Star Tribune – Taste
Annie Gillespie Lewis
Thursday, November 29, 2001

Lutefisk-- A dish To Love Or Loathe

There is no middle ground when it comes to lutefisk – either you love it or you hate it.

Even its fans say the smell of it can be strange and in the hands of the wrong cook it can turn into a quivering, pearly hunk of gelatinous gloop that grandma expects you to eat.

Lutefisk starts out as plain old cod, swimming in the cold waters off Norway. It’s caught, dried thoroughly and then reconstituted in water, a lye solution and still more water. It has a fishy, rather neutral taste and a more elusive tang. You can bake it or microwave it or even boil it as the old timers did. Timing is everything – properly cooked, it will be nice and flaky. If you’ve botched it, it tuns slimy or rubbery. Even with all those caveats, there are plenty of lutefisk lovers around.

Each fall, roving bands of Minnesota Norwegians, Swedes and Danes search out lutefisk suppers in church basements and legion halls.

Eleanor and Wendell Holmgren of Edina are among a group whose travels range from Wisconsin to western Minnesota for their lutefisk fix. “Three years ago, we maxed out at 12 suppers,” said Wendell Holmgren. “We really go carried away.”

Eleanor Holmgren remembers her mother soaking lutefisk, which literally means lye fish, but she said the days of this dining tradition are numbered. “My children don’t eat it,” she said. Her husband added, “There’s a lot of white hair at the suppers.”

The Holmgrens start making their supper rounds in September, progress to a church in Lester Prairie in western Minnesota at the end of October, then hit the supper in Scandia, Minn., in November. They continue noshing at Mount Olivet’s big supper in early December and wind up at Columbia Heights’ First Lutheran Church in January.

The Holmgrens and other lutefisk fans might think of lutefisk as a Christmas specialty (it’s still a staple of many Scandinavian holiday dinners), but Roger Dorff has lutefisk on his mind year-round. Dorff is president of Olsen Fish Co. in north Minneapolis.

Olsen Fish Co. processes more lutefisk than any other company in the world. He goes to Norway each May to order the kiln-dried cod from two fisheries in the western part of the country. Although the fish traditionally were dried on open-air racks in northern Norway’s Lofoten Islands, U.S. regulations now forbid the use of the air-dried fish, so the fish Dorff buys have been dried in a wooden kiln.

A year’s supply of the thin, stiff pieces of fish – 80,000 pounds – is shipped to north Minneapolis, where the rehydrating process takes about two weeks. First the fish are rinsed for three days in water, then they are soaked in lye solution for another three or four days, before being soaked in three changes of water for another eight days. For most lutefisk, there also is a treatment with hydrogen peroxide to whiten the flesh. After processing, the fish bulk up to more than 640,000 pounds.

Dorff remembers when his dad had lutefisk soaking in the Red Owl store he ran in Princeton, Minn. “At one time, there were three businesses on Fifth Street North (in Minneapolis) processing lutefisk,” Dorff said. Today, Olsen Fish Co., which dates back to 1910, is the only one in town, though two other companies in outstate Minnesota also process lutefisk.

A few people call and ask how to buy the dried fish so they can soak it themselves, using their own recipes. “We used to see one old man who took the bus to come here. He used to soak his fish in his bathtub for a week,” said Dorff, who grew up eating lutefisk and still enjoys it. “I live in Buffalo and we go to the supper at Zion Lutheran. My son took his daughter to her first lutefisk supper when she was 6 months old,” he said.

Dan Reinking, quality control supervisor at Olsen Fish, never gets tired of lutefisk. “You get to where you crave it. This time of the year you gotta have it,” said Reinking, whose brother, father and grandfather all have worked for Olsen.

A dying tradition

Olsen Fish supplies the lutefisk for 240 church and lodge dinners annually. Several years ago, the company launched a microwaveable lutefisk dinner, which is available at some stores. But overall, lutefisk sales are gradually declining. “It declines 6 to 8 percent each year,” Dorff said.

The decline is due both to loss of older Scandinavians who kept up the tradition and to the fact that most dried fish now comes trimmed and skinned, which means it weighs less per piece.

Lutefisk, said Dorff, “is best served hot and undercooked. It it’s cooked too long, it turns to Jell-O.” It’s easy to find in supermarkets and many meat markets, and jokes about it are ever easier to find. The plaintive question most frequently asked: “If it’s so good, why don’t you it more than once a year?”

Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian Foods in Minneapolis sells about 2 tons each season, said meat manager Mike Svendahl. The store also stocks the dried fish for those who want to soak their own, but there are few takers. Across the city, in northeast Minneapolis, Ready Meats sells a ton of lutefisk each season, but the takers are declining in number each year, according to Gene Podzimek. “The younger people aren’t buying it,” he said.

A history

Lutefisk (spelled lutfisk by the Swedes and ludefisk by the Danes) was survivor food for early Scandinavians, who dried the fish to preserve it. Kathleen Stokker writes about the tradition in her book “Keeping Christmas” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000). The tradition of lutefisk, used as a fasting food during Advent, goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages, according to Stokker. Many people claim the Vikings carried it with them on voyages.

The method of drying, treating and rehydrating it has remained essentially the same through the centuries. It was the food of poor people, and immigrants brought the tradition with them when they came to the United States.

Lately smart marketers in Scandinavia have tried to make lutefisk trendy by tapping into a younger crowed of diners and playing on the rumor that lutefisk is an aphrodisiac. The Norwegian Fish Information Board has a promotion for the fish using a slogan that, loosely translated, says “Lutefisk lovers love more.”

Vive la lutefisk

Lutefisk has an enth8usiastic booster in Dan K. Nelson. A scoutmaster for Troop 474 in St. Paul, Nelson convinced his scouts to use a lutefisk dinner as a fund-raiser in 1994. The dinner drew 98 people its first year and grew to 240 this year. The 15 boys in troop range in age from 10-18 and come from all ethnic backgrounds. “Everyone in the troop works during the dinner,” Nelson said. “It’s our biggest fund-raiser.” Connie Hill, who now lives in St. Paul, grew up near Madison, Minn., which calls itself the lutefisk capital of the United States. Hill, who is a Norwegian-American, has had her fill of lutefisk but acknowledges its tradition.

“The annual meal of lutefisk is like a communion,” she said. “Every time you eat lutefisk you are reminded about what your ancestors left, and how much better you have it now.” Hill said she cooked lutefisk for 13 years.

“Not only did I have to cook it, I had to eat it too,” she said with a laugh. “All the kids hated it. I’m an adult now, so I don’t have to eat it.” Nevertheless, she is firm about what is the traditional topping for Norwegians: butter. “I never heard of putting cream sauce on lutefisk until I started hanging out with Swedes in college.”

You’ll know you’ve arrive in Madison when you see Lou T. Fisk, the 25-foot-long fiberglass cod statue. According to Maynard Meyer, coordinator of the Madison Chamber of Commerce, the town got its lutefisk capital billing because it was once known among lutefisk suppliers as a town that bought more lutefisk per capita than any other place in Minnesota. Plenty of Madison residents still eat lutefisk. Each November the town holds an annual Norsefest, which includes a lutefisk-eating contest.

Madison’s own Jerry Osteraas was the champ for nine years straight, then he lost to his brother-in-law, Duane Schuette of Plato, for a couple of years. Osteraas regained his title this year.

Osteraas and Schuette have tied the record number of pounds eaten at the festival. They each slid down 8 pounds at one sitting and met the “retention” rule of keeping it down for 15 minutes.

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