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An open letter to Garrison Keillor (12/04/2013)
By Sarah Squires

After 39 years, it must be hard to make lutefisk funny. That’s almost a contradiction, because lutefisk is funny, but honestly Garrison — can I call you Garrison? — you’re long-winded. It’s December. You’ve got to be thinking, somewhere deep within your soul, that lutefisk is gettin’ old. And praying that someone — how? woe is you! — would make lutefisk new again.

I’m your girl.

First, I will be totally honest: this is a pitch for you to have me on your show next weekend. Or, before Christmas, during a non-blizzard period, and when you’re somewhere close, because my car doesn’t really work.* Second, a few qualifiers: I’m Swedish; I’m funny. And I have the best intro to lutefisk story since your last good lutefisk story.

(Garrison — I’m calling you Garrison — had I just been pitching myself as some professional, pitch-pitching person, I would get to the point. I, however, am also long-winded, and am giving you a dose of your hard-won medicine. You’ll wait for this punchline.)

I stumbled into my first newspaper job in Glenwood, Minn., home of the Pope County Tribune, where I had incredible mentors and got caught once blasting the boss’ stereo to listen to A Prairie Home Companion because I couldn’t get reception from my desk. I apologized endlessly about being a horrible nerd, and they forgave me.

This was in the early age of digital photography, so small, community newspapers still produced the bulk of the kinds of photos that are submitted by readers and leaders now: spaghetti feeds, check donations, small events. And lutefisk night!

I was on assignment one snowy eve to get a pic of a lutefisk dinner at a local, Lutheran** (names have been omitted to protect the innocent) Church. I remember feeling a little bit ashamed, with my Scandinavian pride, that I had never had, nor been around, lutefisk. Having been a fish-snubbing vegetarian since I was 12, however, it wasn’t as though I was going to eat it.

As I parked, I could smell an odor coming from the church. The glass doors were frosted from the heat. Walking toward the entrance, I leaned to the side, seriously considering stuffing my head in a salty, dirty snow pile to block the smell.

I broke the seal of the door and was immediately hit with a hot, humid blast of what can only be described as the aroma emanating from a single latrine in 100-degree weather, amid a dystentary-wracked people who are prolific poopers to begin with. I was so confused, blindly flailing to find a hook for my coat in the hall. Lutefisk is supposed to be fish! I thought the jokes were an exaggeration, fish being the only category of exaggeration allowed for us Scandinavian-types. At that moment, my young vegetarian, fish-hating self would have worn a veil of tuna, would have stuffed it up my nose and gargled the canned juices, if only it would make that smell go away.

I had no idea where the site of the feed was, but I followed my nose, eyes watering, down the hall and into the banquet room on the basement floor. I pushed my way through another door and was greeted with a variation on the latrine: this time, a sewagey, fishier smell, warm and covered in edible gravy — along with a mass of Lutherans,** who smell pretty good in general.

A person isn’t permitted to have an aroma-induced panic attack all alone while skirting the edges of a Lutheran** get-together. A person will immediately, upon entering the room, be approached by a kindly Lutheran** lady, who will promptly direct her to the food and help her with anything she needs. And probably notice her horrified expression at the smells, so try to hide them.

“Wow, that lutefisk — you can smell it from the parking lot,” I say casually, while politely fanning my face and leaning against the wall.

“Oo-oh, well, you know, we had a septic pipe break here in the basement, so you have to go upstairs for the bathroom,” the kindly lady told me. (Really? I guess. Who would cancel a lutefisk event for that?)

Right then, Garrison, my virgin-to-lutefisk nose had the unique opportunity to gauge which is worse: the smell of lutefisk, or the smell of raw sewage spewing from a busted pipe and steaming through the floorboards.

It was almost a tie. Almost. First, I have to say, part of the reason that lutefisk smells so bad, I believe, is because it’s food. It’s not like when your dog comes home after rolling in rotten fish; with lutefisk, there is no fooling your brain — people are going to put this stuff in their mouths!

That being said, the real tie-breaker came in soft, practical scents like lavender, brown sugar, baby powder. Lutherans,** as I’ve mentioned, smell pretty good (naturally), and often tote lemon bars and soft, nondescript caramelly cinnamon wedges; how can you not allow them to sway your judgement, even when trying not to faint and shoving lemon bar crumbs into your nostrils?

That’s it, Garrison. Lutefisk wins.

P.S. I started eating fish years ago. At the time of this story, I think I wanted to eat a fish, but I thought I should catch it myself. Being an inept fisher-person, though, it took years before I began. (I only seemed to catch 100-year-old snapping turtles, but that is best left for a PHC show in June or so.) So I like fish. I eat fish. But I have never eaten lutefisk, nor have I gotten as close to it as on that ill-fated night. I’ve decided I won’t, ever, unless you are with me. That is what I can give you, Garrison, because the only thing better than reading this story is having me tell it, and then eat the awful stuff for the first time.

* Drat. Checked your schedule. You’ll have to fly me out there and find some retired New York Times editor to fill in for me at the Winona Post. But when lutefisk calls, you answer.

** Lutheran is pronounced “Loooo-thurn,” and not a hard ‘th,’ all lispy like ‘three.’ It’s a gentle ‘th,’ like ‘the.’ Accent on the ‘Looooo.’ 


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