Celebrating the Kräftskiva: a Swedish Crayfish Party Tradition

Swedish Crayfish Party

A few weeks ago, before the season began its visible transition from summer to fall, I took part in one of the most charming of Scandinavian celebrations, the kräftskiva, or Swedish crayfish party. A tradition every August in Sweden, it’s one that I’ve tried to embrace here in Seattle over the past several years. This year, in addition to hosting my own, I had the opportunity to be a guest at a very special kräftskiva hosted by Old Ballard Liquor Company.

As the summer sun glowed golden over Ballard, a neighborhood rich with Scandinavian history, I crossed the old railroad tracks, past the main streets, and made my way into a shipyard where relics of the old neighborhood were displayed as if it were a museum. Lights and signs from shuttered Ballard bars and restaurants (including one of my favorites, the old Copper Gate) brought back memories of old times. An old newspaper vending box displaying a 2009 issue made me do a double take (the headline announced the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer print edition, an event that as a journalist I remember vividly). The sun cast a radiant tint over everything, and if one had entered the scene after putting back a few shots of aquavit, one might wonder if they were really seeing things for what they were.

Tumble Swede Swedish Crayfish Party

Swedish Crayfish Party

With live music, lanterns, and plenty of aquavit flowing at Pacific Fishermen Shipyard, we made fast friends with our fellow diners and dug into the meal. With crustacean juice and the wild-fennel-and-beer poaching liquid dripping from our lips, we shared tips for how to break into the crayfish and extract as much of the meat and goodness as possible.

My neighbor, nostalgic for a time when she had lived in Sweden, focused on the crayfish, savoring the eat-with-your-hands meal and her own personal aquavit carafe frozen in a thick sleeve of ice. Less sure of the crayfish, the woman across from me made a meal primarily out of the mini onion and mushroom cheese pies (it’s typical to serve Västerbotten cheese pie at such dinners, as crayfish themselves are hardly enough to fill one up and soak up all the aquavit consumed). Rounded out with new potatoes tossed with butter and dill, rye crispbread to slather with butter, and an elderberry ice cream topped with stone fruit compote, the meal was distinctly Nordic—with a Pacific Northwest touch.

Tumble Swede Swedish Crayfish Party

As the sun set, I couldn’t help but think about the Friday-night revelers that would be gathering along the strips of bars and restaurants in the heart of Ballard. They would be oblivious to this quirky, cultural tradition taking place on just the other side of the old railroad tracks. With a full stomach and happy with the warm glow of celebration and community, I knew just where I would rather be.

Swedish Crayfish Party

Syttende Mai: Seattle, 1980s

Syttende Mai with Grandparents 1980s

Old Ballard was about as Scandinavian as you could get. Though far from the Nordic countries, the little neighborhood north of downtown Seattle had drawn immigrants by the thousands over the years. It used to be as easy to find lefse as it was a burger. And if you needed gjetost, pølse, or any other type of Scandinavian food–not to mention housewares or souveniers with Norwegian flags or “Uffda” printed on them, you didn’t have to look far.

The neighborhood has changed a lot over the years, but I still distinctly remember what it used to be like before the massive changes of the past decade. With Syttende Mai coming up tomorrow, I’ve been digging up old photos and memorabilia and thought I’d share some here today.

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

From a handful of family photos taken during the celebrations in the 1980s to old Syttende Mai issues of the Ballard News-Tribune, this box is filled with nostalgia for me. The photo up at the top of the post is my favorite. On the left are Grandpa Lauritz and Grandma Agny, who had arrived in Seattle from Norway right around Syttende Mai in 1956. Next to them are Grandma Adeline–my only surviving grandparent–and Grandpa Lowell. That little girl in front is me. If you’ve spent time in Ballard throughout the years, you’ll recognize the old Bergen Place behind us, prior to its redesign a decade ago.

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s MementosBoth sets of my grandparents lived in Ballard when I was growing up, and driving down to meet them at the parade was an annual event. I’m so glad my parents saved these old issues of the Ballard News-Tribune; at some point along the line, a photographer had captured photos of me and they were published for a couple of years (on the chair in the lower left of the May 15, 1985 cover, and holding a flag in the May 14, 1986 issue).

Today’s Ballard might be known more for its condos, restaurants, and nightlife than its Scandinavian roots, but Syttende Mai is still one of its biggest events of the year with events at the Nordic Heritage Museum and Leif Erikson Lodge during the day, leading up to a parade through the streets of Ballard in the evening (the 17th of May Committee says more than 20,000 people came out for the parade last year). I’ll be there tomorrow, hopefully adding more photos to the collection–photos that I’ll someday look back upon with the same sort of nostalgia as I do with these.

What are some of your Syttende Mai memories–in Ballard, Norway, or elsewhere? I’d love to hear about them!

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