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Love it or loathe it, Minnesota's lutefisk tradition lives on

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Leah Damon takes her first bite of lutefisk during the annual dinner.
Leah Damon takes her first bite of lutefisk during the annual lutefisk dinner at First Lutheran Church in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Bob Ross, 69, of Grand Rapids, Minn., takes his lutefisk seriously. Last week, he showed up 45 minutes early and was first in line for the annual lutefisk dinner at First Lutheran Church in Duluth — an hour and a half away. 

"I crave it," he said, in explaining his willingness to drive long distances for lutefisk, even if he's not exactly sure why. "I grew up with it, and I hated it. I couldn't stand it. But after you get away from it, you crave it." 

When lutefisk is done right, it's light, flaky and delicious, Ross said. Still, he acknowledged a lot of people make fun of lutefisk. 

It is, after all, dried cod that's been soaked in lye. "It's an acquired taste," he admitted. 

Catherine Anderson cuts lutefisk and puts it into bins.
Catherine Anderson cuts lutefisk and puts it into bins.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But despite its reputation, and the aging population of lutefisk aficionados, the culinary custom lingers on, preserved at dozens of lutefisk dinners held this time of year in church halls and basements across Minnesota. 

"I think it's the nostalgic part of it, the fact that people are still reaching into their roots, trying to build traditions. I think that's such an important thing," said Bea Ojakangas, a celebrated cookbook author who has helped put on the lutefisk feast at First Lutheran Church for more than 30 years. 

Lutefisk was created as a way to preserve fish, prior to refrigeration. The cod was dried on outdoor racks. Then, to make it expand, it was soaked in water and then in lye, which was made out of wood ash. Lye expands the fish to an even bigger size than when it was dried, and gives lutefisk its characteristic jelly-like quality.

Perception of lutefisk, however, is much different in Minnesota than where it originated. 

"It's so funny, because if we go back to the Scandinavian countries and talk to them about lutefisk, they don't revere it like here," said Ojakangas. 

That's not the case for Minnesotans like Count Roger and Carol Chase of Grand Rapids. They travel all around northern Minnesota attending lutefisk dinners. 

They used to help put on a lutefisk dinner at their church in Grand Rapids. But it fizzled out as the price of fish went up, and the number of people eating it kept going down.  

At a dinner earlier this year in Bemidji, Chase recalled, "I looked around, and it's all silver-haired people ... You don't see very many young people. Pretty soon it will be a pizza party."

Lutefisk originated among Scandinavians as a way to reconstitute dried cod.
Lutefisk originated among Scandinavian people centuries ago as a method of reconstituting dried cod.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The appetite for lutefisk is dwindling across the board, not just in Bemidji. 

"Lutefisk sales, ever since I started [in 1995] has dropped down, I would say, anywhere from 5 to 8 percent a year," said Chris Dorff, president of the Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis, the only high-volume producer of lutefisk left in the country.  

Still, the dinners persist, and Dorff said the churches he sells to report that attendance has held firm — there's just a lot less lutefisk stomached. Dorff said he used to plan a pound of fish per person. Now he cuts that in half.

Attendance has also held up at First Lutheran in Duluth, where more than 1,100 people ate this year, including Elijah Jensen, who at age 30 was a youngster in the crowd. 

Catherine Anderson and Char Juntunen cut lutefisk and puts it into bins.
Catherine Anderson and Char Juntunen cut lutefisk and puts it into bins.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

He confessed he was there mainly for the Swedish meatballs — he's had lutefisk only once in his life, when he was a teenager. 

"You know, I don't know if anyone actually really, really likes it, or if they just pour on enough butter [on it], just enough to slide it down," he said. "I thought of it more as fish jello."

Nonetheless he vowed to try it again this year. 

"Not as bad as I remember," he said, slowly swallowing his first bite. "It's a little less fishy than I remember. It's still definitely gelatinous."

Patrons walk past crock pots and heaters during the First Lutheran dinner.
Patrons walk past crock pots and heaters during the First Lutheran dinner.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

And for those concerned that the lutefisk tradition could die along with the older generations of Norwegians, Swedes and Finns who grew up with it, Felicia Schneiderhan offers a glimmer of hope. 

She had Norwegian great-grandparents. This year was her second time eating lutefisk. Her preschooler Esther even tried it. 

"When we moved to Duluth from Chicago nine years ago, the culture was really attractive to me. I like honoring that part of my heritage," she said. 

Plus, she said, she actually kind of likes lutefisk, despite the naysayers: "It's kind of tasty."