around the holidays by Minnesotans to celebrate their heritage.

The fish is both loved and despised for its strong smell and its gelatinous texture (it's made better when served with tons of melted butter and plenty of salt and pepper), but it's a culinary experience "that everyone should have at least once," the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis says on its website.

ASI has been holding its annual lutefisk dinner for four decades, and it's keeping the much-loved tradition alive with a drive-thru lutefisk dinner on Nov. 15, presenting a rare and unique experience for people to get their baked lutefisk fix.

On the menu is baked lutefisk (of course) and other Scandinavian favorites like Swedish meatballs and lefse, as well as baby red potatoes, cucumber salad, butter and cream sauces, and rice pudding with lingonberry sauce and Pepparkakor cookie.

Reservations for the dinner are required by Nov. 8 (you can make one here). It's $40 per person for ASI members and $45 for non-members.

When you register, you can pick your preferred dinner time between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Nov. 15 ("seatings" are at 30-minute intervals). And then during your designated time, stop by ASI to pick up your dinner to enjoy either in your vehicle or on-site. 

This drive-thru dinner comes at a time when health officials are urging people to avoid large family gatherings this holiday season to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

But to continue this tradition in a time when everything has been canceled is important for ASI, even if it'll look different this year.

“It’s a continuity of tradition and gathering,” Bruce Karstadt, ASI CEO and president, told the Star Tribune. “Even virtually we can gather over a common meal. It’s an important gesture to make, and especially now."

Karstadt told the paper combining lutefisk with a drive-through is a "funny, unique and playful twist" that's safe. 

And this could be the only one of its kind in the world, the Star Tribune notes. 

The origin of the gelatinous whitefish soaked in lye isn't really known, but it's been around for centuries. Legend has it, Scandinavians needed a way to preserve the fish they caught, so they dried it and rehydrated it using lye and then soaked it in water for several days before it was safe to eat it. 

Although this process is no longer needed to preserve fish – which is why people in Norway, Sweden and Finland rarely if ever eat it – people in Minnesota and the Midwest still cling to this tradition to connect with their Scandinavian heritage at Christmas time (this tradition has started to fade, though).

In fact, Minneapolis is home to Olsen Fish Company, which claims to be the world’s largest lutefisk producer. It makes sense, though, seeing as Madison, Minnesota, claims to be the lutefisk capital and more than 800,000 Minnesotans claim Norwegian ancestry (14.9% of the state population, the second-most after German ancestry), according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

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