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Finding Minnesota: The quirky, quixotic quest to turn palates on to lutefisk

Finding Minnesota: The quirky, quixotic quest to turn palates on to lutefisk
Finding Minnesota: The quirky, quixotic quest to turn palates on to lutefisk 03:06

MINNEAPOLIS -- We are entering a very important time of year in our state -- lutefisk season. In this week's Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen got a tour of one of the last remaining lutefisk-processing plants in the country during their "busiest" time of year.

"Going back to the days of the Vikings, it was their way of traveling. And it was also a commonly traded product," said Chris Dorff, of Olsen Fish Company.

At Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis the smell of dried cod is the smell of money, even if it takes some getting used to.

"If you took this home and you put it in your closet, Dorff said, "within an hour or so everybody is going to be like, 'What's that smell?'"

Take it from somebody who's been around this fish most of his life. Dorff began working at Olsen 26 years ago. The company itself was founded by Norwegian Immigrants in 1910.

"Using Old World traditions and recipes and to this day, those are still our main ... two products we make are pickled herring and lutefisk," said Dorff, who is Olsen's president.

They process 2 million pounds of herring a year and up to 450,000 pounds of lutefisk. The latter is what sells this time of year, and their cod is caught north of the Arctic Circle.

"The bone and skin is all removed and they go through a sanitary drying process where in the matter of two or three weeks they take all the moisture out," said Dorff.

The fillets then sit in a bucket of water for days before they're put in lye, where they actually expand.

"A pound of that dried fish is going to turn into 8 pounds of lutefisk," Dorff said.

Justin Reese and his crew take it from there.

They cut and then package the fish. At this point, it's made the transformation from cod to lutefisk and quite likely on its way to a Lutheran Church near you. That's their biggest clientele.

Mount Olivet in Minneapolis holds a lutefisk dinner every year. Before COVID, there were years where they served up to 1,200 pounds of lutefisk with butter or cream sauce. 

Olsen is here to prove that lutefisk gets a bad rap. With a little butter and bacon they believe it can be an oldie but a goodie.

"Now after 26 years I can't imagine doing anything else," said Dorff. "Lutefisk, it will be around for a long time."

Olsen said lutefisk tastes great baked or broiled and they often use toppings like bacon, butter or cream sauce to add flavor.

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