Minneapolis lutefisk plant adapts to new cultures, new demands

December 26, 2014


Inside the briny corporate office of the nation’s largest lutefisk processing plant, Nigerian immigrant Chidi Omeoga is settling her bill for a half-dozen whole dried cod.

Their tails stick out of the top of her clear plastic bag like sun-baked corn husks.

Omeoga uses the dried cod to add flavor to traditional African soups and stews. Though she calls it a delicacy, she speaks of it with the same tempered enthusiasm many a Norwegian descendant would use to describe lutefisk, the Scandinavian holiday specialty of dried fish reconstituted in lye.

“The flavor — you have to get used to it,” Omeoga said. “The smell — you have to get used to it.”

Olsen Fish Co. is ground zero for one of Minnesota’s most divisive ingredients. Since 1910, the factory has been processing dried cod, which arrives by the truckload after a long journey from Norway. To turn it into lutefisk, workers soak the kiln-dried filets in a bath of caustic soda, a food-grade version of drain cleaner. When cooked, the fish is bland and chewy at its best; at worst, it’s a mushy mess akin to fish Jell-O.

Lutefisk was a necessity before freezers were in every household. But as warm memories of immigrant families preparing the dish fade with the decades, a new wave of immigrants is turning to Olsen for the cod in its still-parched, air-dried form.

With a steady uptick over the past 15 years, unprocessed dried cod sales to Nigerians around the United States now account for as much of a share of Olsen’s business as processed lutefisk — about $2 million a year. Lutefisk sales, on the other hand, have been dropping, said Chris Dorff, president of the company.

“With lutefisk, we’ve got to come up with something,” he said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Finding its cool factor

Still, the company sells about half a million pounds of lutefisk a year, and is one of the last remaining sources for it in North America. Olsen is so tied to the dish that a “Lutefisk Hotline” printed on place mats at communal dinners dials directly to the pungent north Minneapolis plant.

Superstar chef Marcus Samuelsson, who grew up in Sweden, once did a twist on lutefisk at the former Aquavit in Minneapolis using salt cod, which got positive feedback. But a revival of the real lutefisk, he said, seems far off.

“I think that lutefisk was more famous than good,” Samuelsson said. “My grandparents loved it and the rest of us were not so sure.”

In Norway, a government campaign to revitalize the dish worked, Dorff said. He’s spotted it on high-end menus throughout Scandinavia.

But here, the dish remains preserved in its historic form — boiled, baked or even microwaved plain, then topped with salt and pepper, melted butter and white cream sauce.

“People don’t like it tinkered with too much,” said John Krattenmaker, who as executive chef at Fika at the American Swedish Institute baked 200 pounds of lutfisk (the Swedish spelling) for a dinner in November.

While still popular in Lutheran church basements and Elks lodges, the dish hasn’t yet taken on new life similar to other revitalized preserved foods — like bacon.

“The mainstream Minnesotan culture, I don’t think, is super eager to embrace lutefisk,” said Paul Berglund, chef of neo-Nordic hot spot the Bachelor Farmer. (An FAQ on its website says clearly, “No, we don’t serve lutefisk.”)

Keeping a heritage dish like lutefisk from disappearing entirely will take some effort from devotees and foodies, said John S. Allen, an anthropology researcher at Indiana University and author of “The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship With Food.”

“To some extent, lost foods are a little like lost languages,” Allen said. “People have to work hard to keep them going, to maintain that cultural identity.”

The scent of nostalgia

At Ingebretsen’s, a Scandinavian market in Minneapolis where Olsen drops off lutefisk three times a week, manager Julie Ingebretsen said the store has been selling the fish “like crazy” since Thanksgiving. “I feel like a bit of a resurgence this year,” she said.

Part of the allure is a link to the past — both to the generations of sailors and homesteaders who ate it to survive, and the immigrant grandparents who prepared it for the holidays.

For people who grew up smelling that process, the cozy feelings of Christmas are embedded in the odor.

“It’s a very primal sense when we process scent,” said Molly Birnbaum, author of “Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way” and an editor at America’s Test Kitchen.

If the first time someone smelled preserved cod was during the holidays, they’re going to have a positive association with the taste, “even when you grow up and fish Jell-O is not a thing you would typically like,” Birnbaum said. “It has everything to do with that first memory.”

At a recent lutefisk dinner at the Brooklyn Park Elks Lodge, Sharon Reisinger, 60, and her sister, Peg Lawrence, 62, said lutefisk and Christmas went hand-in-hand in their house.

“Skip the presents, bring me lutefisk!” Reisinger said.

But for those who didn’t grow up eating it, ranks of whom are increasing, the reception is lukewarm.

“I like it fine, in small doses,” said Ingebretsen, whose immigrant grandparents preferred torsk, a fish similar to lutefisk that hasn’t been dried.

Even Dorff, 47, whose family is German, didn’t try the dish until he took over Olsen from his father 20 years ago. “I wasn’t very excited about it,” he said.

At the frosty Olsen factory, where 80 percent of the operation is actually devoted to pickled herring, a man in a winter hat scoops cutlets from a vat onto a conveyor belt known as “Godzilla,” while a couple dozen workers pack the herring in containers ranging from tiny jars to bulk buckets. Meanwhile, just two men work the lutefisk corner.

Like lutefisk, herring is linked to holiday traditions. But Dorff said the bite-size fish has made a comeback.

That’s why he thinks there’s still a chance for lutefisk. He’d like someday to package prepared foods — maybe bacon-wrapped lutefisk, or lutefisk tacos. For now, he is embracing Olsen’s newest customers, at least until they, too, get sick of dried cod.

“I can guarantee you this,” Dorff said. “A lot of the Nigerian children born here won’t eat it. That tradition will fizzle and fade over the generations, too.”