The following essay first appeared in “The EnLightener,” Bethel Lutheran Church’s newsletter, in December 2011.
The Lutefisk Supper is a longstanding annual event which the community and surrounding area looks forward to the first Tuesday in December. Serving begins around 4:00 p.m. and continues until 8:00 p.m.
The Bethel congregation was organized in 1892 and incorporated on October 31, 1892. The first building was purchased from the Swedish Mission Friends in 1892 and stood on 11th Street Southwest in Little Falls. Of course, their faith, traditions and love of their Swedish roots were also incorporated into that first church. The Worship Services were held in Swedish for some time.
In searching through the Swedish minutes of the Bethel Ladies Aid, we found the first mention of a Lutefisk Supper was on February 21, 1925. It was held at their regular meeting. The dinners continued up until World War II, then started again soon after the war was over.
The menu consisted of lutefisk, but not always meatballs. Ham or Swiss steak was sometimes served. The butter and milk were contributed by the farmers. The salad was usually cranberry and dessert was angel food cake and jello. The cost of the meal was 35 cents, serving approximately 180 people, with a total income of $64.17.
Today advertising is done in the local paper, local radio station and TV station. Posters are also displayed at local churches and businesses. The meal costs $15.00 at the door ($13.00 for advance tickets) and around 600 people are served. The meal consists of lutefisk (350-400 lbs.), potatoes (200 lbs.), white sauce, gravy, Swedish meatballs (150 lbs.), lefse, coleslaw, cranberries, homemade breads, and cookies and pie for dessert.
It is an entire church participation event, needing table setters, flatware wrappers, potato peelers, meatball rollers (a.k.a. “holy rollers”), pie, cookie and bread bakers, white sauce preparers, coleslaw makers, waiters, servers, ticket takers, ushers, and, of course, lutefisk wrappers, cutters and cooks. (I’m sure that there are more jobs that I’ve overlooked.)
I would also like to share how my experience with lutefisk began.
It was at a very young age, as it is our family tradition to serve lutefisk at every holiday, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. My dad, Morris (Mauritz) Hallberg, however, would eat it anytime it was available. At the table Dad would have the potatoes, dressing, coleslaw, gravy, vegetables, jello all on his plate, THEN, the lutefisk and white sauce would be poured over everything on his plate.
Grandpa Oscar Hallberg came from Sweden and actually taught my German mother, Anne, how to prepare the precious lutefisk.
Grandpa and Dad have both passed, but we have many fond memories of glorious celebrations around the table when lutefisk was served.
I think of Dad and Grandpa in heaven and it reminds me of a poem that was written by the late Red Stangeland of Sioux Falls, SD (he won ten pounds of lutefisk for writing this winning verse):
O lutefisk, O lutefisk,
When my poor hear stops beating
The pearly gates will open wide,
I’ll see the angels eating
From steaming platters of the stuff,
And there will always be enough
O piece of cod that I adore,
O lutefisk forevermore!
I think that Grandpa and Dad would be proud today to know that I am one of the lutefisk cooks at Bethel Lutheran Church. My brother John also works with me in the lutefisk room (we call it “Brain Central”).
The first time that my husband Jerry tried lutefisk was when we were dating and I invited him to church for the supper back in 1972. At first he said he couldn’t stand the smell and proceeded to take about a tablespoon of lutefisk to try it out. Well, I’m happy to say that he went back and filled his plate! He hasn’t missed a lutefisk supper since (Dad thought he was a pretty good catch, since he liked lutefisk).
That was back in the old Bethel that had been built in 1903 and served the congregation well for 100 years. In 2003, a new Bethel was built at 901 West Broadway, Little Falls, MN, and – you guessed it! – it was wired to make sure we could continue our fabulous Lutefisk and Meatball Supper.
I hope that this wonderful event will be around for generations to come. Our little granddaughters have given it a try and I believe there is hope that lutefisk may survive another generation!
-Lynda (Hallberg) Lochner