Lutefisk is a tradition, and a business, unlike any other

November 07, 2015

Consider the Nordic culinary tradition of lutefisk.

A Lingcod is pulled from the north Atlantic, filleted and kiln dried until every drop of moisture is removed and it resembles a piece of rawhide leather. These almost transparent cuts of fish are transported nearly 4,000 miles from northern Europe to a warehouse in Minneapolis where they are rinsed in lye and water for 13 days to reconstitute, then sliced into a gelatinous fillet.

Each Christmastime, cooks around the metro area bake these fillets and serve them to diners, typically of Scandinavian descent, topped with melted butter or cream sauce.

If this sounds appealing, then you likely are familiar with Minneapolis’ Olsen Fish Company, one of the nation’s only lutefisk suppliers, or Mount Olivet Lutheran Church and its popular lutefisk supper, or Jim Harris, who runs a website listing hundreds of places lutefisk is served across the Midwest.

“I’ve eaten it all my life,” says Harris, who acknowledged the dish is better suited to adventurous eaters. “I don’t think there is a middle ground. There’s something about the weirdness of eating fish soaked in basically Drano.”

Harris was among the nearly 1,600 who packed Mount Olivet’s basement in south Minneapolis on a brisk December evening for the church’s 84th lutefisk dinner. It’s almost exclusively an older crowd, but a handful of younger relatives and grandchildren were in the mix.

By sunset, the icy parking lot was full and traffic control was needed to keep cars moving on West 50th Street out front.

The lutefisk supper is hosted by the church’s women’s circle and is one of its largest fundraisers. Diners pay $17 a head, $5 for kids, for a buffet of Scandinavian dishes including Swedish meatballs, boiled potatoes, rutabaga, lefse and rice pudding covered in lingonberry sauce.

The star attraction is the lutefisk — roughly 1,200 pounds of it.

Eileen Scott of Richfield has been preparing the church’s lutefisk supper for nearly half a century. The church once saw as many as 2,000 diners, but the 1,588 they served this year was considered a good turnout.

“It’s a tradition. We draw people from all over,” Scott said.

The key to good lutefisk is preparation, Scott explains. She believes improperly prepared lutefisk greatly contributes to the dish’s poor reputation in some circles.

“I love it. I’m Swedish,” Scott said. “My husband, he’s been trying it for 53 years; he hasn’t acquired the taste.”

Neither has church member Sarah Nymo of Edina, but that didn’t stop her from volunteering to help diners through the buffet line. Younger members of the women’s circle are dedicated to carrying on the tradition even if they don’t have a taste for the fish themselves.

“It’s an important tradition the church has, and we should keep it going,” Nymo said.

Lutefisk consumption may have fallen off in recent years, but Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Fish Company, said they still sell close to half a million pounds of Lutefisk each year. Eighty-five percent of those sales come during the holiday season, between October and December, when Dorff hires temporary staff because his phone is “ringing off the hook.”

“We have a wide range of customers; that’s what’s fun about it,” Dorff said.

Family brought Dorff to lutefisk, but not in the traditional sense. His family is of German descent and his father, Roger Dorff, worked for Olsen.

The younger Dorff started there 18 years ago processing lutefisk and pickled herring over breaks from college. Since then, lutefisk sales have declined, but demand for Olsen’s pickled herring has more than filled the void.

Walk onto Olsen’s processing floor and a pungent mix of fish, caustic soda and sweet pickling solution envelopes the nose. Workers pull lutefisk fillets from 900-pound tubs and slice them into portions to be packaged for bulk or individual sale.

Lutefisk was born out of the need to safely prepare fish that had been air-dried to preserve it, Dorff explains. Scandinavians once used the highly alkaline ashes of birch wood to clean and preserve dried fish as it was reconstituted.

Modern preparation calls for caustic soda baths followed by repeated rinses with water.

“It’s an ancient way of preserving protein,” Dorff said. “Once you put dried fish in water, the clock starts ticking. Adding the solution preserves and washes the fish, raising the pH so it lasts longer.”

Olsen’s now uses kiln-dried fish for its lutefisk, but they still import the air-dried variety. Locally, Nigerian immigrants boil and serve this fish or use it in soup, Dorff said.

Demand for lutefisk may be slowly declining, but Dorff doesn’t expect it to ever go away completely. He isn’t expecting a full-blown lutefisk revival either.

“Here, we have a melting pot, but people still find away to hold on to their heritage,” Dorff said. “If it’s prepared right, they’d probably appreciate it.”

And there are plenty from younger generations who enjoy lutefisk. Edina resident Ali Stepnes and her father Jeff Lundy of Jordan make sure they get to Mount Olivet every year.

“We come here because they have great lutefisk,” said Stepnes, who grew up eating lutefisk. “You have to be around it or you’ll never try it.”