The stench from the lutefisk tanks is strong enough to singe your nasal hairs and cling to your clothing for a day or two. But Katherine (Kitty) Taute isn't complaining.
For a dozen years now, she has been the lutefisk lady at the Day Fish Co., an old red-brick creamery on a forgotten crossroads 60 miles straight north of the Twin Cities. Wearing bright yellow, waterproof bib overalls, she's too busy answering the phone and dashing between the walk-in herring cooler and the farm tanks in the back room. That's where the dried, cardboard-like swatches of lingcod from Norway are soaking, first in softened water for four days, then in a lye solution bath for four more and then back in a water rinse.
At the end of the ancient process, a throwback to the pre-refrigeration era, the lutefisk is said to be as succulent as lobster and popular enough to draw folks from across the upper Midwest to scarf up the Scandinavian delicacy.
"Seems like everybody knows about this place," says first-time customer Tom Kuseske, 65, who came 15 miles from Mora to pick up some pickled herring for his father's Christmas present. "The old-timers at my church in Pine City told me about it and then Brian, my barber, told me to get up here."
Taute scampers off to fetch his herring from the cooler. Along with her longtime boyfriend, Dave Bolling, and a couple of his uncles, they sell more than 30 tons of lutefisk between Oct. 1 and Christmas. They supply everyone from Cub Foods to church suppers during their four-month, October-through-January window of operation.
"After New Year's, we're like Maytag repairmen around here," she says. "But then I truly start craving it and can't wait until September when we get the first batch down so we're ready when the doors open again in October."
Six months ago, on June 29, Taute awoke with a splitting headache at 4 a.m. at her home eight miles west of Ann Lake near Ogilvie. She buried her head in the mattress before struggling to find the phone to call 9-1-1.
A blood vessel had ruptured in her brain and she wound up in a helicopter before spending two weeks in intensive care at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, where doctors inserted a platinum device in her thigh that wound up behind her ear to treat the aneurysm.
First, her two daughters and grandson gave her a hug.
"We thought she was done for," Bolling said. "Doctors said less than 3 percent of people with those kinds of aneurysm make a full recovery."
That's why -- no matter how much it stinks -- Taute is feeling extra blessed this holiday season.
"I sure am," she says. "I feel totally as well as before it happened. It's got to be the lutefisk."