Each December, my Mom and I mark the start of the holiday season with a trip to our alma mater for Gustavus Adolphus College’s Christmas in Christ Chapel and the accompanying smörgåsbord dinner. When I was a student, we all knew when it was the smörgåsbord week as the lutefisk gave the whole campus center a special fragrance, unidentifiable by the non-Scandinavian-American students and all too familiar to me being 100 percent Scandinavian-American. Lutefisk, or lutfisk for the Swedes, has become more infamous than pickled herring or blood sausage—likely because you are either a die-hard lutefisk lover or you don’t want to go near the stuff. But lutefisk represents one of many traditional foods that North Shore residents and visitors enjoy during the holidays, helping us rekindle the regional and familiar traditions of the past.
While lutefisk may be notorious, it isn’t always easy to find. Thankfully, First Lutheran Church in Duluth, among a smattering of other local churches, hosts its annual Lutefisk, Salmon and Meatball Dinner the first Wednesday of December each year. The Lutefisk Dinner tradition started when the church was first built, although it saw a hiatus while I-35 was built through Duluth. In 1992, the church ladies reinstated the dinner and moved the event to coincide with the start of the holiday season, as lutefisk was traditionally served by Scandinavians at Christmastime. Since that time, the event has grown in popularity, now serving up to 1,200 people each year.
When asked whether all attendees partake in the lutefisk, organizer and well-known cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas shared, “My husband loves to tell the story about the lady who whisked past the lutefisk. He tried to convince her to try just a little piece. ‘NO!’ was her answer. My husband replied, ‘Well, don’t you want to get to heaven?’ She replied, ‘There’s got to be a better way!’” At the dinner they have also had children try it for the first time and love it.
As sometimes families are divided on their fondness for lutefisk, meatballs and salmon are also served. A congregation member, Dave Rogotzke, is a commercial salmon fisherman and provides the Alaskan salmon for the dinner. As is tradition, the lutefisk is served with cream sauce and melted butter—anything tastes good with enough butter, right? In addition to the lutefisk, salmon and meatballs, a crew of church ladies, including Beatrice, makes homemade lefse for the event. Also served are steamed potatoes, coleslaw, pickled beets, homemade limpa rye bread and cranberry salad. Whether Scandinavian-American or not, this is definitely a chance to enjoy some real Scandinavian-American treats and start the holiday season out right. The dinner will be held this year on Wednesday, Dec. 2, from 12-7 p.m. at First Lutheran Church, 1100 E. Superior Street, in Duluth. Cost is $15 per person or $5 per child; take-outs available.
If preserved fish is your thing but you are on the other side of the border, the Hoito Restaurant in Thunder Bay has salt fish, or Suolakala, on its regular menu. This Thunder Bay mainstay has been in operation since 1918. And if fish isn’t your thing, they are also known for their Finnish pancakes and also serve mojakka, a Finnish-American stew with beef. When ordering these dinner-plate-sized pancakes, be sure to pay the extra fee for real maple syrup. The Hoito is located at 314 Bay Street in Thunder Bay and it is a mandatory stop for us when visiting the area.
Another North Shore institution, being the oldest resort in Minnesota, is Lutsen Resort on Lake Superior. Each year, they try to give “a nod to tradition but also bring in new tastes,” said executive chef Rob Wells. Swedish meatballs and Swedish crème are two signature classics that grace their regular menu. The resort also hosts buffets on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, complete with ice carvings. When Chef Rob first came to Lutsen Resort, he had never done any ice carvings before, but he was handed a chunk of ice and a chainsaw—nothing like learning on the job.
Their Swedish crème might be the most talked about dessert in Cook County, or at least it is in my circle. Served in champagne flutes and topped with lingonberry preserves, this dessert was developed from a recipe in Good Housekeeping magazine in the late 50s or early 60s. It was a favorite recipe of Inga, the owner’s wife, who was one of the primary chefs at the resort during that era. Lutsen Resort, while a beautiful spot year-round, is extra special during the holidays. Just be sure to try the Swedish crème.
Looking for more Scandinavian delicacies to try? The first weekend of December each year brings Julebyen to Knife River. This Saturday and Sunday festival includes a tour of homes and a Scandinavian outdoor market, complete with festive foods in addition to the handmade art, crafts and other gifts. This year, the New Scenic Café will be serving potato leek soup with a herring fishcake. The event will also have Julopolse (sausage on bun or on lefse with lingonberries), Lake Superior herring sandwich, Lapskaus (stew recipe directly from Norway), and Risgot (rice pudding). If you are looking to replicate First Lutheran’s salmon, Forrest “Fish” Johnson will be selling frozen boneless wild Alaskan sockeye salmon filets and fillet portions. This is my family’s source for salmon and it is delicious. There are also lefse and krumkakka demonstrations during the event. For more information about Julebyen, visit
Just when you think the whole North Shore is Scandinavian, you might come across Cascade Restaurant and Pub in Lutsen. Michael O’Phelan grew up in St. Paul and his father was one of the founders of St. Paul’s St. Patrick Parade. Now he and his wife, Maureen, run Cascade Lodge and Restaurant, incorporating Irish traditions with their pub, menu and events, like celebrating halfway to St. Patrick’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day. Typically only closed on Christmas Day, this year the restaurant will be closed December 7 and reopen on December 17 for a remodel. Be sure to stop in for some bangers and mash or another Irish treat when they open back up.
The holidays are a time to spend with family and friends and enjoy good food. Whether you’ll be creating a new tradition or sharing an old one, such as lutefisk, have a happy and healthy holiday season.