By Heather Brown

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Every holiday season, thousands of Minnesotans will eat lutefisk dinners in church basements, restaurants and VFW posts across the state. On Friday night, Minneapolis’ Mount Olivet Church will hold one of the largest in the state with 1,600 people.

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So, that had Lindsay from Edina wanting to know: Why is the lutefisk tradition so big in Minnesota?

“My mother served it every Christmas,” said Judy Peterson. “But she always gave us an alternative – Swedish meatballs – and I chose that.”

It’s one of Minnesota’s most infamous foods – dried cod that has been reconstituted in a bath of water and food-grade lye.

“It doesn’t really have a taste,” said Elizabeth Springer, who eats it every year at her grandmother’s home for Christmas. “It’s just like a gelatinous goo.”

Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods called it, “one of the worst foods in the world.” And, that’s from a guy who has eaten the intestines of a goose.

The tradition of lutefisk started in Norway several hundred years ago as a way to preserve all of the cod that was caught in the spring. Folklore says it was the food of the Vikings, but lutefisk experts don’t know for sure.

“It’s definitely pre-discovery of America,” said Chris Dorff, president of Minneapolis’ Olsen Fish Company, the largest producer of lutefisk in the country.

In the 1800s, our Scandinavian ancestors brought the food to the Upper Midwest. All of Dorff’s dried fish still comes from Norway.

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“It’s important the fish comes from Norway,” he said. “It’s the authentic stuff.”

His crew then reconstitutes back to its original form in the Olsen Fish plant in north Minneapolis through a two-week process that involves soaking it in water and food-grade lye, or sodium hydroxide.

“The chemicals are still used to fluff the fish up the way it should be and also help preserve it,” he said.

Last year, they sold 450,000 pounds, down from 500,000 the year before because fewer people are eating the traditional foods.

“To this day, it’s more of a celebration of the tradition and the heritage,” he said.

Over this weekend, the chefs at St. Olaf College will serve up 700 pounds of lutefisk over four nights before the annual Christmas festival. They used to serve 900 pounds.

“With my family, I’m the only lutefisk lover that’s left,” said James Johnson, who will attend Thursday night’s St. Olaf dinner along with 2600 other people.

Many Minnesotans have never tried the stuff.

“It just didn’t look or smell good,” Peterson said.

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But, this year at the St. Olaf dinner, she says she’ll try it simply because of its history in Minnesota.

Heather Brown