On the hunt for authentic Norwegian food

Eating on the Edge: At Scandinavian Specialties in Ballard, the cafe is good but the true treasure is the freezer case.
Crosscut archive image.

Eating at the cafe in Scandinavian Specialties

Eating on the Edge: At Scandinavian Specialties in Ballard, the cafe is good but the true treasure is the freezer case.

The Leif Erikson Lodge on NW 56th Street, home to the Sons of Norway, is next to the aptly named Viking Bank. One of its founders, Kaare Ness, is a Norwegian fisherman turned seafood industry baron. A Viking warship is part of the bank'ꀙs logo.

Seven blocks away, the Copper Gate restaurant serves cocktails and Norwegian-style appetizers on a bar fashioned after a traditional Viking boat. A short distance to the west, the Nordic Heritage Museum houses actual Nordic artifacts.

Seattle'ꀙs Norwegian heritage is well-known and evident in the names of the city'ꀙs stores, institutions, buildings, parks, streets and benefactors. Its people, whether actually Scandinavian or not, are said to possess that Fjordian personality: austere, practical, passive-aggressive, predisposed to inconspicuous behavior. If Norwegian Seattle still has a civic and emotional center, it is Ballard, host every May 17 to a parade that celebrates Constitution Day, Norway'ꀙs version of Independence Day.

But if you want to eat Norwegian food in Ballard — the Ikea cafeteria in Tukwila is a mere approximation — your options are thin and fading. Olsen'ꀙs Scandinavian Foods closed last summer like Scandie'ꀙs restaurant years before. A few weeks ago, the Scandinavian Bakery on 15th Avenue Northwest, known for its marzipan cakes and cardamom braids, also closed. The authenticity of the food at Copper Gate can be debated; it is gracefully executed and fairly true to form with dishes like pickled herring and meatballs with lingonberries, but it is intended more to entice Americans who have never eaten Norwegian food before, than to satisfy someone who grew up eating it at home.

For that audience, there is perhaps just one place left, Scandinavian Specialties, at Northwest 67th Street and 15th Avenue Northwest. Co-owner Anne-Lise Berger, 60, grew up near Oslo and moved to Seattle in 1977 because she fell in love with an American pen pal, with whom she spent five years traveling around the world. The two married, had a son, and divorced.

Her son Bjorn Ruud, 28, also works at the store. Born in Seattle, raised in Ballard, he speaks Norwegian. Trained to run the store, he is more interested in being a musician and plans to live in New York for a while.

Scandinavian Specialties (originally a sausage shop, it was started in 1962 by a Norwegian butcher) is a store and café, the last of its kind in Ballard, and maybe the last place in town you can be served traditional Norwegian food, albeit from a very limited menu. Two years ago, Berger abandoned a full menu because demand for hot food was so low. The café, which closes at 5:30 p.m., serves cakes, pastries, soup and open-faced sandwiches.

'ꀜMaybe there is room for just one Norwegian store in Seattle,'ꀝ said Berger, the store'ꀙs third owner.

Most of the floor space in the converted tire shop — the original store was farther north — is devoted to selling things: books; cookware, including a canvas pastry board used to make lefse, the traditional Norwegian potato bread; gift-shop items like sweaters, clogs, joke books, hand towels, jewelry, figurines, key chains, and CDs; and a full assortment of Scandinavian groceries. There are seasonings, baking mixes, candy — Norwegians are especially fond of licorice, both sweet and salty — and an infinite variety of herring: plain, herring in mustard sauce, herring in garlic sauce or sour cream, with fish eggs or with dill. Norwegians traditionally eat substantially more seafood than meat. Fruit (apart from lingonberry) and green leafy vegetables are noticeably absent from the cuisine; cabbage and root vegetables are what thrive in the country'ꀙs short growing season.

The real treasure at Scandinavian Specialties is in the store'ꀙs freezer case, where traditional foods made on premises are kept. The store employs a Norwegian-American woman who makes various sausages (veal, pork, blood, potato), meatballs, fish cake (made with snapper and deep fried), pickled and salted herring, liver pate, head cheese (made from lamb and pork), salted lamb, potato balls, yellow pea soup (made with whole, not split peas), and a sour-cream porridge called rommegrot, a traditional Norwegian farm dish.

The store also stocks lutefisk, the notorious delicacy of gelatinous cod, made by a supplier in Port Townsend. The most reliable seller is the lefse, made by a baker in Marysville. (Cooked on a hot pan, the flatbread was long a staple of Norwegian households because it did not require the relative luxury of an oven.) As it was at the defunct Olsen'ꀙs, business at Scandinavian Specialties climbs noticeably at Christmas, the one time of year, Berger said, that American families pay attention to their Norwegian heritage.

'ꀜChristmas is what keeps us going,'ꀝ she said. Most of her customers do not live in Ballard anymore, arriving instead from Edmonds, Bellevue, Olympia, Bellingham.

Berger moved to Seattle in 1977 and started an import business, supplying businesses like Olsen'ꀙs. She attempted and failed to buy Olsen'ꀙs years ago when she realized the American market for Scandinavian imports was very limited.

Norwegian food, even in Norway, she said, is difficult to find. Young Norwegians prefer pizza, kebabs, Indian and Chinese food. Norwegian food, at home and abroad, is not seen as sexy. 'ꀜYoung people these days are used to spicy food,'ꀝ Berger said. 'ꀜNorwegian food is very simple food. I don'ꀙt really know how to spice up the food; I wouldn'ꀙt want to.'ꀝ

Here in Seattle, her customers are getting older, and young ones are not replacing them, as immigration from Norway has slowed to a relative trickle. Chinese and Vietnamese food are so good in Seattle because immigrants are still arriving from those countries in large number. Some types of cooking thrive outside of their natural borders without the benefit of fresh immigration because they are so universally embraced. Italian and Japanese food come to mind.

But even Japanese food, as common as it is in Seattle and other American cities, is substantially better in a place like New York because of its large expat community of students and businessmen. There you can pick and choose among ramen joints (here they are scarce and a subject for a future column), and eat okonomiyaki and takoyaki on the street, just as in Tokyo. Generally, a city needs immigrants or expats to elevate its foreign cuisine.

Without a consistent upwelling of one or the other, a transplanted cuisine withers or morphs into something unrecognizable. One example is in Elko, Nevada, the remote mining town long-ago settled by Basque sheepherders. The high-desert town is known for its cowboy poetry festival, and its outsized number of 'ꀜBasque'ꀝ restaurants, the most popular of which is located in the Star Hotel.

I am not an expert in the food of the Basque region of Spain, but I am certain it is not the vegetable soup and green beans out of a can, the bland spaghetti, white rolls, and ranch dressing atop iceberg lettuce that I was once served there with my broiled, garlic-studded lamb chops. Elko'ꀙs practice of Basque cooking, perhaps once authentic, had been worn down over the generations, assimilated until it was indistinguishable from all the American cooking around it.

Elko suggests a bleak future for Norwegian food in Seattle, in which the cuisine is more sentimental vapor than real food. But while Elko is isolated and sparsely populated, Ballard is in the middle of a large, resource-rich, diverse city. A unique, urban neighborhood, Ballard is both a true working-class industrial cluster of shipyards and machine shops, as well as a culinary and commercial playground for the moneyed, intellectual elite of the city. Here, you can have a tug boat built or buy a pipe wrench as big as your femur. You can also buy a $12 bottle of beer or a dog collar more expensive than your watch.

If old traditions are to survive in Old Ballard, New Ballard will have to play a part. An alternative to the Elko analogy is the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was, for most of the past century, a working-class enclave of Jewish and Puerto Rican immigrants. Like Ballard, the Lower East Side was transformed swiftly by recent gentrification. The city'ꀙs trendiest boutiques, bars and restaurants are there, as they are in Ballard.

And yet, the grease-stained Katz'ꀙs Delicatessen on Houston Street, famous for its pastrami sandwiches and bowls of pickles, is still packed as it has been for decades, all without benefit of a makeover of its dining room or menu. People come precisely because it has not changed. A few blocks away, customers similarly fill Russ and Daughters, which has been in business in the same tiny location for almost 100 years selling cured and smoked fish, caviar and pickled herring. Russ and Daughters does not have a single dining table; it is not steps from the subway; it competes with a mammoth, amenity-rich Whole Foods nearby. Like Scandinavian Specialties, and Olsen'ꀙs, it sells a type of food no longer in fashion, originally eaten by a generation that has largely died off.

Russ and Daughters and Katz'ꀙs thrive because customers still care about the food traditions these businesses represent. Perhaps Seattle is simply not a city very much in love with its traditions. Its strength is innovation, its ability to regularly shed old habits and move forward. It sees its identity in its future, rather than in its past. In theory and in legend, people move west for a fresh start, not because they want things to stay the same.

As a custodian of Ballard's past, Berger has few peers. 'ꀜI feel more Norwegian here than in Norway,'ꀝ she said. Minding her heritage is a full-time vocation.

Dining in Ballard on real Norwegian food, or a reasonable facsimile, is for now still possible, although one has to plan for it. On March 27, the Sons of Norway organization is hosting a 'ꀜNorwegian Cultural/Heritage Day,'ꀝ that includes crafts, dancing and food. A fun run commences at 9 a.m. Richard Svensson will play the accordion in the morning, Thor Christiansen in the afternoon. And at 3 p.m., food will be served in the Leif Erikson Lodge.

If you go: Scandinavian Specialties, 6719 15th Avenue N.W., 206-784-7020, www.scanselect.com. Open 10 am-5:30 pm Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.