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The lure of lutefisk: Fish dish is what's for dinner in UMD grad-school tradition

University of Minnesota Duluth professor Ken Gilbertson dishes up a piece of lutefisk for graduate student Emily Wilmoth as Roxanne Gould watches at Thursday’s annual gathering for the UMD Environmental Education Department. Thursday was Wilmoth’s first time trying lutefisk; she said it wasn’t as bad as she had feared. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
University of Minnesota Duluth professor Ken Gilbertson tells a story about lutefisk before Thursday’s annual gathering for the Environmental Education Department. Former UMD professor Bill Fleischman (second from right) has been involved with the event since it started years ago. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

A near-tragedy occurred on Thursday when University of Minnesota Duluth professor Ken Gilbertson went shopping for lutefisk.

He couldn't find any.

Gilbertson, who teaches in UMD's environmental education program, needed a big batch of lutefisk for his department's annual lutefisk dinner Thursday night at the home of Danny and Angie Frank. The event, a 20-year tradition, is spearheaded by Gilbertson.

Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on one's fondness for lutefisk — tragedy was averted when Angie Frank went out for other supplies at the last minute and found the fabled Scandinavian fish at a local grocery store.

"So, the night isn't a loss," Gilbertson told the 30 or so grad students, alumni and instructors gathered at the Frank home.

Some, like grad student Emily Wilmoth, would be eating the storied fish for the first time.

"It's like an initiation," Wilmoth said.

People visit before Thursday’s lutefisk supper at the home of Danny Frank in Duluth. Steve Kuchera / News TribuneUnderstand, it's not a requirement. Eating the lutefisk is optional. UMD environmental ed professor Julie Ernst has avoided trying lutefisk at this event for 10 years straight.

Those who have tried it describe the gray, globby fish in various ways.

"It's fish Jell-O," said Danny Frank, an environmental education instructor at UMD. "That's the only way to describe it."

"Gelatinous," said grad student Megan Allen.

"I'm one of the people who actually likes it," said Matti Erpestad, a UMD environmental and outdoor education instructor. "With enough butter, anything is good."

When the fish was almost ready, Gilbertson made some quick opening remarks about the tradition of the gathering. The dining room table before him was covered with other potluck dishes that people had brought — bright red lingonberry sauce, boiled potatoes, spinach salad, venison snack sticks, rice pudding and lefse.

Retired UMD professor William Fleischman entered the room with a steaming pan of lutefisk, and the fishy feast was under way. Wilmoth looked at the jiggly serving on her plate before taking her first bite.

"The texture is not appealing," she muttered.

But she swallowed a bite and thought about it.

"Very fishy," she said, "but covered in potatoes and cheese, it's not bad."

Gilbertson said he believes lutefisk directly benefits the university.

"When I meet with students who are thinking about coming to UMD," Gilbertson said with a grin, "I tell 'em we have this lutefisk feed. It's the best recruitment tool there could be."

Grad student Rebecca Bryan makes lingonberry sauce with berries from Alaska at Thursday’s supper. Steve Kuchera / News Tribune"Maybe that's why our numbers are going down," his colleague Ernst chirped.

But the logic worked for grad student Rebecca Bryan when she was deciding where to get her master's degree. She comes from a pro-lutefisk tradition.

"I told my parents I knew I'd found a good program when I learned about the lutefisk dinner," she said.

Lutefisk, as you may know, typically is dried codfish that has been soaked in a lye solution for several days to rehydrate it, then soaked in cold water for several more days to remove the lye. It's a holiday tradition in many Northland homes.

The UMD lutefisk celebration began modestly years ago when Gilbertson invited a grad student from New Zealand to his home to experience some local cuisine. The student, surrounded by his faculty committee members, kept asking for more until he'd downed three helpings of the fish.

A couple of years later, Gilbertson told the student he was amazed at how much he lutefisk he had eaten that night.

"I hate that stuff," the student confessed to Gilbertson.

He had eaten it, he said, because he was new to America and in the presence of his faculty advisors.

"What choice did I have?" he told Gilbertson.

From that solid foundation, the dinner tradition grew. Gilbertson began taking willing grad students to the former Miller's Cafe in Two Harbors, which was known for its lutefisk. That became too successful.

"The last time we went to a restaurant, we had 25 or 30 people and it cost me $250," Gilbertson said.

Now, the meal always is held at a private home in Duluth. Danny Frank, hosting the event for the first time on Thursday evening, said he had first tried lutefisk when he was courting his wife, Angie. Her family was big on lutefisk.

"Lutefisk was something I ate to impress my future grandmother-in-law," Danny Frank said. "I had three helpings. The family was impressed."

Grad student Christa Drake tried lutefisk for the first time two years ago.

"I liked it fine. I thought it just tasted like fish," she said.

Mandi Wojciehowski, another grad student at Thursday's gathering, was happy to be there.

"For the good company," she said. "Not the fish."

She had come to the dinner last year, too, but passed on the fish.

"I'm a vegetarian," Wojciehowski said. "It's a convenient excuse."