Think you can eat lutefisk? A lot of lutefisk? Fast? Then the western Minnesota town of Madison (pop. 1,500) needs you.
Known as Lutefisk Capital USA, the town is facing an only-in-Minnesota struggle — recruiting contestants for this year’s lutefisk-eating competition.
Downing the old-school fish (which is dried, soaked in lye and rehydrated) is a highlight of Madison’s annual Norsefest. Because the festival is marking its 50th anniversary this fall, organizers are trying to lure 50 to compete.
The contest usually draws about a dozen people —impressive considering that the person in charge of drumming up contestants abstains from the uniquely textured Scandinavian dish himself.
“I promote it, but I don’t eat it,” said Maynard Meyer, executive director of the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I will be the first to admit that.”
But for the Nov. 10 event this year, Meyer and his coworkers are trying to cast a wider net to find more folks willing to eat (and keep down for the required 1 minute) large quantities of the traditional, odiferous fish.
Lutefisk consumption in Minnesota and the rest of the country has been in decline for decades. But Madison still takes pride in its fish-forward title, which it took on back in 1982, after Minneapolis-based Olsen Fish Company determined it sold more of the Lutheran church dinner staple there per capita than anywhere else in the country, Meyer said.
Lutefisk pride is on display: There is a mascot, a 25-foot-long fiberglass cod named Lou T. Fisk, which stands at a park on the south side of town, along Hwy. 75. A cartoon-like image of Lou graces the water tower and flags that hang from streetlamps downtown.
Other Norsefest events this year include a craft show and a Scandinavian arts fair.
But the lutefisk competition, set for Nov. 10, is the festival’s hallmark happening — “the big thing,” according to Meyer.
Meet the master
Any new competitors would have to unseat Jerry Osteraas, who almost always wins the contest.
In fact, he’s won so many times he’s lost count. He does remember, however, the times he didn’t.
“I lost three times to my brother-in-law, but he’s got a pacemaker now so he can’t compete,” said Osteraas.
Osteraas is more than a hometown hero: He was crowned national lutefisk eating champion in a Poulsbo, Wash., eat-off back in the 1980s.
His Norsefest record tops 8 pounds of the preserved fish.
Osteraas is willing to share a few of his secrets. He says he shows up with an empty stomach.
It also helps that he actually likes lutefisk.
“Oh, yeah. Well, I grew up with it,” Osteraas said. “I just put butter on it.”
In 1991, the competition had to be canceled because Osteraas was the only entrant: No one dared to take him on. Since then, the contest has been split into three divisions, based on amounts of fish served.
Those in the Guppies category start with just a quarter pound on their plate, while Walleyes get a half pound.
Sharks must snarf up 1 pound before asking for more.
Eating continues, in 3-minute rounds, until everyone drops out. Winners get cash prizes and a not-insignificant amount of local glory.
Winners also usually get to take home any lutefisk that goes unserved, Osteraas said.
Fishing for fame
This isn’t Madison’s first attempt to go big when celebrating an anniversary.
When the nation marked the U.S. Constitution’s bicentennial in 1987, the town — leaning into their namesake connection to President James Madison — put their giant fiberglass fish on a travel trailer and sent it on a tour around the country.
Lou T. Fisk stopped at a number of other cities, towns and places named Madison from Wisconsin to Connecticut, even landing in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, where the town’s boosters tried to dole out lutefisk to any New Yorker who would take it.
“This town has always had weird things going on,” said Meyer.
Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726