Lutefisk and pickled herring: The Olsen Fish Company keeps tradition alive

Pieces of lutefisk are cut and weighed
At Olsen Fish Company pieces of lutefisk, a traditional Nordic cod preparation, are cut and weighed prior to packaging Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

It seems as though nearly every ethnic group has an exotic fish specialty, and Scandinavian Americans claim two: lutefisk and pickled herring. On assembly lines at the Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis they cater to both, packing thousands of pounds of preserved fish into jars and boxes every year.

Company president Chris Dorff took some time recently to reflect on how he got into this most Minnesota of businesses, as his workers meet the annual demand for the traditional seasonal Scandinavian delicacy.

Olsen was founded in 1910 by Scandinavian immigrants, but they sold out during the Great Depression.

"My dad spent a number of years working here in sales, and when they looked for another sales person in the mid '90s he came to me, so I've been here ever since," Dorf said.

Times have changed how the work is done.

The dried cod comes from Norway, hard as a board, looking like a piece of skin. It's processed over the course of a couple weeks, alternating in baths of fresh water after a treatment with caustic soda, "making sure you're bringing the chemical levels down and getting the fish to fluff up the way it needs to," Dorf said.

The herring comes from New Brunswick and Newfoundland. It gets packaged in sweet brine with fresh onions and pickling spices.

An apron and hoses
An apron and hoses at Olsen Fish Company, makers of lutefisk and pickled herring, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 in Minneapolis. Olsen Fish Company president Chris Dorff says the ingredients used in the making of his products as highly corrosive.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"When our grandparents or great grandparents were soaking this fish in their basement it had a very strong odor," he said. "The process is a lot more refined than it used to be and people now buy it already made; they don't have to soak it.

"Everything we have to have in here is stainless steel because our products are so corrosive. You wouldn't believe what it does to metal," Dorf said.

So maybe it's no surprise that lutefisk remains an acquired taste.

"My first experience with lutefisk (was in) in 1995," Dorf said. "I went to a lutefisk supper in my hometown, and I think I kind of got the bottom of the barrel or the bottom of the roaster and I wasn't all that impressed. I followed that up later that year with a dinner in Monticello and I was very happy with what I had there. I had my 2-year-old daughter at the time who kept asking for more 'apples.' We kept putting more lutefisk on her plate and she kept asking for more 'apples, more apples.' She won't eat it now at 15 now though, so I don't know if I did something wrong there."

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