Crayfish, Sara Löwgren, Flickr
On a summer day, many years ago, a lone crayfish freezes as Oskar’s and my shadows pass over the water. The creature is about an inch and half long and a shade more copper-red than the bottom of the stream. Oskar, all of four feet tall from bare feet to platinum crew cut, puts a finger to his lips. Slowly, he creeps forward, lowering the butterfly net he’s holding until it just meets its reflection on the clear surface and then quietly slides beneath. The crayfish watches as if hypnotized, worrying its front legs like it’s knitting. When the rim of the net gets within three or four inches, the spell breaks. With a kick of its fat, curved tail, the thing springs to life and propels itself beneath an overhanging rock, leaving only a small puff of gravelly sediment and a disappointed seven-year-old in its wake.
The crayfish is probably feeling pretty good about itself. If it had a better sense of history and the calendar, it might be less cocky. Here in Sweden, it’s approaching 5PM on the first Wednesday in August, which marks the start of a glorious national holiday known as kräftpremiären—the Crayfish Premiere—the kick off to a short but intense season of crustacean consumption. Our friend is hardly out of the woods.
If the notion of a Scandinavian crayfish culture seems surprising to an American with Cajuns on their mind, Swedes would be amused to hear it. Kräftor, as they are called in Sweden, have been a staple of Swedish cuisine at least since King Eric the 14th made them a featured food of his court in the 1500s; by the mid 19th century, the common folk had enthusiastically caught on—quite the opposite trajectory of the crayfish in America, where they have only recently gone from a food of resourceful poverty to a mainstream delicacy. (See also: chicken wings.) By the early 20th century, Swedish mania for crayfish was strong enough to play a role in the nation’s politics. Soon after the US enacted Prohibition, Sweden had its own flirtation with banning alcohol, including aquavit, or schnapps, which are to crayfish what milk is to cookies. Teetotalers lost a 1922 referendum by the slimmest margin, one that may have been pushed over the line by a propaganda poster designed by artist Albert Engström. It bore the legend: “Kräftor kräfva dessa drycker!” (“Crayfish demand these drinks!”) Even today, one suspects the Get Drunk and Eat Crayfish ticket would be a winner at the polls.
Come August, the capture and consumption of crayfish amounts to a national obsession. Markets are filled with cheeses meant to be eaten alongside crayfish; wines to be drunk with crayfish; crayfish-emblazoned tablecloths, napkins, plates, balloons and other supplies. All of these are for kräftskiva, crayfish parties, schnapps-soaked revels that take place on and around that second Wednesday of the month, a date held over from the days when the government designated a limited crayfish season to prevent overfishing. The restriction was lifted in 1994, but tradition is powerful. Erik Molinder, owner of Melanders Fisk, one of Stockholm’s most famous fish stores, told me several years ago that he sells as much as 6,000 pounds of crayfish in August and almost none the rest of the year, much the way American turkeys seem to be invisible until November.
In truth, the timing of kräftpremiären probably has more to do with the seasons than with arbitrary government regulations. Swedes endure so much darkness in winter that they are almost compulsively drawn outdoors through the long days of a short summer. It feels absurd to say, as Oskar and I make our way through sunshine so abundant it almost feels liquid, but our crayfish party represents the closing bookend to a season kicked off by the revels of Midsommar. Even in summer, every Swede can feel winter somewhere in their bones.
Of course, not all Swedes are lucky enough to live in a place where they can catch their own crayfish. Seven-year-old Oskar Rundqvist and his family are, and I am lucky enough to have them as cousins by marriage. That is how Oskar and I have come to be patrolling the shore beside an 1830 farmhouse in the village of Bjälkerum, about four hours south of Stockholm. A stream burbles through the property. It feeds a grid of shallow, manmade canals, dotted with lily pads and criss-crossed by footbridges, that was the handiwork of an alcoholic great-great uncle, a painter, who retired to Bjälkerum in 1902 in an attempt to dry out. He could not have designed more perfect hunting grounds.
Also at the house are Oskar’s parents, Elin and Tomas, and their two blonder-than-blonde daughters Matilda, 12, and Olivia, 9, all relocated for the month from a Stockholm suburb; Elin’s brother, Peje, who is married to my Long Island-born cousin, Dale and most of my New York-based family. There’s a towering, American-obsessed family friend named Stefan, who bears a strong resemblance to Obelix from the Asterix comic books and quotes long stretches of Mel Brooks movies by heart. Also: five chickens borrowed from a local farmer to provide daily eggs and a hamster named Flowers.
Every morning, Elin wakes the house by blasting the overture from Carmen from an old phonograph in the living room. The consolation is a waiting, typically Swedish smorgasbord of berries, pancakes, muesli, hams, smoked fish, cod roe and black bread. By the end of breakfast, the American contingent is ready for a nap, but today, there is work to do. Peje and Tomas pull the crayfish traps from a loft in the barn. The earliest, bent and faded with age, are made of woven twine stretched across a metal frame and date from the 1930s; the next batch, which Peje used as a child in the 1960s, are fashioned from chicken wire; the most recent, purchased last year, are black and yellow snap-together plastic. There are cylindrical traps, which passively collect their prey by sitting on the bottom of the river, and circular hand traps, essentially flat nets on strings, that require the patience of a polar bear waiting for a seal to poke its nose through the ice. You stay still as the crayfish climb aboard, then slowly raise them up, as if on an elevator. Peje cuts up bait: fish that were pulled from the stream the previous week and allowed to become slightly fragrant in the sun. Crayfish hunt by acute sense of smell.
Toward the end of the afternoon, we all head down toward the river, traps and metal buckets in hand. We each stake out a position on a canal or river shore. At 5AM on the dot, Matilda and Olivia cup hands to their mouths and let out the shrill, whistling call of a loon, and we’re off. Almost immediately, the air is filled with triumphant shouts as the crayfish emerge from beneath the rocks to pursue the bait and are lifted up to our waiting buckets. One by one, they clatter in.
Peje and I drag a canoe to a clearing in the woods and put it into the river. We paddle upstream for 10 minutes and then allow the current to pull us backwards, dropping a trap every 50 yards or so, marked with a Styrofoam buoy. By happy culinary coincidence, it is also chanterelle season, and the deep green forest around us is filled with the mushrooms. When we reach the clearing again, we encounter Peje’s uncle Hans, who also has a house on the property, and his grandsons. Hans has a sweep of white hair and is the retired secretary of Sweden’s Royal Academy of Music. He first celebrated the crayfish premiere here in 1938 and now stands in the water with his pants rolled up, watching his children’s children dive after the creatures.
Glimpsed through the clear water, the crayfish are ghostlike, distinctive white streaks on their claws winking as they move. The claw markings brand these creatures as imperialists. In 1907, a shipment of crayfish infected with a fungal parasite arrived in Stockholm from Finland and was carelessly dumped into a nearby lake. By the 1960s, the plague had spread so widely that the native crayfish species, flodkräfta, was nearly wiped out. After much debate, the decision was made to replenish Sweden’s waterways with imports from America. Characteristically, the new arrivals were larger, flashier and made a point of wiping out whatever flodkräfta were left. When I joke to Tomas that, after all these years, the creatures should have evolved enough to avoid the bait, he shrugs. “What do you expect? They’re Americans.”
As the sun finally sets, tufts of mist begin to decorate the water. The darkness is marked by floating orbs of light as we run back and forth between the traps with flashlights. The catch is dumped into a wood crate that will sit in a small waterfall on the river to keep the fish fresh until morning and also purge their digestive systems of dirt and bile. The crate fairly bulges. Peje says it’s the largest haul he can ever remember.
There is only one recipe for a traditional Swedish crayfish feast. You fill a pot with water, beer, salt, sugar and handfuls of dill flower, picked just before it blossoms for a more mellow taste. After boiling, you allow the crayfish to soak and cool in the brine. They are served cold with slices of crusty bread and wedges of salty-sweet Väseterbotten cheese. And, of course, aquavit.
By comparison, the ritual of consuming the crayfish is elaborate. First, you lay the creature on its back, claws splayed, press your lips against its belly almost tenderly and give a quick suck, inhaling a clean, briny blast of juice. With a quick twist, you remove the head, then turn to the tail, prying out the sweet pink meat with your thumbs. Next are the claws, each of which contains a morsel of flesh that is extracted by wiggling and detaching the bottom pincer. Finally, before moving on to the next specimen, you place the head of the previous one on the edge of your plate, facing outward, to show how many you’ve eaten. The result may look like the redoubt of a mad but slightly obsessive-compulsive warlord.
After Carmen and smorgasbord, we go down to the river and inspect our catch—tossing the smaller crayfish back into the river with a silent promise to meet again next year. The children count—ett, två, tre, fyra—all the way to 1,330. Peje spends the day boiling pot after pot, adding brine and then submerging them to cool in the clawfoot bathtub, while Elin sets up a long table on the lawn. On strings overhead, she floats paper lanterns and an origami sun and moon. In the spirit of bacchanalian rituals from Carnival to Purim, costumes are in order. Here, they take the form of funny hats, a tradition thought to originate in mockery of the aristocrats who once kept crayfish for themselves. A pile of them sits nearby—fezzes, sailor’s caps, fedoras, green bowlers emblazoned with crustaceans. At each seat is a songbook filled with traditional crayfish drinking songs; they are on strings so you can wear them around your neck without a pause in eating. It could be the setting for a most un-kosher Seder.
Finally, it is time to eat. There are bowls of velvety crayfish soup, topped with a dollop of horseradish cream; thick pieces of buttered toast, topped with chanterelles. But we are here for one thing. Well, two: At the same time that the bright red crayfish arrive at the table heaped on giant platters, the toasting begins. There is a protocol for this, too: Holding your aquavit glass at your heart, you look around the table, being sure to make eye contact with each person. Then you shout “Skol!” and drink.
If Peje led the hunt, Stefan runs the party. Every five minutes or so, he directs us to a new rowdy song in our books—including “Hellan Gär,” the king of Swedish drinking songs. As the evening wears on and the piles of crayfish heads rise to the point of teetering, the breaks between toasts get shorter and shorter. The vowel in “Skol!” progressively lengthens, until it sounds like we’re announcing goals at the World Cup. The Swedes teach the Americans their national anthem; we led them in “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” Stefan dons a fright mask. At the other end of the table, the children start to seem more and more adult.
With the sun finally setting and the table a mess of empty shells and bottles, the party moves inside. We polish off a sponge cake layered with rum-soaked summer berries and the remaining aquavit. Tomas falls asleep on a settee. Half the party is dancing to—believe it—an ABBA record at full volume on the stereo. Stefan holds court in the kitchen, reciting scenes from Blazing Saddles. Occasionally, the beleaguered kids pass through in their pajamas, rolling their eyes.
Peje stands in the midst of the tumult, washing stacks of dishes and smiling. When he was little, he says, before the regulations on crayfish fishing were lifted, the kräftpremiären could be a contentious affair. He remembers men with guns coming to the house on the night before the season opened, asking his father to come help discourage poachers trying to get a head start. “There’s this whole history of fighting over crayfish, and sometimes I really don’t understand it,” he says, looking around at his laughing, dancing family. “But sometimes I do.”
I regret to inform you that all of us swaying to “Dancing Queen” in that farmhouse living room are now ghosts. Nearly 20 years have passed. The children are grown. Tomas died of Huntington’s disease; Stefan of bladder cancer. One year, at the farmhouse, Peje cut his right index finger off, down to the first knuckle, with an axe. All of us have shed bits and pieces over the years. I’ve never been back to Bjälkerum.
I live in Louisiana now, where I fear my citizenship could be revoked if I were to be heard using crayfish rather than crawfish. Boils here look more like lions descending on a kill; we do not count heads. The Swedish family came to visit one year, and we had dueling boils beneath the banana trees in my courtyard: one Swedish style, the other Cajun. The showdown was like taking a feather to a knife fight, if the knife was also on fire and blaring zydeco. Still, the Swedish batch was clean and bright.
I have seen a lot of the world and had a lot of meals in those ensuing decades—plenty of memories to spin through, in both fondness and regret, during the long months stolen from us by the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, somehow, the wheel keeps stopping here: Sweden in summer, drowning in sunshine, swearing that, as God was my witness, I would never spend a second Wednesday in August anywhere else on Earth, for as long as I live.
Brett Martin is a correspondent for GQ Magazine and a three-time James Beard Award winner. He is the author of the book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.