In a small town in North Dakota, a large codfish head appears in the bed of a mild-mannered frozen-food delivery man.

Has this man angered the Norwegian mafia?

Is there a Norwegian mafia?

There is, except they are hard to recognize.

“Like most Norwegians, they like to keep a low profile and avoid making eye contact.”

That sly description of the Norway mob — along with the codfish head and the Schwan’s delivery driver — comes courtesy of a brilliantly conceived new movie titled “The Lutefisk Wars.”

Regular readers may recall I have waged a lifetime war against lutefisk, the Norwegian dish made by soaking dried cod in lye.

The Norwegians are my people, but for 50 years I have refused to eat lutefisk.

This new film — which inexplicably was not accepted in the Wisconsin Film Festival but is now earning raves at other festivals around the country — has shown me the error of my ways.

It is better to laugh at lutefisk than fear it.

“We thought the idea of people fighting over a recipe for lutefisk was hilarious,” Chris Panneck said Tuesday.

Panneck and his friend Dave Hall served as co-writers, producers and directors of the film, which is presented as a faux documentary.

Panneck and Hall now live in Los Angeles, but they grew up in the Midwest — Panneck in North Dakota and Hall in Iowa. Unlike many independent filmmakers, they are not kids. They’re in their late 40s and both worked at Warner Bros. Studios. (Panneck still does.)

They wanted to collaborate on a film, and a North Dakota-based group of investors was interested in backing them, as long as the film could be shot in that state with a Midwestern theme.

Growing up, Panneck and Hall witnessed numerous Lutheran church potluck suppers and Sons of Norway lutefisk dinners.

What if an innocent delivery driver and amateur cook was mistakenly caught in the middle of a Norwegian mob feud involving an ancient lutefisk recipe?

To get themselves in the proper frame of mind, the filmmakers went to a Sons of Norway lutefisk dinner in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles and were stunned to find a line around the block. Norwegians are passionate about lutefisk, even in California.

“People either love it or hate it,” Panneck said. “And the people who hate it, really hate it.”

The “documentary” begins with the tale of Karl Larsen, a delivery driver in Newford, N.D. — think Stoughton, a town long on Norwegian descendants — hearing a knock on the door as he’s making himself a meal.

It’s an old fisherman babbling to him in Norwegian, which Karl doesn’t understand. Karl offers him a bite to eat, but the fisherman collapses face down into a three-bean hot dish — dead.

Things go from bad to worse — the Norwegian mob suspects the old man has given Karl an ancient lutefisk recipe, leading to the cod head in Karl’s bed — and at one point somebody says, “That’s when our trouble really began. As if a dead man in your hot dish isn’t enough.”

The film was a big hit at the Sonoma International Film Festival in California last month. The Sonoma Index-Tribune’s reviewer called it “whimsical and absurd” and “my pick for best comedy.”

Panneck was in Minnesota this week for festivals in Rochester and Minneapolis. He said they would love to show it in Wisconsin, where it would almost surely find a large audience.

How about Sundance at Hilldale? Failing that, maybe the Madison Torske Klubben could screen it at one of their Madison Club luncheons.

I had to ask Panneck: Does he like lutefisk? He laughed and said that information is on a need-to-know basis.

At one point in the film, Karl, talking about his own cooking, says, “If it makes you happy, gives you pleasure, who really thinks what made it that way? You just eat it.”

Sure you do. As long as it isn’t lutefisk.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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