SPICER — With one hand holding a heavy stoneware plate, Joel Piepenburg uses the other hand to scoop up chunks of white, boiled lutefisk.
When he’s done, there is barely a speck of plate showing under the heap of fish.
Next — faced with the choice of pouring melted butter or white sauce on top — Piepenburg opts to smother his lutefisk in sauce and tops that off with a little drizzle of butter.
He skips the mashed potatoes, meatballs and corn that’s part of the buffet. He can get that stuff at home, he said.
He’s here for the lutefisk.
“It’s kind of a family tradition,” said Piepenburg, of Sunburg. “I like the flavor. I like the taste.”
Welcome to the annual lutefisk supper at Faith Lutheran Church in Spicer. It’s one of many lutefisk suppers held in Minnesota, especially during October and November.
Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar maintains their tradition of hosting a lutefisk supper on Election Day. This year, that’s Nov. 5, starting at 3 p.m.
Meals featuring the famed Norwegian fish are dwindling, especially in rural Minnesota where the number of small churches that had traditionally hosted lutefisk suppers are also dwindling.
The number of old-timers who actually like lutefisk may also be dwindling.
At Faith Lutheran the event is a fundraiser for youth activities, which gets kids involved.
It’s hoped that while serving lefse and pouring milk for guests, the youth will also take a taste of lutefisk.
“They may be the eaters of the future,” said Jeff Johnson, who wears an apron and chef’s hat proclaiming him as the lutefisk chef at Faith Lutheran.
Johnson spends most of his time in the church’s garage where a team of volunteers opens up several 50-pound boxes of lutefisk from Olsen’s Fish Company of Minneapolis.
They drop the pieces of reconstituted, lye-soaked cod fillets into pots of boiling water, filling the garage with clouds of steam saturated with the fragrance of lutefisk.
After about six minutes of being boiled the fish is drained, put in serving dishes, covered and whisked across the yard, through the church kitchen and to the buffet line.
“It’s just perfectly and delicately made for every good, strong Scandinavian and those others that like fine fish as well,” said Johnson, who’s pretty good at laying on a nice thick layer of a Fargo-style Norwegian lilt.
Johnson said the reason there are fewer lutefisk suppers now than in the past is because people just haven’t tried it.
“There are a lot less individuals that think it tastes good. That’s just because they haven’t had an opportunity to try it,” he said. “So we keep our ticket prices low so that they have an opportunity to come and visit, try the meatballs, try a little fish, enjoy the tradition.”
Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Fish Company, is the major provider of lutefisk in the upper Midwest, especially after he purchased Mike’s Fish & Seafood of Glenwood in 2015.
Dorff sells about a half-million pounds of lutefisk every year. He said that’s significantly less than 20 years ago but the volume has “remained pretty steady over the last few years.
The biggest drop has been in grocery store sales, but he said of the list of churches he used to provide lutefisk to in the past, many are not doing it now. He said even churches that draw large crowds are still buying less lutefisk because people are taking smaller helpings of lutefisk and opting, instead, for more meatballs.
In the past it would take 500 pounds of lutefisk to feed 500 people, Dorff said. Now it takes about 300 pounds.
But Dorff said the allure of lutefisk is strong.
“People will travel,” he said. “It’s amazing how far people will go when they know there’s a good one (lutefisk supper).”
Johnson said lutefisk is the star of the show at the annual church suppers, but it’s about more than just eating fish. “Mainly it’s a way for people to get together. We keep the tradition alive, (that) is the idea,” he said.
Dorff said the company will keep selling lutefisk.
“This historical company will keep making it as long as there’s three or more people out there buying it,” he said.
Who knows, there could be a revival around the corner.
Lee Byberg, who was born in Norway and lived there into his teen years before moving to Minnesota, said the first time he ate lutefisk was in Willmar. “And I just love it now,” he said.
During recent trips back to Norway with his wife, Nancy, Byberg said lutefisk is getting trendy back in the old country and is served in traditional ways and new ways — including using it instead of taco meat and serving it with bacon.
“It’s considered high class again,” said Byberg as he dished up a plate of the fish at the Faith Lutheran Church supper.
“In the old days it was poor man’s food,” he said. “But now it’s back in style, big time. History has a way of coming back, so the generations discover that old stuff was actually nice.”