We looked at each other for a few puzzled seconds, before simultaneously saying, "Scandinavians?"
Seattle—and specifically Ballard’s—identity as a bastion of Scandinavia is diminishing. What was once a community dominated by Norwegian, Swedish, Danish businesses and culture has changed dramatically. Just the other day, I read a Seattle Times article about Captain Sig Hansen—Ballard resident, Norweigan, and star of the Discovery Channel show "The Deadliest Catch”—in which he decries "the fading ethnic identity of the Seattle neighborhood that welcomed his father and so many other Nordic immigrants."
“You won't hear Norwegian spoken on the streets of Ballard anymore,” he says. “It’s become one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Seattle.” The weekend farmers markets he dismisses as “frequented by sandal-wearing recyclers ... storefronts that once sold hardware and ship supplies are now boutiques ... It's not clear to me what they sell.”
Hansen may be exaggerating, but he's got a point. At one point, Norweigans, Swedes, and Danes ruled Seattle. Between 1890 and 1910, close to 150,000 Scandinavians settled in the Pacific Northwest, making them the largest foreign-born ethnic group in the state. By 1910, Scandinavians were the largest ethnic group in Washington, making up 31 percent of Seattle’s population. Today, immigration from Scandinavia has slowed to scarcely a trickle. According to the 2000 U.S. Census data, of the top fourteen countries of birth of Seattle’s foreign-born population, not a single one is Scandinavian.
Two of Ballard’s longest-standing Scandinavian food purveyors, Olsen's Scandinavian Foods and the Scandinavian Bakery, have closed. While the cuisine—simple preparations of fish, a variety of meats and vegetables such as beets and potatoes marked with flavors like dill and horseradish, as well as lots of preserved items and plenty of pastries—may still thrive in homes, it’s getting harder and harder to find it on menus around town.
While Larsen’s Danish Bakery (800 24th Ave NW, 782-8285) is still serving Ballard, their offerings consist mainly of cloyingly sweet versions of traditional pastries such as kringles and spandaus. (Seattle’s has one other Danish bakery, Nielsen’s, on Queen Anne.) Ballard’s only surviving traditional Scandinavian savory spot is Scandinavian Specialties, where you’ll find comfort in a fortifying cup of yellow pea soup ($3.50), filled with still-firm peas, hand-chopped carrots, and tender shreds of lamb, served with a side of crisp rye crackers.
The café’s offerings are sparse (a few pastries, sometimes a quiche), but Scandinavian Specialties’ refrigerator and freezer is where all the action is: all manner of pickled fish; a salted, dried, and smoked lamb lag called fenalar; salt pork; the infamous lutefisk, (a jellylike fish whose consistency comes from repeated soakings in water and lye); house-made fish cakes; medisterpolse, a sweetish Danish pork sausage seasoned with clove and allspice; and kalvsylta, Swedish jellied veal roll. (Also available: I Heart Norweigans bumper stickers, Parking for Swedes Only signs, and at least four hundred items bearing the phrase “Uff Da.”)
For a fresh, hot, wonderful homestyle Scandinavian meal, your best bet is to visit the Swedish Cultural Center (1920 Dexter Ave N, 283-1090) during their Friday Kafé and happy hour. At the Kafé, you’ll find smörgås ($7 – $8), lovely open-face sandwiches consisting of heavily buttered bread topped with ham, bay shrimp and hard boiled eggs, creamy brie and crisp apple, or smoked salmon and pungent, tart mustard, made by Kristina and Claes Båvik (the folks behind the recently departed Svedala Bakery in Pike Place Market). There are also hearty Swedish meatballs ($7.50), made from pork and veal, sitting in a light gravy and served with simple boiled potatoes and a generous dollop of lingonberry preserves.
The secret of the Kafé is, apparently, out. On a recent Friday afternoon, the line was out the door of the dining room, with folks happily waiting ten minutes or so for a meatballs and a 180-degree view of Lake Union that would be the envy of Canlis diners. But it wasn’t always this way, says Sara Lightle, Swedish Cultural Center board member and a driving force behind the Kafé and happy hour. “Kafé really started going strong about a year and a half ago. Before that, it was just dead. The food was horrible, and they were serving maybe six lunches total every Friday. Then I told them, my mother is a fabulous chef, maybe she would like to help out.”
Enter Ann-Margaret Lightle, a spry and energetic native Swede and real estate agent who drives down every Friday morning from her home in Mount Vernon to whip up Swedish meatballs, as well as rotating dinner entrees like pork tenderloin with chanterelle mushroom sauce or Janson’s Tempatation, an anchovy and potato gratin.
While Larsen’s and Nielsen’s are baking up massive quantities of treats daily, I’ll take the home-baked goodness of Ann-Margaret’s Princess Torte any day: a white cake layered with whipped cream, vanilla cream, and raspberry preserves, all encased in lime green marzipan shell. It’s astonishingly light, with a gentle sweetness.
Also representing a new generation of Scandinavia is the Copper Gate bar (6301 24th Ave NW, 706-3292), which proudly bills itself as “Seattle’s only surviving Scandinavian restaurant and lounge.” The centerpiece of Copper Gate is a copper-topped bar shaped like a Viking ship, but beyond that the nods to tradition are more in spirit.
Copper Gate serves up what I’d say is “traditionally inspired” Scandinavian food, with a few hits and misses: There’s great house-pickled herring ($8), sweet and sour, tangled up with a bunch of crunchy onions and coriander seeds alongside incredibly salty, barely edible gravlax ($9), both served wtih heavily buttered pumpernickel triangles. Beef meatballs ($8), are perfectly adequate, served with an ordinary brown gravy, a rich and velvety celeriac-potato mash, and some lingonberry preserves. It's telling that the stand-out item on Copper Gate's menu are the french fries—handcut, with crackly, papery skins and steamy hot insides.
The best thing going at Copper Gate is the booze, specifically the housemade spirits like Heldig’s Own aquavit ($6), flavored with coriander, fennel, saffron, and horseradish, which is as remarkably smooth as it is complex. Then there’s salmiakki ($6), which looks like green-black sludge and tastes strongly of black licorice, but with an intriguing sweet-salty finish. (Copper Gate’s other highlight: Happy Hour, from 5-7 pm everyday, when all food is two dollars off and all drinks are discounted by one dollar.)
In what is surely a sign of Seattle’s changing times and population, the neo-Scandinavian food at Copper Gate is meticulously prepared by a man named Paco.