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The Lutefisk Wars (2011)

Lefse.

Swedish meatballs.

And, of course, lutefisk.

One of my favorite summertime films is set in North Dakota, involving a heavy dose of traditional Scandinavian Christmas foods and characters caught up in the kind of mayhem only conscientious Lutheran church potluck attendees and card-carrying Sons of Norway members could be.

The Lutefisk Wars (2011), directed and written by David E. Hall and Christopher Panneck, is a mockumentary that takes place in the fictional town of Newford, which was founded by Norwegian immigrants in 1878. The main character is Karl Larsen (played by Stewart Skelton). Larsen’s family has farmed in the area for more than 100 years. But Larsen is not much of a farmer. He’s known locally as a Schwans frozen food delivery man and amateur chef, with a zest for unusual culinary concoctions. For example, the audience learns early in the film about one such invention, the Lutefisk Cupito. The Lutefisk Cupito is like a burrito, but instead of beans or meat, includes lutefisk rolled into lefse. Larsen calls it a “cupito” because the rolled up lefse is stored in an empty coffee cup between bites.

Besides aspiring to one day enroll in The Great Chefs of Wisconsin Culinary School, Larsen has won numerous blue ribbons at local fairs for his "exotic" dishes. His one noted defeat was to a rival cook known only as The Kid with Big Hair (Stuart R. Capistran). This loss haunts Larsen. He now suspects the Kid with Big Hair may be trying to get an edge on him ahead of the then-upcoming Newford County Cookoff.

It is in this context that the story begins. Larsen is in his kitchen when a white-haired Norwegian man knocks on the door. The stranger doesn’t speak English and reeks of fish. But he says Larsen’s name, repeatedly and with haste. Larsen invites the stranger inside the house, serving him coffee and a casserole.

The story takes a turn for the dark when the stranger dies, headfirst in the hotdish and without Larsen, who doesn’t speak Norwegian, understanding what brought him there in the first place. Little does the befuddled Larsen know that he just became a central character in an ongoing Norwegian mafia war.

A slew of characters are introduced that explain and unravel this mystery, notably Larsen’s fiancée, Gail Ramstad (Deb Hiett), a competitive curler and accordion player who farms Larsen’s land; her brother, local police chief Marty Ramstad (Regan Burns); Les Torkelson (Scott Horvik), owner and operator of Torkelson Mortuary; and Brother Cousin Louie (Joel McCrary), a self-proclaimed Lutheran monk with a flair for taxidermy. My favorite characters are Newford historian Hilda Odegard (Kris Strobeck) and scholar Dr. Ian Slydebottom (Ian Kerr), probably because they strongly resemble specific people I know "in real life." This familiarity makes it easy to love them and to believe them when they deliver fictional “historical facts,” such as the Great Lefse Famine of the 1870s that drove immigrants to the U.S., and the 1923 Cod Prohibition, which passed after the Lutheran Women’s League decided that eating too much codfish promoted a licentious lifestyle. It’s this constant undertone of resemblance – from the characters to their mannerisms – that makes the storyline comical.

Lutefisk also takes a prominent role in the film. If you’re unfamiliar with lutefisk, it is cod left to dry for several months before being rehydrated in baths of lye and cold water. To cite a 2022 study by Blandine Feneuil and colleagues, lutefisk remains “one of the most mythical dishes in Norway and an essential dish during Christmas holidays in Scandinavia.” But it's notoriously difficult to prepare. Most times, the aforementioned scholars noted, the end result becomes “an overcooked gel-like consistency lacking any resemblance to fish meat.”

Though lutefisk is traditionally eaten during the holidays in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, it is also served in pockets of the United States where immigrants from these countries settled and passed traditions to their descendants – descendants like the characters in this film. The storyline will be especially funny for many such real-life descendants, who have likely heard a litany of lutefisk jokes throughout their lifetime. (For example, I wrote this blogpost in December 2016 about a lutefisk-eating experience and my discovery of the Lutefisk Hotline.)

The film was shot primarily in and around the Grant Forks, Reynolds, Mayville, and Hillsboro areas of North Dakota, with some scenes completed in Los Angeles. The film is rated PG for some crude humor and smoking images. It can be streamed online or purchased in DVD format at http://www.lutefiskwars.com/ However, there are no subtitles, in neither English nor Norwegian.

Hall and Panneck said in a statement that neither claims Norwegian ancestry, but that they grew up in Iowa and North Dakota, respectively, surrounded by Norwegian American culture. They said they hoped that when people watch The Lutefisk Wars, they experience “the same genuine amusement and joy that we as filmmakers had while making it. Perhaps the final words spoken by our main character Karl with regards to his own cooking best sums it up: ‘... if it makes you happy, gives you pleasure, who really thinks what made it that way? You just eat it.’”



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