LITCHFIELD, Minn. – With its pseudo-castle exterior, the Litchfield VFW may be the perfect setting for one of Minnesota's longest running battles: the cultural divide between lovers and haters of lutefisk.
They take up their positions on either side of the kitchen wall – the cooks and servers who turn up their noses at the gelatinous fish and the customers who come for miles to pursue it.
"We are going to have lutefisk, because we are Swedes," says Blanche Slaughter in her best Scandinavian voice.
She's just climbed out of a van with several of her equally excited friends from a local retirement community. They are soon gobbling it down, drenched in butter and cream.
The anticipation over the star lunch attraction does not extend to the kitchen.
"It doesn't look appetizing to me at all," says Samantha Elliott, the cook at the VFW, who is known for preparing her lutefisk to perfection.
"I put a little more love into it," she smiles, aware of the contradiction.
She says she hates the stuff.
"It smells almost chemical-ly," she says.
Her servers and kitchen help all nod in agreement. Most of them have never tried it. The look and the smell is enough.
"If you like the taste you just go beyond the smell," retorts Slaughter from the dining room, now nearly full as the Lutefisk faithful shuffle in. Almost all of them are smiling.
Gary Smith first pitched the idea to the other vets at the VFW eight years ago. Lutefisk is now the featured attraction for lunch and dinner, October through the end of January, available in large and small portions, branded Ole and Lena.
"We thought we'd tap a certain clientele that nobody else wanted," said Smith. "We have people who call from the cities and want directions on how to get out here for lutefisk."
He's unaware of anyone else in the five-state area who serves lutefisk, once a week, for four straight months.
Walter Tintes is glad someone does.
"I love it," he says, then mentions that he's not even Scandinavian.
He also mentions that this is his first meal out since quadruple bypass heart surgery.
"Lutefisk will fix it up," he says, like a man who can't imagine how anyone could resist a plate of dried cod reconstituted in water and lye.
Elliott has given up trying to figure out the appeal of the holiday favorite for the largely Scandinavian and elderly crowd that flocks to the VFW each Thursday.
"I think the lye makes them crazy," she laughs.