BRAINERD -- The spread started with a blue-lidded Pyrex container, identified only by the name ''A. Olsen'' scrawled on a strip of masking tape.
Soon, as visitors in caribou- and snowflake-patterned sweaters streamed into the meeting hall at Trinity Lutheran Church, the two long folding tables were groaning under the weight of the Tupperware, the crockpots and the foil-covered serving bowls.
''Can this go in the oven for a little bit, Ray?'' asked one of many graying ladies, a covered hotdish held aloft.
''Sure, sure!'' replied Ray Frisch, Sons of Norway president. ''Just bring it on back!''
LaLonnie Dyrdahl (left) of Merrifield, along with Dorothy and Bob Janes of Brainerd and others, dish up a Sons of Norway potluck supper at Trinity Lutheran Church in Brainerd on St. Patrick's Day, March 17. Legislation has been introduced in the Legislature to exempt potluck suppers from health department food handling regulation. (AP Photo by Steve Kohls, Brainerd Daily Dispatch)
This was potluck, right in the heart of Minnesota, where a casserole is ''hotdish'' and celebrating St. Patrick's Day on a Friday night was ''no biggie'' for 75 or so full-blooded Norwegians. And some Finnish spouses, and Germans, too.
Similar scenes play out in countless church basements and community centers most days of the year around Minnesota, where potluck is popular among the heavily Scandinavian population.
It just so happened that on this day, the Sons of Norway may have been breaking the law.
The group announced its gathering in the local paper, which, in the eyes of some state Health Department officials, opened the potluck to the public. By state law, any food not prepared in or served from a state-approved kitchen is a no-no at public gatherings.
Technically, the Sons of Norway were outlaws.
''Well, that's just crazy, isn't it?'' said Bill Hansen, the smile dropping off his craggy face. ''They're not going to shut us down, are they?''
''Besides,'' Hansen said, the smile returning, ''these ladies, they cook their food so well done that there's no way anyone could get sick.''
No inspectors showed up to spoil the fun. And it's not likely that they would have, said Colleen Paulus, manager of the Health Department's environmental health services. Even though the law has been on the books for years, Paulus' department concerns itself mostly with big events like the Minnesota State Fair. Outside the Twin Cities, potlucks like the Sons of Norway's largely go unnoticed.
But not always, as Al Juhnke found out.
Juhnke was walking into a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party bean feed last year when he was stopped at the door and told to take his crockpot back to his car.
Juhnke, however, happens to be a state representative, and he was annoyed enough to introduce this year a ''hotdish bill'' that exempts organizations holding potlucks from state food-handling regulations.
The Senate moved the bill along with a resounding voice vote of ''ya, sure'' (no kidding) two weeks ago. Similar approval is expected soon from the House and Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Health Department officials make no apologies for their enforcement efforts but haven't tried to block the legislation. Instead, they have worked toward a compromise, including a provision to post signs reminding potluckers that the food they're eating has been prepared privately.
The enforcement is aimed at preventing the food-poisoning outbreaks that have happened from time to time around the country.
''The biggest problem at potlucks is keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold,'' said Aggie Leitheiser, assistant commissioner for health protection. Another concern is that in the event of an outbreak, unregulated food handlers aren't obligated to cooperate with Health Department officials, limiting their ability to trace the cause of illness.
Still, illnesses caused by potlucks are few. Of 55 reported cases of foodborne illness in Minnesota in 1999, only 11 were traced to private events like wedding receptions, family picnics and community potlucks.
Sons of Norway member Marylis O'Brien, a Norwegian whose late husband was Irish, said if inspectors ever shut them down, they would simply stop advertising in the paper. It's not as if members wouldn't hear about a potluck; some had been to a lunchtime potluck ''up there in Nisswa'' the very same day.
And so, undaunted by their scofflaw status, the Sons of Norway began the feast. After a brief hymn, Frisch declared it was time to eat; as he stood deciding whether to call members up one table at a time, the line had already formed 50 deep. Off with the tinfoil, off with the lids.
The meatball and noodle stroganoff hotdish from ''A. Olsen'' was gobbled up before the end of the line reached it. The rest of the food lasted well into seconds -- and no one was shy about seconds.
Somehow, the math works out: Every couple brings enough food for several people, but nearly everything is devoured.
The spread included Norwegian open-faced sandwiches, deli meats and cheeses, smoked fish and plenty of side dishes.
But potluck is really all about the hotdish. Salmon and bread hotdish, potatoes and ham hotdish, wild rice and beef hotdish, some kind of meat and some kind of starch hotdish; all were spooned onto three-compartment picnic plates alongside pink, fluffy Jell-O with sliced bananas, spongy almond cake and Rummegrot.
''Norwegian cream pudding. Best thing you ever had,'' said Sue Leagjeld, as she ladled the warm, yellow stuff into styrofoam cups and sprinkled cinnamon on top. ''Here, try it. ROOM-ah-grut. Roll the r's.''
Easier eaten than said. But Leagjeld was right about the Rummegrot.
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