From creamy rommegrot to crunchy krumkake and savory pierogies, Wisconsin church ladies make the best suppers.
When the nights turn chilly, you know that church supper season has arrived. Whether you’re a lutefisk fan or just show up for the meatballs, here are some foods we love to see at the church supper. These traditional foods also tell us the story of where our ancestors came from.
Lutefisk: What Were Those Norwegians Thinking?
The classic Norwegian Lutheran dinner here in Wisconsin features lutefisk, which gets its name from its components: lye (lut) and cod fish (fisk). The dish is an ancient one, dating to Viking times in Scandinavia. The vikings would dry their cod for the winter. Then some enterprising viking chef figured out that if you add the caustic chemical lye, it reconstitutes the fish into a jelly-like substance. We’re not making this up. Wisconsin law had to be amended to clarify that lutefisk was not a toxic substance.
The pro-lutefisk people make a pile of mashed potatoes (or rutabagas, depending on the denomination) and top it with a little lutefisk and a whole lot of butter.
While lutefisk is rarely eaten anymore in Norway, it’s still an immigrant thing. And in fall, you’ll find lutefisk suppers at many churches. The pandemic has not left lutefisk untouched. A recent report out of Minnesota hints at a lutefisk shortage due to supply chain problems. So get your lye-reconstituted jelled fish while you can!
Meatballs: The King of Church Basement Food
Whether they’re billed as Swedish meatballs, German meatballs, or Norwegian meatballs, church ladies know how to cook them and they’re always good. If you’re lucky enough to live near an Italian-American church, you’ll get the Italian kind in red gravy.
There’s even a Swiss meatball, which is served each year at the Swiss Church in New Glarus. The meatballs are part of the annual Kilby Supper, an annual event in Switzerland, that welcomes church members back from their summer of farming in the high mountain meadows of the Alps.
At Polish Church Suppers, Say ‘Please Pass the Pierogies’
At a Polish church feast, the entrees might be golabki (cabbage rolls), kielbasa (polish sausage), or pork and sauerkraut, all served with parsleyed potatoes. But everyone is really there for the pierogies. These little stuffed dumplings are the best, whether stuffed with cheese, mushrooms or the traditional filling of prunes.
Can’t Get More German Than Pork Hocks and Sauerkraut
The St. James parish in downtown Madison has long been known for its pork hock and sauerkraut feed, held most years in late winter. To cook the pig legs just right, the cooks start a few days before, so the trotters have time to sit in their broth, which becomes a jelly as it cools.
They’re reheated, then served with homemade sauerkraut and creamed corn for a rib-sticking meal.
Lefse: What God Gave Us to Make Up for Lutefisk
Those Norwegian immigrants did know their way around a potato. Lefse, if you’ve never had it, is a tortilla made from potatoes, only so much more tender and delicious.
Purists like it spread with butter and a sprinkle of sugar and then roll it up before eating. Others spread some lingonberry jam on it, too.
And some truly innovative soul crafted the Norwegian taco: Meatballs and gravy rolled up in lefse with maybe some more of that lingonberry jam for “salsa.”
Rommegrot: A Funny Name for a Delicious Dessert
Not everything white at a Norwegian church supper is as scary as lutefisk. Try rommegrot, a thick sour cream pudding, which is usually served warm and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
It’s delicious and great when served with those traditional crispy Norwegian treats of rosettes, sandbakkels and krumkake.
Kolacky or Kolache? It’s Czech for Sweet Roll.
Wisconsin has several Czech communities, including those in Kewaunee and Manitowoc counties, one near Hillsboro and another in northern Grant County.
If you’re lucky enough to hit a Bohemian church supper or festival, you might be in for the treat of kolaches. These yeast sweet rolls generally have a filling of apricots, cream cheese, poppy seeds, or prunes, and you can’t eat just one or you’ll make the church ladies mad.