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Seattle's Delicious Scandinavian Culture Is Slowly Disappearing

By the early 1900s, more than 100,000 Scandinavian immigrants had flocked to Seattle in search of a temperate climate and good fishing. While that presence has started to fade in recent years, there are still pockets of Scandinavian food and drink to...

by Dara Bramson
Sep 21 2015, 6:00pm

Photos via Flickr user kgregory

It's an overcast Sunday morning in Seattle, which may seem like an average day in the Pacific Northwest, and I'm standing in line for Swedish pancakes at the Swedish Cultural Center. With me is 83-year-old Bengt Hag, who's wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his own face and the words "The Swedish Club: What Happens at the Club Stays at the Club."

But the secret is out—evidenced by the packed parking lot and the nearly 1,000 attendees at the monthly event. Hag pulls aside a flap of his traditional embroidered jacket to display his shirt, available for sale at the front desk. "That's me!" he says with a youthful grin before scooping a lingonberry-topped bite in his mouth.

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Bengt Hag at the Swedish Cultural Center. Photos by the author.

A longtime volunteer and Swedish native, Hag moved to Seattle in the early 1960s and is now a fixture at monthly breakfasts, weekly meals, and holiday festivals. He's one of many active Scandinavian members who call Seattle home. But according to Kristine Leander, the Swedish Cultural Center's executive director, 70 percent of breakfast attendees are non-members. (That means they pay $9 instead of $7, which still beats brunch prices and includes seconds.) Founded in 1892, the Center was a home-away-from-home for Scandinavian immigrants to the region, who numbered over 100,000 by the early 1900s.

"The lush farmland, rivers and bays teeming with fish, and a temperate climate lured Scandinavians to the Pacific Northwest," says Leander. She notes that many Scandinavian immigrants were instrumental in rebuilding Seattle after the Great Fire of 1889, which destroyed much of the city's center. Today, the waterfront neighborhood of Ballard, which drew Scandinavian fisherman in the 1850s, is home to Nordic flags, museums, monuments, and festivals throughout the year.

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Workers at the Swedish Cultural Center.

When I arrived in Seattle, I immediately noticed Scandinavian traces on menus and in advertisements: the cute little circle over the Å, the delicate line through the Ø. And it wasn't only at IKEA. (It especially stuck out after years of living in vowel-deficient Poland.)

My introduction to Scandinavian food began last Christmas in Sweden with my boyfriend's family, and left me ambivalent. At the first party, dozens of extended family members feasted on the traditional Christmas julbord—a meat-heavy buffet with fish and potato dishes, salads, and sweets—where I could carefully navigate what appealed to me. At the second party—already stuffed from the first—nine of us sat around a smörgåsbord of unidentifiable open-faced sandwiches.

Fast-forward to April, when we visited a Ballard restaurant called Tumble Swede, a pop-up "celebrating the New Nordic cuisine of the Pacific Northwest." We prepared our Americanized palates with citron aquavit cocktails and consumed a succession of four pre-fixe courses: three delicate Chelsea Gem oysters, warm and salty potato salad, followed by buttery, flaky nettle pie, and a twist on traditional semla that's akin to bread pudding.

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Who wants kransekake?

In 2004, a bunch of food experts decided to tell the world that Nordic food doesn't suck, so they developed the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto. (For clarity, Nordic countries include those in Scandinavia—Denmark, Norway, Sweden—plus Finland, Iceland, and Greenland.) They wanted to revive regional flavors and spread their ethos, promoting Nordic cuisine internationally with an emphasis on simple, local, fresh ingredients. Tumble Swede almost certainly seemed like a related success story.

But in recent years, some of Seattle's Scandinavian restaurants have vanished.

A 2010 article in Seattle Met referred to Scandinavians as "Seattle's disappearing immigrant population." Many people I spoke to attribute this to second-generation assimilation. "They're eating Thai food now just like the rest of us," said a waiter at Tom Douglas' Ändra Loft and Bar, which offered only one aquavit option and two Scandinavian-themed appetizers on its menu. It opened mid-2014 in the upstairs lobby of Hotel Ändra (Swedish for change) and was billed as a "full-fledged Scandinavian-themed bar" with "badass Swedish food" and "dedicated to aquavit." The prosciutto-esque Tyrolean speck, served with pickled carrots and lingonberries, was just fine, but it paled in comparison to the juicy lamb gyro and garlic oregano fries beside it. Where did the pork-beef meatballs with coriander cream go?

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scandiseattle_IMG_3681 Kringle at Larsen's.

There was only one way to remedy my Scandinavian craving after that: beeline to Larsen's Danish Bakery, a Scandinavian staple since 1974. I am immediately comforted by the smell of sweet calories as I walk through the door. Larsen's is best known for its massive Danish kringle, a pretzel-shaped pastry filled with marzipan and raisins, topped with sugar and almonds. I spend a solid ten minutes half-ogling, half-drooling, grilling the patient baker about the Scandinavian sweets: lime green princesstårta, layered almond kransekage, and sweet julekaka bread. Locals also flock to Nielsen's Pastries, opened by a Copenhagen native in 1965, for the "potato"—a pastry oozing with whipped cream and marzipan. Byen Bakeri, the go-to for sweet and savory Scandinavian treats by a Norwegian baker, is nearby.

The best Scandinavian pastry I had in Seattle, though, was at a grocery store: Scandinavian Specialties. On a Saturday afternoon, I walked in to the store's café at the end of fika time. White-haired ladies spoke in their native tongue, sipping on coffee and polishing off their cakes. The impressive selection of local Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish products was overwhelming—a freezer full of specialty meats, cheese, plus shelves of candy, preserves of fairytale fruit like lingonberry and boysenberry, even fish pâté in tubes that could be mistaken for toothpaste. Scandinavians flock here for the homey imported flavors they can't find elsewhere, a taste of home. No wonder I pondered seconds of the layered meringue Verdens Beste Kake—meaning "the world's best cake" in Norwegian.

"The culinary events are so successful that we're holding a Nordic Culinary Conference in May 2016," said Sherri Scott of the Nordic Heritage Museum, which hosts classes, events, and festivals throughout the year. In December, the Museum will open an exhibit on Scandinavian drinking, including aquavit history, and the importance of food pairing.

Despite the disappearance of some Scandinavian restaurants in the area, the region's culture and attitude is still present at events like these, as well as in those delectable pastries. And times may be changing but—because I need a new shower curtain at IKEA—Swedish meatballs are never far.