Festive feastings from far away lands

Whether one calls them mat, ruoka, or livsmedel, there is a wide variety of comestibles to be had at Minot’s Norsk Hstfest. While there will always be the familiar fare of burgers and fries on hand for the culinarily unadventurous, one’s inner viking can take this annual opportunity to plunder a number of more ethnic edibles found scattered around the festival’s halls.

From the stalls piled over with tasty jams, roasted almonds, flaky pastries and numerous stacks of lefse, to the pickled herring and headcheese on offer at the General Store in Reykjavik Hall, there’ll be a saga or two to surely share later around the homefires.

But it is the lutefisk dinner that no festival-goer should forgo if they haven’t tried it before, a legendary substance about as synonymous with Midwestern Scandinavianism as a Sunday’s tater tot hotdish. A treated whitefish traditionally preserved in lye and often served under butter, the nature of the lutefisk legend varies depending on who’s asked. Some love it; others are downright fearful.

Whether the fish is considered a Freyja or a Grendel, it’s worth giving a fair go.

At the Hstfest, that go can really only be had at the Bethany Lutefisk Dinner in Oslo Hall. A stand run for eight years now by volunteers from Bethany Lutheran Church, its main attraction is a full plate of lutefisk, meatballs, mash and gravy, corn, and a side of lefse.

“Lutefisk was a traditional food,” volunteer Larry Walter explained, a preserved fish once useful to seafaring Scandinavians. “Especially on long voyages,” where keeping a larder well stocked with long-lasting and nutritious food could mean the difference between life and death for the ship’s crew.

“That’s not something you’d eat at home,” said Walter. Over time though, the eating of lutefisk became a seasonal tradition, especially among those families that emigrated from the various Norse countries and settled in America. “That’s what it’s turned into now, more of a Christmas thing.”

When Americans primarily of Norwegian and Swedish descent come together for a lutefisk dinner toward the year’s end, it can be said that they are taking time to celebrate the long voyage their forebears embarked upon in immigrating to this country, one that they themselves continue upon.

Volunteers from Bethany Lutheran dispense about 1,200 pounds of the stuff during the Hstfest. Brought from Minnesota, the fish is cooked in a large steamer for about five or six minutes. “If you steam it too long, it turns into Jell-o,” Walter half-joked. After that, it gets doused in butter before being ready to eat. Proceeds from the stand are split three ways, between the church’s house fund, its outreach work, and foundation fund.

A stone’s throw from the Bethany Lutefisk Dinner in Oslo Hall yet a world apart from its earthy bonhomie is En To Tre, the walled-away fine dining experience sponsored by the Sons of Norway and focused on Nordic delicacies.

“It’s all Norwegian,” executive chef Kent Arntzen explained, adding “we try to fit in to American tastes.” Arntzen and his staff return to the festival from Norway this year with an impeccably presented selection of main courses. Whether one orders the slow-roasted pork neck, baked salmon with an herb crust, or grilled beef tenderloin topped with sauteed mushrooms, the chef draws upon 27 years’ professional experience to deliver a singularly satisfying experience.

Appetizers to choose from are grilled scallops with cucumber, marinated venison with a lingonberry chutney, and smoked salmon “musli” with egg, autumn salad, and truffle mayonnaise. Desserts on offer include Norwegian cream layer cake, vanilla pudding with rhubarb and strawberry compote, or a milk chocolate patty with passion fruit and raspberries.

With a reservation strongly recommended, in addition to its dinner menu this year’s En To Tre offers a lunchtime buffet featuring a number of cold and hot selections, plus a fully laden “dessertbord” to sample from. The price might seem daunting, at $31 for lunch and $41 for dinner, per person. But in this reporter’s experience, the flavorful and aesthetically pleasing meal, enjoyable conversations had with newly acquainted company, and small glass of aquavit to cap it all off all made En To Tre a sort of show in itself.

At the Hstfest a visitor can eat like a plucky seglare or a noble jarl, or even a bit of each; the choices are all there to make.