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Lutefisk Shortages


Eating lutefisk is not for the faint of heart, for this peculiar Norwegian form of codfish smells to high heaven. But to Norwegian-Americans, eating snow-white, light and flaky lutefisk was a joy at holiday dinners, especially at Christmas-time, as a taste of Norway for those immigrants who had left its fjords and shores for America. For non-Norwegians, the penetrating aroma of lutefisk cooking in the kitchen could make them cringe or induce them to make fun of the lye-soaked codfish.

On this date in 1941, newspapers held dire news for Norwegian-Americans in North Dakota, as a terse article announced that the holiday supply of lutefisk would have to come from Iceland, not Norway itself. The German military had invaded Norway in 1940, and the country fell under Nazi control.

Genuine lutefisk had long been prepared in northern Norway, the only place where the best conditions prevailed for properly processing the codfish pulled from the deep seawaters surrounding the Lofoten Islands. The German occupation made it difficult to get lutefisk shipments to America. Hence, lutefisk supplies had to come mainly from Iceland, and some optimists hoped the Icelandic fish would be “just as good as the best from Norway.”

But the Norwegian church-people at Trinity Lutheran Church in Bismarck just HAD TO HAVE the real lutefisk from Norway for their fifth annual lutefisk supper, held in January of 1942. Fortunately, the astute congregational leaders had ordered 850 pounds of lutefisk from Norway from a Duluth supplier the previous summer, before the shortages began.

So there was lutefisk-joy that January as the “Bjornsons, Bjerkes, Bjellas, Bakkens and Bensons” gathered to feast on the “glorified cod” floating in rich, golden butter. Their stomachs satisfied with the tasty treat, these true Norwegians would say: “Ja, vi elsker lutefisk” – which means “Ya, ve love our lutefisk.” They also gobbled down “thirty-two hundred pieces of lefse” and “sixteen hundred fattigman” – the popular “poor man’s” cookies, washed down with plenty of strong coffee. The churchwomen also cooked 75 pounds of tasty Norwegian meatballs for those non-lutefisk-eating spoilsports who said: “hold your nose and pass the fish.”

Through the war years, the lutefisk supply was reduced and the Trinity Lutheran congregation had to make do with codfish from Iceland, Newfoundland or Alaska. Only when Norway was freed in 1945, did the real lutefisk return to the traditional church suppers.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Lutefisk From Iceland,” Ward County Independent [Minot, ND], October 16, 1941, p. 1.

“Trinity Lutheran To Serve 700 Lbs. of Lutefisk,” Bismarck Tribune, January 16, 1941, p. 4.

“Ja, Vi Elsker Lutefisk,” Bismarck Tribune, January 22, 1941, p. 4.

“850 Pounds Lutefisk to Be Served at Dinner Thursday,” Bismarck Tribune, January 24, 1942, p. 2.

“Lutefisk Makers Ready to Do Job,” Bismarck Tribune, January 28, 1942, p. 3.

“Good News For All Norwegians,” Bismarck Tribune, November 20, 1942, p. 5.

“Your Lutefisk Went To Sicily,” Wisconsin State Journal, September 27, 1943, p. 1.

“White Christmas,” Mason City [IA] Globe-Gazette, December 25, 1943, p. 10.

“Lutefisk Is Very Scarce,” Fergus Falls