Within the few square miles that define Ballard, the historic epicenter of Seattle’s Scandinavian community, diners can feast on smorgasbords and smørrebrød (open-face sandwiches) and smorkage (glazed butter pastry rolls filled with almond paste and raisins). Shops offer house-pickled herring, house-cured fenalar (lamb leg) or homemade fish pudding, not to mention krukost, a sort of potted cheese made from leftover rinds. Wash down the pastries — including four types of pretzel-shaped Kringle pastries — with drinks from Seattle’s famous coffee culture or opt for your choice of aquavit.
For more-daring palates, lutefisk — a gelatinous, lye-soaked codfish dish — is historically served around Christmas, but it’s also a star of the 44-year-old Ballard SeafoodFest in July, with an annual contest to see who can stomach the most. It’s served in milder form year-round at the Old Ballard Liquor Co., where owner Lexi (who goes by one name) wants to take out the “fear factor” by preparing a lutefisk brandade hand pie, cutting the fish with potatoes and cloaking it in a rye pastry crust.
The dish is still semi-traditional, to her view. “Serving it with things to mask the flavor is part of the tradition,” she said.
A century ago, Seattle’s smorgasbord of options would have been less surprising. That’s when settlers from Scandinavian countries made up the largest ethnic group in Washington state, drawn to Seattle by maritime and mill jobs that felt as familiar as the scenery. Back then, newcomers from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland could choose among 11 full-service Nordic bakeries, according to Judith Dern, author of a handful of Scandinavian cookbooks as well as a new book, “The Food and Drink of Seattle.”
By the early 2000s, many of those diners and cafes had disappeared. Fishermen’s Terminal was — and still is — home to the North Pacific Fishing Fleet, but Seattle’s tech boom sparked Ballard’s redevelopment from working-class enclave to trendsetting destination neighborhood. More than shipyards and docked crabbing boats, it’s become known for chic boutiques and hip restaurants such as the Walrus and the Carpenter, the nationally acclaimed oyster bar from James Beard Award-winning chef Renee Erickson.
The city has always retained a dedicated core of Swedes and Norwegians, though. Just look at the Swedish Cultural Center, a.k.a. the Swedish Club, where the monthly pancake breakfast regularly draws between 500 and (in holiday bazaar season) 1,000 diners.
Volunteers at warming trays on a recent Sunday cheerfully loaded plates with three thin-rolled Swedish pancakes covered generously with lingonberry preserves, a thick-cut slice of ham and a cloud of whipped cream. Just $11 ($9 for members, $5 for kids) buys two trips through the line. Only about 30 percent of the guests are members of the 126-year-old club; the rest come for the live music (accordion, on this day), the festive dancing and the old-fashioned connection with community.
“It’s the church basement experience,” said Kristine Leander, the organization’s executive director. “You can bring little kids here. You can’t bring little kids to all restaurants.”
The headquarters building was considered on the outskirts of the city when it was built overlooking Lake Union in 1961. (The bar upstairs, which offers more-modern Friday meals, has one of the best restaurant views in the city.) Now, it’s in the heart of the city’s boomtown and close to the titans of tech, including Amazon.com.
Organizers have made some contemporary concessions, including an option for gluten-free waffles. But other traditions are sacred. “We’ve talked about some things and then said that’s really not Swedish, so we shouldn’t do that,” said Bob Blair, who oversees the dozens of volunteers ladling out pancake batter (up to 15 circles at a time on the five griddles in use) and pouring kaffe (coffee) and apelsinjuice (orange juice). “Some people said, ‘We’d like some eggs.’ No, we’re not going to do that.”
For the burst of new energy in Nordic food, look in part to the city’s rocketing population and booming restaurant scene, supporting endeavors such as “Fika Friday” pastry get-togethers at the Book Larder cookbook shop and a major expansion at Larsen’s Bakery, which was founded in 1974 and remodeled last year.
Lexi, who operated an aquavit distillery and various Nordic pop-ups, is the force behind many creative ventures, including co-owning Skal, a “Viking beer hall” scheduled to open later this year in Ballard. She hopes to bridge the gap between stereotyped “Scan-Am” meals and unattainable haute cuisine (Who can source musk ox in Seattle?), delivering what she called “this huge unexplored territory of Scandinavian food,” such as the smoked cod roe that’s barely seen in the United States but is as common as peanut butter overseas.
The biggest boost to the city’s food scene, though, was almost certainly Seattle’s Nordic Museum, which began hosting an annual culinary conference in 2016 with international stars such as Swedish chefs Magnus Nilsson and Titti Qvarnström. In May, after 40 years housed in an old brick schoolhouse, the museum opened a dramatically modern new building in Ballard. The zinc-clad, light-filled, 57,000-square-foot building, modeled on a fjord, includes the casual, Nordic-food-devoted Freya Cafe.
Community members helped influence the dishes served at the little spot, which wound up with classics such as a “Mormor’s Pantry” of juniper-smoked salmon and krukost, house-pickled vegetables and other nibbles — just like grandma would make, or as close as they could get working in a 300-square-foot kitchen and an off-site space. Staffers have learned the fine points of herring suppliers, traditional shrimp size (small), the quantity of the local lingonberry harvest (smaller), Swedish meatball varieties (highly controversial), and how the senior citizens who linger late in the afternoon require caffeinated coffee.
“They are the toughest people on the face of the Earth,” said Lendy Hensley, whose catering company runs the restaurant. “They’re offended if you offer decaf.”
Tact is required for the sample flight of aquavits, one from each Nordic country.
Depending on family traditions, Hensley said, some people believe the aquavit from a given country needs to be served cold. Others insist on room temperature.
“We have both available,” Hensley said.
Cafe chef Bob Pennington echoes some of Lexi’s philosophy when he talks about how Seattle is a perfect match for Nordic foods, not by transcribing recipes verbatim but by using the abundant seafood, wild foods and farm-to-table cooking that has already defined the city’s dining scene.
“I would call it Northwest Nordic, maybe,” Hensley said.
The museum has raised awareness of Nordic foods, but it has also increased awareness of how much tradition remains intact in Seattle, said the cafe’s operations manager, Katy Carroll.
At Ballard’s annual Syttende Mai parade in May marking Norway’s Constitution Day, crowds of every age, from children to senior citizens, marched proudly in traditional clothing.
“It was cool,” Carroll said. “It was a sense of community that, when you see it, you know it’s real.”
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If you go
Where to eat
15 Nickerson St.
This modern bakery-cafe offers a range of Scandinavian baked goods, including loaves of bread and classic cakes. Pastries start at around $6.
Freya Cafe at the Nordic Museum
2655 NW Market St.
No entrance fee is required to eat at this casual museum restaurant featuring classic Nordic dishes and drinks. Meals from $8 to $13.
Larsen’s Danish Bakery
8000 24th Ave. NW
A longtime landmark in the Ballard neighborhood, Larsen’s specializes in Kringles, smorkage and other old-fashioned pastries. Whole Kringles cost $15.49.
520 2nd Ave. W
Founded in 1965, this bakery’s specialties include classic Danish pastries and marzipan “princess cakes.” Princess cakes are $5 a slice; pastries average $3.
Old Ballard Liquor Co.
4421 Shilshole Ave. NW
This funky little bar-cafe, housed in a former aquavit distillery, offers authentic Nordic drinks and modern takes on herring boards, lutefisk and other snacks. Small plates from $4 to $14.
6719 15th Ave. NW
Originally a Norwegian sausage company, this grocery and cafe still features meats and fish cured in-house, alongside a wide array of imported pantry goods. Prices range widely depending on the items. For example, Swedish meatballs cost $7.99 per pound and Fenelar runs $24.99 a pound.
Skal Beer Hall
5429 Ballard Ave. NW
A “Viking beer hall” scheduled to open in late 2018 promises mead, rotisserie meats and wild game.
Swedish Cultural Center
1920 Dexter Ave. N
A busy, thriving nonprofit organization offers Friday happy hours and dinners in its “Kafe” and bar, along with a monthly pancake breakfast and occasional themed dinners. Cafe prices range from $8 to $18. Pancake breakfasts cost $11 for adults; $5 for children 5 to 12; free for younger children.
What to do
4252 Fremont Ave. N
This well-stocked cookbook store features regular free “Fika Friday” events with snacks and tea. Its wide selection of books includes several Nordic titles.