When I tracked down our TV star, he was squirting lime juice onto a raw kingfish heart, then popping it into his mouth. Just another day at work, in the Caribbean, and this snack was kids’ stuff.
The namesake of “Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World,” which airs on the Travel Channel, has drunk raw pig’s blood in Bali, loosened up at a Bavarian beer spa, hunted the bush for his dinner in Botswana.
He’s been sniffing around Wisconsin, too, but what could he have possibly found that is strange enough to widen our own eyes and wrinkle our noses?
Two words: lutefisk brats.
The travel show host couldn’t resist taking the bait that Todd Ahrensdorf and John Novitt of the Lake Tomahawk Meat Market used as a Northwoods lure. They whipped up a 25-pound batch o’ meat sausage with lye-soaked cod, then fired up the grill and played snowshoe baseball in late August.
What were they thinking? Todd, a butcher for 20 years, shrugged. Why not?
You consider that a big batch of brats? “Sure,” he decided, “for it being a new product, and it being lutefisk.”
A co-worker scrounged around to find one of the last frozen five-packs, selling for $6.99. When the locals found out what the Travel Channel was having for dinner, there was a big run on lutefisk brats, but no huge demand to add them to the market’s product line. We’ll see if this changes after the TV segment airs at 9 p.m. Oct 27.
“It’s only about 25 percent lutefisk,” Todd admonished, when I chose to leave the fishy links behind. My first taste of lutefisk, earlier in the month, was enough to quell a lifetime of curiosity.
On the Sunday menu at Eau Claire’s Northwoods Brewpub and Grill recently was a traditional lutefisk dinner, served only twice a year. Call it an inauspicious coincidence.
Two of us split the $12.95 dinner, while watching the crowd swell around us and deplete the restaurant’s stock of lutefisk. Amazing.
It doesn’t matter if you like the fish, which was blander and less offensive than I imagined. Getting a taste of tradition has its own value.
Also on the entrée plate: a meatball, mashed potatoes, mashed rutabagas, cranberries and lefse (Norway’s equivalent of bread). First course: pickled herring, sweet/warm fruit soup and a cracker-like flatbread. For dessert: rommegrot (cream pudding) and sandbakkel or rosette (holiday cookies).
The Northwoods Brewpub and Grill, 3560 Oakwood Mall Dr., Eau Claire, is one of four restaurants owned by Jerry Bechard, best known for his Norske Nook restaurants in Osseo, Rice Lake and Hayward. All four locations serve the lutefisk dinner on the first Sundays in October and December (that’s Dec. 6 this year). Seating starts at 10:45 a.m. Arrive early, or expect to wait.
You’re unlikely to leave hungry. Remember, this is the quartet of restaurants whose pies have won 16 blue ribbons during National Pie Championship competition. For more: www.norskenook.com.
Carrie Roy of the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Scandinavian Studies has made lutefisk research her specialty. Lutefisk “started as a way to preserve a protein source,” she says. Now lutefisk dinners are a proud Norwegian food tradition, especially among older adults, and the centerpiece of specialty meals served between now and Christmas.
Olsen Fish Co., Minneapolis, calls itself the world’s largest lutefisk processor, importing the fish from Norway and handling about one-half of North America’s lutefisk sales. The dried cod is soaked in lye and water for days, then boiled or baked by the customer.
Call 800-882-0212 or head to www.olsenfish.com for recipes. The company, in business since 1910, also sells pickled herring.
“You have to cook it just right, or you’ll end up with cold fish or (an unappetizing) jelly,” Carrie says, of lutefisk. She quotes Garrison Keillor of “Prairie Home Companion” as explaining: “The window of success is small” and the odds of it being tasty “are not on your side.”
Men usually take charge of lutefisk preparation, Carrie says. Norwegians tend to season the fish with butter, salt and pepper; Swedes add a cream sauce. And for some diners, eating lutefisk is a way to “prove” you’re Norwegian.
For better or worse, dozens of Scandinavian organizations and Lutheran churches host lutefisk dinners in Wisconsin during this time of year.
Lakeview Lutheran Church, 4001 Mandrake Rd., Madison, serves upwards of 1,000 at its annual lutefisk dinner, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 6. Admission is $15. For more about the event, which began in the 1950s: www.lakeviewlutheranchurch.org, 608-244-6181.
Check out other lutefisk meals at www.sonsofnorway5.com (click on “calendar”). Hosts include some of Wisconsin’s 37 Sons of Norway lodges; the fraternal organization promotes and preserves Norwegian heritage.
In Milwaukee, Public Torsk Suppers (that’s boiled cod, not lutefisk, on the buffet table) cost $13 and are served 4-7 p.m. monthly (including Nov. 14 and Dec. 5) at Norway House, 7507 W. Oklahoma Ave. For more: www.norwayhouse-milw.org, 414-321-2637.
Did Andrew Zimmern like lutefisk brats? What else caught his attention in Wisconsin? You’ll have to tune in to “Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World” to find out. Refer to www.travelchannel.com and www.andrewzimmern.com for program updates; he also stars in “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.”
Here’s the Oct. 27 program teaser: “From macaroni and cheese pizza to duck blood soup, Andrew is eating his way through the state of Wisconsin. He is also taking time to chuck cow pies for distance, deliver mail by boat and make one of the smelliest cheeses in America.”
That last line verifies that he’s been to Prairie du Sac, Lake Geneva and Monroe. Mac and cheese pizza is big at Ian’s Pizza in Madison, but who knows where the Polish soup was sipped?
The Lake Tomahawk Meat Market, 7259 Hwy. 47, produces at least one dozen types of specialty bratwurst. Call 715-227-3337 to learn more.
Another big seller: six or seven tasty versions of beef sticks and jerky. “All are pretty good movers,” Todd says. That includes the Packer Sticks, hoppin’ with jalapeno and garlic.
“About every day, we smoke something,” the butcher adds. Uh-huh.