Every time there's a holiday or a birthday or a potluck or an eclipse or anything or whatever, someone gives my mom (the second-youngest of seven Norwegian siblings) a fucking novelty sign. It usually says something like "Parking for LUTEFISK LOVERS Only!" or "My Other Car Is Two Reindeers and a Sled" or "Lutefisk Is Disgusting! Uff Da! Ha-Ha-Ha! TROLL." Just novelty signs everywhere. My family built a charming summer cottage out of novelty signs (not true). When times get tough, we eat novelty signs (psych—don't need to! We've got lutefisk! Ha-ha-ha! TROLL).
Most often, the people giving the novelty signs are themselves Scandinavian, wanting to participate in some gee-shucks, Prairie Home Companion ethnic idiosyncrasy. Every once in a while, it pisses my mom off. "They think that's what being Norwegian IS—making lutefisk jokes and wearing Uff-Da T-shirts. It's just stupid. They've never even been to Norway. Lutefisk is an actual food that people eat. It's not a joke, and it's not that gross." Now, I don't particularly want to eat lutefisk—dried whitefish (often stanky cod) reconstituted in lye and boiled and translucent and gelatinous, invented so that ice people could have some protein in winter—and neither does my mom, and anecdotally, neither do most Norwegians (on my handful of trips to Norway, I don't recall being served lutefisk even once—pickled herring, yes, pickled herring, always). But reducing a food to a meme is boring. And stupid. And a little bit offensive, if you think about it.
I missed the lutefisk-eating contest at this past weekend's Ballard SeafoodFest (I'm sure it was toootally disgusting, though!!!!!) but encountered a fair amount of hee-larious Scandinavian flair nonetheless. Spry twentysomething dudes bounced around wearing Norwegian- flag jumpsuits and horned 'n' furred Viking helmets. They were advertising something or other. They were screaming. A booth sold Swedish meatballs (yucky, Chef Boyardee–esque) and pickled herring (see?). Another had the aforementioned Viking helmets for any budget. To fit in, I wore my "NORWAY: LAND OF THE VIKINGS" T-shirt, which has a picture of a scary Viking on it, and which earned me approximately 45,000 high fives.
It wasn't totally clear what Scandinavian kitsch had to do with the SeafoodFest, other than just being Ballard's requisite steez. It was a hellish, fun, and slightly unfocused event. It sprawled over a hefty chunk of Northwest Market Street and down Ballard Avenue, where it transitioned seamlessly into the Ballard Farmers Market. The temperature was one bajillion degrees. Firemen sprayed children with a hose. A chiropractic booth offered free neck evaluations ("tense" was my diagnosis). Food vendors stretched in all directions: some legit (folks with one specialty, doing it well), others the usual fair-food carnies cashing in (slap some lump crab on an elephant ear and call it seafood!). Our first stop was clearly the former—a huge salmon-smoking situation involving two tents, a giant box of fire, slabs of salmon, and a comically elaborate assembly line. Eight dollars got us more salmon than we needed, a yummy mound of coleslaw, garlic bread, and a Coke. The salmon was impeccable: not overwhelmingly smoky, with an admirably correct amount of salt, butter, and parsley. A crazy man sat down next to us as we ate, said, "Mmm, smells fishy!" and grabbed the last chunk of fish off our plate with his great big fingers. Though somewhat alarmed, we couldn't really blame him.
In one booth, a kid (for sure younger than 10) hawked bacon-wrapped scallops like a Newsie of the Sea, like the world's itty-bittiest carnival barker: "GETCHA SCALLOPS! Best in town, folks! We catch 'em, we freeze 'em, we clean 'em, you eat 'em! SCALLOOOOOOPS!" We didn't stand a chance against this tiny charmer (why is child labor so darned adorable?) and received four scallops—fresh and springy, the bacon an enhancement rather than a distraction, all wrapped weirdly in a tortilla. Awesome. The booth sold nothing else. Such simplicity, we soon learned, was a good sign—we fared much worse at any booth that offered more than one food simultaneously. Crab cakes (from a stand that also sold crab melts and shrimp melts and shrimp cocktail and strawberry lemonade) were dry, dusty pucks. Corn-on-the-cob stand? Fucking flawless. Lemonade from the elephant ear/funnel cake/salmon burger/hot sausage/free puppies/cash for gold booth? Pretty much just sugar water.
We ate our way round and round, through the crowds, past the babies, over the Vikings and under the weirdos and around all the booths that were just taking up space (chicken tikka masala? Italian sausage sandwich? Apple dumplings?), and wondered what, exactly, made this a seafood festival. The whole thing just felt like Bite of Seattle in a goofy Viking hat. In other words, less than special.
"Ha-ha, nice shirt!" someone-or-other hollered at me, for the millionth time. "Ha-ha, yes," I said, looking down at "NORWAY: LAND OF THE VIKINGS." I was part of the problem. I munched my meatball and felt ashamed.