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Evansville store does big business when it comes to lutefisk

Nelson's Store in Evansville sold 900 pounds of lutefisk during the 2010 Christmas season, and is on track to do about the same again this year. Wilbur and Florence Nelson have been selling lutefisk from the family store for 65 years. Forum Communications Photo/Tara Bitzan, Echo Press


O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma!

O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma.

Sure, the Scandinavian holiday tradition of eating lutefisk is the source of jokes for some, you betcha! But it's serious business for others.

The Nelsons of Evansville know first-hand that many people eagerly anticipate Christmas each year so they can indulge in the "delicacy."

Scott Nelson, owner of Nelson's Store in Evansville, sees his business pick up considerably each November and December as the lutefisk orders pour in.

Considering that the typical portion is one pound per person, it could be estimated that about 900 people indulged in lutefisk from Nelson's Store last Christmas, and the orders are stacking up to closely compare to that again this year.

"We had 300 pounds already ordered in November alone," Nelson said. "That's a lot for that early in the season."

Nelson explained that the freshwater cod comes from the Oleson Fish Company of Minneapolis. It comes semi-frozen, soaked in lye, in 50-pound boxes.

"It's up to us to get the lye out and get it ready for the customer," Nelson said. And that's about all the savvy salesman would reveal about the store's renowned lutefisk.

"We can't be giving away our secrets," he added.

One thing he did admit, however, is that the brains behind the lutefisk operation at the store is his dad, Wilbur Nelson.

"He's the one who takes care of it from the time it comes in until it's sold," Scott said.

Wilbur and his wife, Florence, originally started Nelson's Store in Florence's hometown of nearby Melby in 1946. In 1955, they moved their business to Wilbur's hometown of Evansville and operated it until their son took it over in 1981.

But they didn't retire then, or anytime in the next 30 years.

At age 90, both still go to work at the store almost every day (except Tuesdays, when Florence stays home to do laundry).

They help with stocking shelves, running the cash register, helping customers and whatever else needs to be done.

But in November and December, Wilbur's primary focus is the lutefisk. And after 65 years of working with the special fish, he's got it down to a science.

Obviously, the customers think so, too. Some of the regular Nelson Store lutefisk customers come every year from Wheaton, Lowry, Alexandria and many other surrounding towns.

"We give it a special treatment," Wilbur said with a twinkle in his eye. "We spend a lot of time on it. We won't sell it unless it has been treated twice."

Despite the pride he takes in his product, even Wilbur is surprised at how much lutefisk is sold during the holidays.

"I never dreamed we'd sell that much before Thanksgiving," he said of this year's November sales. "The busy time isn't even here yet. The bulk of our sales come the week before Christmas."

He recalls the largest order ever sold to one customer was 101 pounds.

He explained that people place their order and give the date they want to pick it up.

He prepares the fish in his skilled way and has it ready to go when the customer arrives.

"They can pick it up and eat it that same day if they want," he said. "Otherwise, they can take it home and put it in cold water to keep it firm.

"Ours is skinless, which is a big plus," he added.

Florence is a big fan of lutefisk and cooks it up every holiday season for her family.

Scott admits that he eats it every year and is actually becoming accustomed to it.

"It wouldn't be good business not to eat it!" he said with a grin. "But I do find myself taking a little more each time. I am acquiring a taste for it."

Florence enjoys every bite full, while Wilbur seems more interested in the process involved - from the time the fish arrives on the truck until the time it goes out to the customer - than he is in actually eating it.

The Nelsons say the opportunities to stay active at the store and with the annual lutefisk preparation have kept them young and in good health.

They've enjoyed 69 years of marriage and two children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

"Some people ask us why we don't go where it's warm in the winter," Wilbur said. "I always say, 'Why would we want to go south with the old people?' We like it here."

Bitzan is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. The Echo Press and the Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co.