Lutefisk in Waconia

An annual lutefisk dinner in Waconia brings back happy holiday memories.
Betty Norheim-Hoke dresses in a traditional bunad for the popular lutefisk dinner at Samaritan Society–Waconia & Westview Acres.

Lutefisk. A common term in a Norwegian’s vocabulary, this prepared codfish has made its way into the homes and hearts of many Scandinavian descendents—and onto the worst-food-ever list of many others. Although it is often mocked for its clear, jellylike consistency that must be covered in butter-cream sauce to be deemed edible, if cooked right, the lutefisk elite will travel miles in order to have a taste. No one can deny the love-hate relationship that comes with lutefisk, but for one community in Waconia, they have decided to celebrate it.

The Good Samaritan Society–Waconia & Westview Acres has been serving up lutefisk during the holiday season for the past 20 years. It all started when a small group of residents made arrangements with the chef for a special lutefisk dinner.

They continued the celebration year after year, and today, the lutefisk dinner is a tradition that more than 200 residents and townspeople alike enjoy on the first Wednesday of December.

Along with the lutefisk, which comes from a local Minneapolis vendor, guests are served Swedish meatballs, boiled potatoes, peas, cheese and crackers, lefse (a soft flatbread, usually rolled with butter, cinnamon and sugar) and holiday cookies. “It’s a really fun day for the staff,” says Jenny Hissam, housing and marketing director. “We highlight our community, and it’s the kickoff of the holiday season.”

The building is decorated with eight Christmas trees, live holiday music fills the air, and Betty Norheim-Hoke, a 90-year-old resident who has been around since the early days of the lutefisk dinner, dons her bunad (traditional Norwegian dress). Beside the dinner itself, what she enjoys most is reminiscing with others about Norwegian traditions. “I’m 100 percent Norwegian,” she says with pride. “There are not many of those around anymore.”

Many outsiders smell the distinctive aroma of lutefisk and can’t help but wonder, what’s the appeal? For Norheim-Hoke, the attachment goes back all the way to childhood when her father used to purchase the dried fish and soak it in lye until it was just the right consistency.

It’s no surprise the discerning lutefisk connoisseurs of the southwest metro flock to Good Samaritan Society–Waconia & Westview Acres for their dinner. As Hissam confirms, the chefs on staff prepare the cod following the traditional steps. First, the dried fish is soaked for 5-6 days in cold water, with the water changed daily. Then it is soaked for an additional two days in lye water, which causes the fish to swell until it is a jellylike consistency. Ross Hanson, a Waconia resident and longtime lutefisk dinner guest, knows his cod. “The lutefisk is prepared perfectly, neither undercooked or overcooked. It is firm and flaky as it should be,” he says.

Hanson can remember his own initiation into the lutefisk club many years ago. “There was nothing at all that I liked about lutefisk. But eating it was one of the few things I did that made my Grandpa smile,” he recalls. “The flavor and aroma bring back sentimental memories of Christmas and happy gatherings around the table.” Now that he is grown, he admits the taste grows on you. “The flavor and texture have become an acquired taste,” he says.

Novice lutefisk diners who attend this event are welcome to try the main feature. But, as Norheim-Hoke points out, there are other options. “Not everyone likes lutefisk, but most everyone likes lefse,” she says.

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Lutefisk Dinner
December 3 at 11 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.
Good Samaritan Society
Waconia & Westview Acres
333 W. 5th St., Waconia.
Cost: $15
Reservations recommended: 952.442.7129