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State Fair Lutefisk: The Good and Not So Good

For the first time, lutefisk will be served at the Minnesota State Fair. What if people actually LIKE it?

Lutefisk is in the news, and that’s good. I think.

The Star Tribune recently ran two lutefisk stories, one about recruiting 50 competitors for the 50th annual lutefisk-eating contest in Madison, Minnesota, better known as Lutefisk Capital USA (see photo below).

Lutefisk-eating contest in November in Madison, Minnesota. Your chance to be a part of history!

The second article is more sneaky good, perhaps ominous. The article titled “How Lutefisk Got State Fair Slot” begins:

The Minnesota State Fair has never selected a lutefisk dish as one of its official new foods. Until now.

Now it’s the dish on everyone’s radar as we approach the Aug. 24 kickoff to the Great Minnesota Get Together: Crispy Lutefisk Steam Buns at Shanghai Henri’s food stand.

Star Tribune July 14, 2023

The good is that lutefisk is finally getting its moment on the big stage, the Minnesota State Fair, the second largest state fair attracting 2 million visitors in 12 days, compared with Texas, the largest state fair attracting 2.25 million in 24 days. And the vendor has ordered 2 tons of lutefisk for the fair. Impressive!

The not-so-good, perhaps, is the State Fair lutefisk will be dressed up so much that it won’t look like lutefisk nor taste much like it, either. “The exterior,” says the article, “is brushed with sweet-salty hoisin sauce and broiled until there’s a crispy crust.” This preparation of lutefisk is served in white-bread soft buns (see opening photo).

I gotta admit, that looks and sounds delicious, and I am making a special trip to the State Fair to sample it. (I think the last time I was at the State Fair was in 2018 when I just had to try Uffda Ale, a beer with a lefse crisp served on the side. It was good!) My hope is a lot of people try the State Fair lutefisk and like it and become lutefisk fans.

My Fear

My fear is this: If and when they try traditional lutefisk—no hoisin sauce or broiled crust, just a white sauce or melted butter—they’ll be bummed and feel duped, joining the ranks of lutefisk haters who have good stories about bad lutefisk. Or think about this: What if they do like it and go around crowing about how great lutefisk is. Hmmm. It’s like they passed a test but the test was watered down, or in this case hoisined up. So without the fishy smell or the jelly texture that lutefisk veterans have proudly endured (like war scars), there was nothing to hate—and part of the lore of lutefisk is the love-hate. Lutefisk lovers still like to poke fun at lutefisk but feel as if they have earned the right to be in an elite club of true lutefisk lovers who fully comprehend the lye of lutefisk.

I’m hopeful, however, and optimistic. This State Fair lutefisk shows imagination and a willingness to honor a grand old traditional food by adding some pizzaz. (Hey, I’ve made aquavit lefse, so I get it. ) That lutefisk finally has become a State Fair food is an indicator that this delightful, disputed, enduring and I dare say endearing dish is important to a lot of people. Otherwise, it would not be at the State Fair.

But if you don’t make it to the State Fair but do make it to a church basement dinner where the lutefisk is not overcooked or, better yet, a lutefisk dinner prepared by a friend, then expect a wonderful meal—I kid you not—that you’ll remember the rest of your life.

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