Celebrating summer Swedish style with an Old Ballard Kräftskiva

Crawfish are found all over the world, but are especially abundant in North America and Northern Europe where traditions like the Swedish Kräftskiva usually involve eating a ton of them in one sitting. (Photo by Yvonne Rogell)
Crawfish are found all over the world, but are especially abundant in North America and Northern Europe, where traditions like the Swedish Kräftskiva usually involve eating a ton of them in one sitting. (Photo by Yvonne Rogell)

As a Swede living in Seattle, there are just a few things I miss about home: The public transportation system, sailing in Stockholm’s archipelago, and Swedish holidays, including the yearly kräftskiva — a traditional crawfish party held at the end of the summer.

Aside from the occasional food item that is difficult to find in regular American grocery stores (like vanilla sugar, pearl sugar, filmjölk and crème fraîche) I haven’t really found myself craving Swedish food. Having grown up cooking the vast majority of our meals at home, replicating my “Swedish” recipes in Seattle hasn’t been very difficult with the ingredients you can find here.

But when I went to the kräftskiva hosted by the Old Ballard Liquor Co. on a beautiful, slightly sweaty Friday evening I suddenly felt the cravings for home come over me.

The Pacific Fishermen, a 70-year-old working shipyard, was the venue for Old Ballard Liquor Co.’s inaugural kräftskiva. (Photo by Yvonne Rogell)
The Pacific Fishermen, a 70-year-old working shipyard, was the venue for Old Ballard Liquor Co.’s inaugural kräftskiva. (Photo by Yvonne Rogell)

Kräftskivor originated in the early 1900s. But this relatively new tradition is already intimately connected with Swedish culture and identity. For a long time, crawfishing was forbidden between November and Aug. 7, which is why parties were held as soon as the first crawfish came out of the water. Since 1994, catching crawfish no longer seasonally restricted, but many still hold true to the tradition and wait with the crawfish parties until August.

When I first caught wind of Old Ballard’s inaugural kräftskiva on the event’s Facebook page, I immediately texted my Swedish friend Denice: “How do we feel about Old Ballard boiling the crawfish in fennel instead of dill?”

We were still pondering this important question last Friday as we lined up waiting to get into the party. In typical Swedish fashion, we were early.

Old Ballard Liquor Co’s main location is down under the Ballard Bridge, but the event was held at the Pacific Fishermen Shipyard on Salmon Bay right above the Locks — a uniquely perfect venue for a kräftskiva.

Small picnic tables were dwarfed underneath the shipyard warehouse’s high-rise ceiling. Old neon signs with names like “The Viking” and “Valhalla Tavern” ensured the place had Scandinavia written all over it. A gigantic blue ship — the “Royal Viking” — served as a magnificent backdrop, standing in a stable dry dock just meters away.

Small frozen carafes filled with aquavit and vodka (blended for a milder flavor) is a perfect combination if pure aquavit isn’t your thing. (Photo by Yvonne Rogell)
Small frozen carafes filled with aquavit and vodka (blended for a milder flavor) is a perfect combination if pure aquavit isn’t your thing. (Photo by Yvonne Rogell)

Man-in-the-moon style paper lanterns and lights hung criss-cross over the picnic tables: spot-on traditional decorations that come with any Swedish kräftskiva.

As we sat down, we found our table neighbors busy folding brochures with snapsvisor — Swedish songs that are sung jointly before taking a snaps (usually a shot of aquavit or schnapps). As I skimmed through the lyrics, memories came back and I slowly grew more excited (and hungry).  

Lexi, Old Ballard’s owner, kicked off the evening by explaining a thing or two about Swedish kräftskivor and the food that was coming. The crawfish were all caught in Lake Washington by a Norwegian fisherman from Ballard, Terje Kvinge. The fennel boil, she said, is a slight modernization of the traditional dill boil.

And then it all began: the music, family-style served food, plates loaded with piles of bright red crawfish, savory cheese pies with onions and chanterelles, buttery dill baby potatoes, rye crispbread and elderflower ice cream. “Elderflower is for Swedes what catnip is for cats,” our table neighbor said correctly.

Denice Sigvardsson gets ready for the first crawfish of the year. Cracking them may look easy, but it takes some skill and muscle. (Photo by Yvonne Rogell)
Denice Sigvardsson gets ready for the first crawfish of the year. Cracking them may look easy, but it takes some skill and muscle. (Photo by Yvonne Rogell)

And of course, there was plenty of Old Ballard’s own aquavit. If you’re a fan of Scandinavian liquors, chances are you’ve already tried it (and so has Alicia Vikander). At the top of our lungs (well, almost), we all burst into the snapsvisor listed in the brochure and then gulped down small glasses of different aquavits flavored with lemon, dill, caraway and licorice.

As I was cracking the shells of the crawfish open (tail first, claws next and, if you’re up for it, sucking out the juices of the head), with crawfish juice squirting left and right every now and then, it struck me that part of what makes a country’s food so special is the traditions that come with it. While I don’t miss Swedish pancakes per say, making a pannkakstårta like iconic storybook figures Pettson & Findus awakens a deep nostalgia.

And so while I may still prefer the crawfish boiled in dill instead of fennel (sorry Lexi!), Old Ballard Liquor Co. has just turned into my go-to place whenever I’m in need of a little taste of home.

My only tip for next year’s kräftskiva, Old Ballard: get some party hats!

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