Uff da! Lutefisk business heats up during holidays

December 12, 2014

Great Falls Tribune

With a name that means "lye fish," the cod dish known as lutefisk already has an uphill battle when it comes to being eaten.

But for the folks who eat it, it's an annual treat.

"The simplest way to say it is, the people who want it, want it bad," said Michael Vetere, a manager at 2J's Fresh Market in Great Falls.

2J's receives two 50-pound shipments of lutefisk each year, one in November and another in December, said Vetere. While it isn't the grocer's bestselling fish, customers come in knowing what they want.

Lutefisk is cod cured in lye, a traditional Norwegian dish that becomes popular beginning in the fall, said Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis.

"Really the bulk (of the business) happens between Oct. 1 and Christmas," said Dorff.

Early orders, between September and November, often come from Lutheran churches and Sons of Norway lodges, he said.

Many of the communities Olsen Fish Company ships to are small agricultural communities, and the lutefisk dinners coincide somewhat with the end of harvest, he said.

Olsen Fish Company imports two semi trucks worth of dried cod from Norway annually.

"They're as hard as a board and as thick as a piece of cardboard," Dorff explained.

The dried fish is put through a two-week a "luting" process, which involves alternating baths of lye, water and caustic soda.

The core lutefisk market is the states around Minnesota, including the Dakotas, northern Iowa and Wisconsin. The prairie provinces of Canada consume the fish, too.

"It boils down to where a lot of Scandinavians settled," Dorff said.

Interestingly, Arizona is becoming a lutefisk market too, as retired people of Scandinavian heritage migrate for winter but still have a hankering for that winter tradition.

In Montana, Dorff says lutefisk is popular along the Hi-Line.

While Olsen Fish Company does not do direct sales to many grocers or churches — much of their stock is sold through Ocean Beauty Seafood in Helena and Seafoods of the World in Billings — Dorff is familiar with that swath of northern Montana near Highway 2.

The 400 or so miles from Scobey to Cut Bank represents 400 miles of a lutefisk trail comprised of community halls and Lutheran churches of rural Montana, and each one of them, it seems, hosts a lutefisk dinner.

"It's funny how scattered people may be but still have dinners," said Dorff.