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Lutefisk Led to Spring Lawn Repairs

Rosalie and Marvin “Super Pete” Pederson, who owned Pederson’s Super Market in Starbuck, Minnesota. Marvin, who was very proud to be of Norwegian heritage, was born on May 17, Syttende Mai.

My parents were Rosalie and Marvin “Super Pete” Pederson (pictured). Dad owned and operated a family grocery store in Starbuck, Minnesota, from 1954 to 1994 and was known in this part of the state for his lutefisk sales. He made lutefisk by soaking dry cod first in the garage at our home in Starbuck and later in the backroom of our store. He learned the craft from Clayton Anderson, a grocer in North Branch, Minnesota, where Dad met Mom after the war. Clayton was emphatic that making fish took a lot of labor, in part because the lutefisk maker sold something that had soaked up about 10 times its weight in water.

One of Dad’s “tails” was from 1954, the first year he made fish. There was no plumbing available, so he drained the soaking water into the back alley. But in the spring, he had to pay to repair lawns that were damaged by the runoff.  Yes, those were the days.

Cleaning Lutefisk Tanks

As I became older, I participated in that annual smelly event in our store by adding the lye and moving the fish from tank to tank during soaking. I also cleaned all debris at the bottom of the tank when the lye water had been drained.

With lutefisk, of course, there is the smell. Dad tried storing his many bales of dried fish in sheds of farmers, but they wanted no part of that. At our store, the smell was so bad in the backroom during fish season that dad put an exhaust fan in the wall. This annoyed neighbors, so he constructed a special room made from cement blocks to contain the smell. And he built a plywood ventilation chute to the roof where a fan blew the smell higher and away from the building.

Above, the stock tank used to display lutefisk in the store. Below is the bill for the store’s first delivery of lutefisk in the fall of 1954.

Dad placed a stock tank in the store’s meat department to display the soaking fish to customers before they made their purchase. Dad would fill that with fresh water and ice blocks every day during the selling season. We used a baling hook to handle the fish. After purchase, it was wrapped in a wax-coated locker paper; in the later years we switched to plastic bags so it would not drip on the floor as much. Uffda!

Lutefisk for 19 cents per pound. Those were the days!

I am thankful for the memories and opportunities that were presented to me by life in a small town grocery store. Recently I visit residents at our local retirement home, and another visitor, Bob Kyyvig, reminisced about standing in line to buy fish.

Recalling such lutefisk moments brighten my day.

 

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‘Sewer Trout’ and Lefse

A 1956 photo of Verna Spencer with her son, Nolan Spencer, who was in Bagley High School at the time.

I’ve been reading The Last Word On Lutefisk, which brought back memories.

In 1947 my parents, Ed and Verna Spencer, built a small store open seven days a week. They called it the Hi-Way Store, which was located 1 mile west of Bagley, Minnesota, on U.S. Highway 2. This was just after Dad returned from serving in the U.S. Army in the Philippines. He used his GI bill to build the store.

Dad traded guns, rented outboard motors, and sold fishing tackle and minnows (that’s a minnow tank in the picture). He and Mom also ran the grocery. What saved the store was they were able to obtain a 3.2 beer license — the only one in Clearwater County — that allowed beer sales after noon on Sundays.

Mom and Dad sold sill all year and had lutefisk delivered around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Like the sill, the lutefisk came from the Hogstad Fish Co. in Duluth. The fish arrived in short, wooden tubs about the size of a small washtub. My after-school job, at age 9, was to change the water for the skin-on fish.

‘Sewer Trout’

Francis “Fritz” LaRoque, half French and half Ojibwa, and his full-Norske wife Harriet would come in to buy what he called “sewer trout.” I’ve never heard that title used anywhere else.

Dad established a trailer court, as he knew a pipeline was being built from Saskatchewan to Duluth beginning in 1954. The pipeline workers filled the court with 54 trailers. At the end of the pipe-laying season in November, maintenance personnel stayed to “lay up” the equipment (change oil, drain radiators, etc.) before the “drag-up dust” (snow) arrived.

One woman came into our store and saw the tubs of lutefisk. She asked what it was. Mom explained it was a seasonal, cured codfish that Norwegians and Swedes enjoyed during the holidays. “Oh, we like fish,” said the woman, who sounded as if she hailed from in a southern state. “I’d like two pounds.”

When the woman came back the next day, Mom asked how she liked the lutefisk. “Oh, it was great, but it kinda stuck to the fryin’ pan.”

Can you imagine the smell of fried lutefisk in an 8 x 32-foot trailer house?

My First Lefse

My first taste of lefse came in 1948 when Violet and Einar Jallen, Dad’s sister and brother-in-law, lived with us for a winter. Einar had to have lefse! The lefse was baked on the covers of the wood- or coal-burning side of the combination range my folk owned. The wood/coal burner flanked four gas burners.

My job was to split up wooden apple/orange/pear/peach crates to provide fuel for lefse baking. Violet rolled the lefse, and Mom baked it using the sharpened window shade bottom “slat” for a lefse stick. I was hooked on lefse from that point on.

That’s Mom and me in the above picture during the summer of l956. I had one more year at Bagley High School, and then I attended Bemidji State Teachers College. I obtained degrees in biology and chemistry education. I taught one year in Beloit, Wisconsin, and then 35 years in Crosby-Ironton, Minnesota, before I retired in 1997.

I married Sharon Gilbertson, who I miss as she has passed on. We were too poor to buy a lefse grill, so I had a friend cut an 18-inch disc out of ½-inch steel for baking lefse. It went over one of the burners on our gas range and worked just fine.

Combining a bit of lefse and lutefisk, I leave you with this cheer that was a rouser when our high school teams opposed the Greyhounds from Fosston, a town 17 miles west of Bagley. It goes:

Lutefisk and lefse
Gammelost and sill
We can beat those Greyhounds
You doggone right we will!