Minnesota is divided into two camps: those who love lutefisk and those who would sooner eat testicles. Both sides have their reasons. The lovers, mostly of Scandinavian heritage, usually grow up eating lutefisk, a long-standing Scandinavian staple served with copious amounts of butter and potatoes. The loathers are put off by the gelatinous texture and abhorrent smell, potent enough to wipe out a small army of vegetarians. And lest we forget, lutefisk (literal translation: lye fish) is reconstituted in -- you guessed it -- lye.
Before casting your own judgment on poor, degraded lutefisk, take a moment to consider its function in 16th century Scandinavia. The drying and soaking process that stockfish (air dried whitefish) underwent was a remarkable preservation method, providing Scandinavians with a lean source of protein throughout long winters. That said, it's uncertain where and when the process actually originated, making it a popular target of folktales. See also: Plate or Pass: Blood
One story claims that Viking villagers had hung their fish on drying racks and were ransacked by another Viking clan, who burned the fish racks. The fish remains fell into a puddle of rainwater and ash and soaked for months before being found and feasted on by starving Vikings.
Another story says that when the Vikings set off to pillage Ireland, St. Patrick instructed his men to poison their unwelcome visitors by pouring lye on their dried fish. The Vikings, being Vikings, did not die of lye poisoning, but thought the lye added a nice flavor to the fish. However, as the Smithsonian pointed out in 2011, this "makes for a great story if you don't mind the fact that Patrick lived centuries before the Vikings attacked Ireland."
Whatever its origin, Lutefisk remains wildly popular in Minnesota, especially around the holidays. According to Lutefisk Lovers Lifeline, a website dedicated to tracking down every single lutefisk dinner in the Midwest, Minnesota is currently home to more than 120 such dinners, most of which take place at Lutheran churches and Sons of Norway locations. Madison, Minnesota considers itself the lutefisk capital of the United States, and went so far as to purchase an $8000, 25-foot fiberglass codfish named Lou T. Fisk to use as a welcome sign. Don't worry, Madison. We highly doubt anyone will attempt to dethrone you anytime soon.
Minnesota is also home to Olsen Fish Company, the largest lutefisk processor in the world. The company was founded by Olaf Frederick Olsen and John W. Norberg in 1910 and now handles upwards of 650,000 pounds of lutefisk annually, in addition to two million pounds of pickled herring. Olsen's lutefisk is sold in bulk to Lutheran churches and Sons of Norway and in individual packages to Lunds, Byerlys, Cub Foods, and Ingebretsen's, among countless others. Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Fish Company, said Ingebretsen's sells more lutefisk per year than any other individual location in the country.
We decided to stop by Olsen's Fish Company to see the process first-hand. Olsen Fish Company orders their flat, dried stockfish (measuring about two feet in length) from Norway. The fish are added to big tubs of cold water and are soaked for a few days before food-grade caustic soda, otherwise known as lye, is added to the mix. The cod soaks for a total of two-weeks, leaving the fish eight times heavier than in its original dried form.
"What we use now is caustic soda [which] still goes into the tanks with the dried fish in the water early on in the process to get the pH up," Dorff said.
Dorff said the modern process of drying and reconstituting the fish is far more sanitary than older methods (like drying fish outside) and helps dilute the strong flavor and smell.
"You hear so many jokes about lutefisk," he said. "Well most of that is because in the old days, the fish that was outside that smelled so strong and when you soaked it in water, it smelled even stronger... Now, with this more refined, more sanitary process, it doesn't smell as bad as it used to and when you cook it, you don't get as strong of a fishy flavor."
Of course, we couldn't just take his word on that. Dorff sent us home with two packages of Olsen's lutefisk fillets, which come with three cooking methods on the back, including boiling, baking, and microwaving. Dorff advised against the latter, claiming that microwaving turns lutefisk into paste.
We set to work. The smell, as Dorff mentioned, wasn't nearly as repulsive as we'd expected. It smells exactly like what it is: fish and chemicals. We started with the traditional method of boiling the lutefisk for about five minutes, until the fish drooped over the fork and folded in on itself like a Fortune Teller Miracle Fish.
Boiled lutefisk tasted like mild codfish with a slight chemical aftertaste, but had the consistency of Jello and immediately triggered our gag reflexes. We tried smothering the boiled fish in butter as suggested, but the taste and texture made us feel like we were eating massive chunks of animal fat.
Our next attempt to make lutefisk edible involved covering the pale atrocity in foil and baking it for 45 minutes. It wasn't good, but it wasn't wretched. Still, if given the option again, we'd turn it down in a heartbeat.
Listen, we totally understand if you grew up eating lutefisk and learned to love it, but for the untrained palate, it's just not worth the agony.