Torskeklubben: the Norwegian luncheon club
For 81 years Norwegian men have met to talk, drink akevitt, and dine on their favorite fish
Christine Foster Meloni
The first meeting of Torskeklubben (the Codfish Club) was held at the Curtis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday, November 4, 1933. The Norwegian Consul E.H. Hobe had suggested to Arne Fremmegaard that a men’s Norwegian luncheon club be established.
Fremmegaard sent out invitations and 24 men of Norwegian heritage became charter members of the new club, the original purpose of which was to provide an opportunity for Norwegians to gather and converse in their native language. About half of the charter members were born in Minnesota of Norwegian parents. Some were Norwegian immigrants. Everyone spoke Norwegian.
Since its founding 81 years ago, the club has met on the first Saturday of each month, eight months a year (October through May) with only one exception. The lunch was cancelled on November 1, 1991, because of the “Snow Storm of the Century.”
The club currently has 164 members. Annual dues have remained the same—$1.00. The menu has also remained the same—codfish and a boiled potato with melted butter, flatbread, and Linie aquavit. Everything white. The charge for the lunch is now $25.
Originally, the cod fish with its bones and skin intact (no head or tail, however) came out of the kitchen in a huge pan. Now the fish is prepared in the kitchen and comes to the table cut into filets. It is always the best cod from the Atlantic Ocean.
Member Rolf Svendsen, son of Norwegian immigrants, shared some stories that circulate at the club meetings about how plentiful cod was in the past. As the story goes, the Portuguese discovered cod in the North American waters as far back as the seventh century. They did not spread the word, however, but kept it their secret and developed their beloved cod dish, Bacalao. And when the Pilgrims arrived on the North American coast, cod was so plentiful that they could debark from their ships and walk to shore on the backs of the cod without getting wet.
Members are now concerned that the Atlantic might run out of cod due to over-fishing. The fish are already getting smaller. What would the club do then? The options are not pleasant. The club must have its cod!
Akevitt is also an essential element of the lunch. The akevitt should be Linie. Why Linie? According to the club’s history:
“The aquavit is always Linie aquavit, which—on its trip from Norway to America—must be transported by ship and must have traversed the equator, or “the line (hence, Linie) twice—once on its journey below the equator to, preferably, Australia, and the second time on its journey above the equator to Norway. Thus, members are assured that the aquavit, or “water of life,” in its casks has swirled in the hold of the ship both clockwise and counterclockwise.” [“A Brief History of the Club,” page 41, from the Torskeklubben Membership and History]
Svendsen knows that this only-Linie rule has not always been followed. He has a photo of his father, a member of the club and its Wine Committee, wearing an Aalborg Akvavit apron. Aalborg is not only not Linie, it’s not even Norwegian. It is Danish!
The akevitt is paid for in a rather unique way: each member must write a check for $120 in his birthday month. If someone’s birthday falls in one of the months the club doesn’t meet, he is assigned another birthday month.
The club actually ran out of akevitt at one time despite very careful planning. When World War II broke out in Europe, members were concerned that they would not be able to receive their regular supply of akevitt from Norway. So, just before Norway was occupied by the Germans, they ordered a five-year supply. The war lasted longer than they anticipated and their supply ran out in 1945.
The Boss of the club sets the rules and admits new members in consultation with his advisors. Fremmegaard was the first Boss. Frederick Osmund Glasoe was Boss from 1941 to 1946. The third in the succession was architect Roy Thorshov, who designed the Lutheran Brotherhood building, an important Minneapolis landmark. He served from 1946 to 1984.
The current Boss is Robert Gisvold, a patent attorney whose father was the last living charter member. The other officers are Mark Gaasedelen, the Treasurer, and James Gaasedelen, the Secretary. This triumvirate is unofficially called The Gang of Three.
The meetings were held at the Curtis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis until it was demolished in the early 1980s. They were then moved to the Camelot restaurant, owned by a member. After the restaurant became an art gallery, meetings were moved to the Interlachen Country Club in Edina.
Each meeting begins with the social hour at 11:15 a.m. At 11:55 a.m. the doors to the dining room open and members rush in to get good seats. Before the lunch is served at 12:15 p.m., the American national anthem is sung and the invocation given. After the luncheon, the toastmaster reads the list of members celebrating birthdays that month. They are the ones who have supplied the akevitt. Any guests present are introduced and then by 1:20 p.m. the guest speaker is introduced and makes his/her remarks. The luncheon concludes with the singing of the Norwegian national anthem. Suits and ties are required.
Attendance is strictly controlled. If a member misses more than three meetings in a year, he automatically loses his membership. The only excuses are death or near death. However, some members, Walter Mondale for example, are exempted.
After World War II, the club began to give scholarships to Norwegian students who wanted to do graduate work at the University of Minnesota. Most of these students chose the fields of chemistry, agriculture, and business. These students are invited to the meetings of the club and become honorary members during their stay in the U.S. Even the female students are invited. Women are not admitted in any other circumstances.
For the past 20 years the club has also been awarding scholarships to Americans who want to study at universities in Norway. These American students have attended institutions all over Norway.
Many club members have been honored with prestigious Norwegian awards such as the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav and the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit. Walter Mondale received this latter award in 1996. Other awards received by members have been the Haakon VII Freedom Cross, the Medal of St. Olav, the Haakon VII Freedom Medal, the Defense Medal, and the Home Guard Medal of Merit.
The topics of the luncheon presentations are varied. Tom Fisher, Dean of the University of Minnesota School of Design, will speak about “The Design Economy” on February 7 and Lorraine Jensen will speak about Runic Studies on March 7.
The speaker at the April meeting will be Norman Midthun. He has an interesting story to tell. He was born in the United States of Norwegian immigrants. When he turned 17 in the early 1940s, he joined the Royal Norwegian Air Force and went to Camp Little Norway in Canada for his pilot training. The training could not be done in Norway, of course, because of the German Occupation.
Before Midthun left for camp, Ben Eggan, his Norwegian teacher at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, brought him to a meeting of Torskeklubben. After the war Norman returned to Minneapolis and became a pilot for Northwest Airlines. He joined the Club in 1975.
Other Torskeklubbens have been established in Brooklyn, N.Y., Madison, Wis., and Sun City, Ariz., with the encouragement and official blessing of the Minneapolis Club.
While women may be invited to address the club, they may not become members. However, the women have established their own “fish” club, Lakselaget (the Salmon Club), which admits no men. An article about Lakselaget will appear at a later date in this publication.
Is Torskeklubben still relevant in 2015? The original purpose in 1933 was to provide a forum for Norwegian conversation, but now few members speak Norwegian.
Svendsen, Vice President/Investments at Stifel Nicolaus, finds it relevant. He joined in 1977 and has attended regularly ever since. He enjoys meeting with other professionals, especially those with Norwegian roots. Many interesting people from different professions have belonged to the club. Iver Sivertsen, one of the past members, for example, was a doctor who studied psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud. He was also one of the founders of Central Lutheran Church and Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis.
The only members who do not have Norwegian roots are a few Icelanders who slipped into the club—but they undoubtedly have Norse ancestors. A Swede by the name of Jim Johnson somehow managed to get into the club, but he was a fluke. The club still remains very Norwegian. The members value their Norwegian heritage and enjoy each other’s company. They will undoubtedly continue to meet for many years to come.
What’s so special about cod?
If you would like to learn more about this very important fish, Rolf suggests that you read Mark Kurlansky’s fascinating Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. This book will be of interest not only to those interested in food but also to historians.
You will find a review of the book that appeared in the Smithsonian magazine at www.smithsonianmag.com/history/review-of-cod-a-biography-of-the-fish-that-changed-the-world-152948483/?no-ist.
Available from amazon.com.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 27, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.