St. Paul Pioneer Press
Friday, July 28, 2006
There’s a new big fish in Lutefisk
Minnesota firm now world's top producer
No joke, lutefisk lovers.
Two big names in the lutefisk business have joined forces, which means Minnesota now boasts the largest lutefisk company in the world — if lutefisk makers were inclined to boast, anyway.
Olsen Fish Co. of Minneapolis said Thursday it had purchased Mike's Fish & Seafood of Glenwood, making the combined company a powerhouse in the world of Lutheran church suppers, Scandinavian Christmases and Sons of Norway dinners. Beyond that, terms of the deal were not disclosed.
For the uninitiated, lutefisk is a traditional Scandinavian dish made from cod soaked in lye. Even in Nordic circles, lutefisk's unique taste, powerful smell and squishy texture are treasured by some, detested by others, and a source of mirth to many.
Olsen President Chris Dorff said his company has long known it was among the world's largest lutefisk makers. But he was hesitant to claim the title because Sweden has a big one, too. But now, he figures, the lutefisk debate is over.
"We produced probably 400,000 pounds of lutefisk last year and Mike's probably did 150,000 pounds," Dorff said. "If you put the two of us together, I'm sure we are (the largest) at this point."
Still, the lutefisk business is no bed of roses — and not just because of the smell.
Unlike Olsen's pickled herring products, lutefisk — which retails for about $4 to $5 a pound — is not a growth market.
Many young people have never tried lutefisk — or even heard of it. Plus, Dorff said, like any food manufacturer these days, Olsen's must boost its safeguards against bioterrorism — which would seem to provide fodder for a new round of lutefisk-as-a-threat jokes.
But to its devoted fans, lutefisk is one of life's beloved traditions. Around the Upper Midwest, the lutefisk season begins each fall with church suppers and fraternal dinners and peaks at Christmas with reminders of old favorites and distant folkways.
At Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Beldenville, Wis., both food and nostalgia are on the menu, drawing busloads to its annual lutefisk dinner the last Thursday of each October.
Audrey Halverson lists the Scandinavian favorites: lutefisk, Swedish meatballs, homemade lefse, krumkake, sanbakkles and more.
"It's in the country, it's an old-fashioned setting and we have entertainment," Halverson said, detailing some of the reasons a small church manages to serve up 2,000 pounds of lutefisk.
"Some people who come, even if they don't like lutefisk, like the rest of it. And we have people who come and that's all they eat — they eat a whole platter of lutefisk," she said.
Olsen Fish Co. intends to continue the Mike's brand of lutefisk, a line that began 35 years ago when merchant Mike Fields couldn't get high-quality lutefisk and started making his own in a tin shed behind the store. Fields died in the spring and his family decided to sell the business.
"People identify with certain brands and it's very important to maintain the brand that everyone is used to. Because we're dealing with a tradition," Dorff said.
Meanwhile, Dorff is hoping to interest a new generation in lutefisk by offering samples.
With some frequency, he said, "People say, 'Hey, this is good. What are all the jokes about?' "