By Tim Leeds
For 69 years, people have been braving the winter weather to enjoy a poor man's meal in Havre.
First Lutheran Church and Messiah Lutheran Church will hold their annual Swedish meatball and Norwegian lutefisk dinner at the First Lutheran Church on Saturday.
"It's just a great time of fellowship and fun," said the Rev. Brad Ulgenes of First Lutheran.
The dinner centers on Norwegian lutefisk, which is cod preserved with lye and salt. Norm Gorder, who has been working at the dinners since 1941, said it was traditionally a poor person's food that settlers brought to the United States from Europe. Lutefisk dinners have become a tradition in many communities with people of Scandinavian background.
"It's a piece of cod that passes all understanding," Ulgenes said.
For people who aren't interested in lutefisk, Swedish meatballs are available. The vast undertaking also offers the tortilla-like potato dish of lefsa, served with butter and sugar, coleslaw, rolls, boiled potatoes, cranberry sauce, Scandinavian pastries baked sandbakkles and deep-fried fattigmand served with ice cream and strong Norwegian coffee.
Margie Gorder, Norm's wife, said they usually serve between 600 and 700 people, and have served as many as 1,200 in some years. People have traveled from as far as Chester, Malta and Great Falls to attend the Havre dinner.
"We used to have lines waiting upstairs," she said. "People would have to take a number."
For the last few years people have usually been able to walk right in and be served, she said.
But the preparation and serving of the dinner is still an immense task. Pastries and lefsa are made in advance, and the rooms of the First Lutheran Church are divided for different chores. One room is used for cooking the meatballs, another for boiling potatoes; another is used just for salads.
Ulgenes said the Lutheran churches are greatly indebted to St. Jude's Catholic Church for letting them use the garage in its rectory to cook the lutefisk, and for putting up with the odor coming from the cooking for weeks after.
The event takes a lot of teamwork. Margie Gorder said the work is somewhat divided between the men and the women. The men boil the potatoes and the women form and cook the meatballs, for example.
Norm Gorder said the companionship is the best part of the dinner, much like St. Jude's Harvest Dinner in the fall.
"Those are the things that bond the community," he said. " It's one way of getting to know each other, working together."
It looks like the tradition will continue, too, he said. A lot of younger people are starting to get involved in preparing and working at the event.
The dinner is hosted by the Lutherans in Mission members of the churches, with the proceeds going to support local causes. The proceeds were donated to the Lutheran Home of the Good Shepherd nursing home before it closed. Norm Gorder said the money is now used to support youth programs at the churches.
This year the money will go to help children attend the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp. The Milk River Branch of the Lutheran Brotherhood is matching the funds to be given to the camp this year.
The dinner runs from noon to 6 p.m. and costs $9 for eaters 14 and up, and $4 for children under 14. The ticket buys an all-you-can-eat meal.
Or, as Ulgenes said, "All you dare eat."