Finding Minnesota: Lutefisk Capital USA

By Mike Binkley, WCCO-TV

MADISON, Minn. (WCCO) — With Christmas less than a week away, you would expect hams, pies and cookies to be the top sellers in grocery stores.

But in the western Minnesota town of Madison, the big demand right now is for fish that feels like Jell-O in your mouth.

“Well lutefisk, I grew up with it,” said Minerva Moen, who comes from a long line of Norwegians. “My grandparents always had it.”

The people of Madison claim they eat more lutefisk, per capita, than anyone else in the country. And who can argue when a giant fiberglass cod nicknamed Lou T. Fisk is in the town’s main park?

Madison is the self-proclaimed “Lutefisk Capital USA.” People there used to actually say they lived in the “Lutefisk Capital of the World” until someone in Norway complained. But there is no question they have the world champion lutefisk eater.

Jerry Osteraas is 6 feet, 5 inches of 100 percent Norwegian, and he can put down more than seven pounds of lutefisk in one sitting.

“Well he’s always been a big eater from the day I first met him,” said Karen Osteraas, Jerry’s wife.

In more than 20 years of competitive eating, Jerry Osteraas is undefeated at the town’s annual Norsefest. Well, except for those three times when he got some “bad” lutefisk.

“I mean it was like eating rubber,” he said. “It really was. And it came back on me, and I just can’t eat like that.”

His wife clarified matters, claiming “He’s never actually thrown up. He’s just gotten to the gag point and then just can’t eat any more.”

For those who don’t know, lutefisk means “lye fish.” That’s because in Norwegian tradition, dried fish is mixed with lye to give it a gelatin type texture. The lye is cooked out, though, before anyone eats it.

Jerry knows what a rare talent he has, and he’s become somewhat of a celebrity. He’ll keep competing as long as his stomach holds out.

“Yes, I’m well known,” he said with a laugh.

WCCO-TV’s Mike Binkley Reports

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  • Tom Olson

    I grew up with lutefisk, my grandfather sold it at his meat market. He sold more lutefisk than any other meat market in the twin cities. The name of his meat market was, “Olson Bros. Meats”. My grandfather was in business for 62 years. He closed the shop in 1976, and he died in Apritl, of 1982, at the age of 94.

  • Mike Hanson

    I grew up with it, every Christmas at my grandparents home. When it turns to jelly, it is too late to eat. When it is cooked just right it is light and flaky, it falls apart in your mouth, and actually tastes great. If it is overcooked or left too long on a platter it turns to jelly and then is good for nothing. Actually,the lye is not cooked out, it is soaked out, changing the water frequently until it is soft. After most of the lye is out, then it is cooked. When you buy the real thing, it is totally dry, and looks like a piece of wood. The lye is one way to preserve it for a very long time.

  • Maynard Meyer

    Actually, Jerry has eaten 8 1/2 pounds in one sitting during the annual contest which is held during Madison’s Norsefest (the second weekend in November).

    • Jane

      My husband competed for several years in the Lutefisk eating contest against Jerry. I think the most Les ate was six to seven pounds and Jerry always ate more. Norsefest was fun, great shopping at the craft booths and the outhouse races were the highlight of Saturday afternoon. Nice town with nice people.

  • Walt M.

    I worked a temporary job for Lyon Food in Golden Valley, 40 years ago. We processed Lutefisk for weeks before Christmas. At the end of the day, I had to take my work clothes off on our family porch, the stuff put out such a bad smell.
    But I was glad to have the job.

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