Crayfish Rhapsody

Aug, 2019

When I was young, I went crayfishing with my father in Sweden. Although I can’t remember the exact year, it must have been on August 7, for that was the day the season began. My father and his brothers were fortunate enough to have their own fishing waters. They had long since moved from the countryside to the city; the farm where they grew up was sold. Their crayfishing privilege, however, was for life.

In my father’s Volvo, we traveled on curvy gravel roads deep into the forest of Västergötland. The couple who now owned the farm greeted us, never profusely — that was not their way. The wife served strong coffee and seven kinds of biscuits. Time and again she would urge us to have more; Swedish decorum forbade us to decline. Form facilitates, we know what to expect, and so we sampled them all: rågkakor, drömmar, spritskransarklenäter, nötkakor, berlinerbröd, and mandelkyssar (my very own madeleine).

The farm children stared glumly at me from a corner. My youngest uncle, I thought, was unnecessarily boisterous, the farmer and his wife unduly quiet. My father asked the farmer about the crops. The farmer asked about my father’s business and what he thought about the Social Democrats. Slowly we adjusted and reached some sort of common ground. The children took me outside to inspect the fishing gear. Shortly before 5 o’clock, the hour when the season officially began, we all marched down to the river, loaded with wire cages and buckets.

The Ätran was a drowsy, meandering river. Dense reeds made it all but inaccessible, unless, as my father did, you knew where to approach. Covered by old branches, the river bottom offered perfect hiding places for our elusive game. Early in the evening, we encountered poachers, their conscience less restricted than their fishing rights. Some arguing ensued, almost friendly, until one of the poachers, bolstered by aquavit, knocked the cap off my youngest uncle’s head. In the debacle that followed, the intruder took one false step and fell backwards into the water. I can still see him clambering back up onto the opposite bank, drenched but unrepentant, as my uncle’s cap disappeared down the river, merrily bobbing along.

For bait we used carp bream and dace, ignoring old wives’ tales about squirrel meat. We used round wire cages with openings at the tops. The crayfish, determined to reach the bait, climbed up the side of the crate, dropped down through the hole and were trapped inside. It worked if done right – the bottom of the cage had to be well tied (we untied it to shake out the catch), and the cages had to be placed horizontally against the river bottom, not at a slant, which sometimes happened as the night progressed and some fishermen partook too freely of the aquavit, at first discreetly behind the trunk of a car, later more openly, and often with a dare.

The first catch was rushed up to the farmhouse, where the farmer’s wife was waiting with dill and boiling water. A couple of hours later, while we were still lowering and lifting cages, a mound of succulent, glistening crayfish in bright lacquer-red shells, crowned with dill blossoms, came back to us on a wagon pulled by a tractor. There were other delicacies too: meatballs, Jansson’s Temptation (anchovy and potato casserole), oven baked omelets, smoked eel, pickled Baltic herring, sausages, gravlax, liver paté, and curd cake. 

Crayfish was the food of kings. It was recognized as such by the splendor-loving Erik XIV, who ruled Sweden in the sixteenth century. King Erik coveted luxury and foreign novelties, introduced napkins and forks, and insisted that his barbarian courtiers wipe their mouths with napkins, not with the tablecloth. Crayfish soon became fare for the upper classes too, but the peasants resisted these cumbersome critters, which took so long to eat and yielded so little nourishment. In finer kitchens, crayfish was prepared from complicated recipes with the many spices so loved by the chefs of the baroque era. Not until the mid 19thcentury did Swedes reach their true understanding of crayfish: it’s to be served cold with lots and lots of dill.

Eating crayfish is an art. The true connoisseur savors each delectable morsel of meat. I, for one, never neglected to scrape off the delicious “butter” from the inside of the shell. Blom, the principal character in one of August Strindberg’s short stories, believes that he’s the only one who knows how to eat crayfish the right way:

“He makes an incision around the head and a hole against which he presses his lips and sucks. ‘This,’ he says, ‘is the best part of the whole animal.’ He severs the thorax from the lower part, puts his teeth to the body and drinks deep draughts; he sucks the little legs as if they were asparagus, eats a pinch of dill, and takes a drink of beer and mouthful of rye bread. When he has carefully taken the shell off the claws and sucked even the tiniest tubes, he eats the flesh; last of all he attacks the lower part of the body.”

Living in California, I haven’t eaten crayfish for years. Still, I gather not much has changed. The Swedish kräftskiva or crayfish party may be an informal gathering of friends on an open veranda with paper moons swaying in the breeze. It may be a party in Stockholm’s Old Town, where illustrious celebrants convene, men in white tie and tails, women in gala gowns, to see and be seen. But no matter where, it’s always a marvelously noisy, messy, and happy affair, redolent of dill, with guests in colored bibs abandoning themselves to lustful finger-sucking and songs of revelry.

But in my mind, nothing could ever come close to that black and dewy August night, when I was crayfishing with my father. As the farmer’s wife served up her feast, people from the nearby village joined us, men and women who told me stories about my father, which he, in good humor, called untrue. Albert of Kråkebacken, who once taught my father to fish and hunt but by then was too old to do either, was still a virtuoso on the accordion. His scuffed boot stomping in rhythm, he played the waltz, the schottische, and the hambo. We whooped and danced – I in the arms of the schoolteacher’s son – while down-river, in the light of the grinning moon, the poachers emptied our cages.

 ©

 Photo by Mamma Matmor on Pixabay

 

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