Sadly, there is not a lot of New Nordic cuisine in Seattle. When it comes to Scandinavian food, we’ve got IKEA meatballs and powdered mashed potatoes or we’ve got the wonderful but somewhat staid offerings at the Swedish Club. There’s Scandinavian Specialties up in Ballard, of course, but they’re more of a provisioner than a true restaurant.
What we do have is the lovely little one-table cafe in the front of Old Ballard Liquor Co., and we’re very lucky indeed to have it. I discovered the tiny distillery at owner Lexi’s first foray into food, a pop-up called Tumble Swede. Lexi, who eschews a last name, was trying to recreate the magic of the foraged, fished, and farmed food she grew up on as a kid in the Skagit valley. Also, to incorporate some of the food she’d fallen in love with traveling in Sweden. That first pop-up, while great on paper, was regrettably lacking in execution.
However, that didn’t dampen her fervor for elevated Scandinavian cuisine one bit. She continued doing pop-ups and collaborating with professional chefs, and those pop-ups continued getting better. A dinner done in collaboration with Larkin Young, now cooking at the newly opened Alchemy in West Seattle, featured a Scandinavian charcuterie board that was delightfully unlike any platter of preserved meat I’d ever encountered.
While the aquavit she makes at her tiny distillery is wonderful—very traditional, very precise, and flavorful as all fuck—it wasn’t exactly paying the bills. To drum up some additional income, she decided to try her hand at more regular food service, and now that lovely Scandinavian charcuterie (all made in-house by Scandinavian Specialties, by the way) is available every week. So is their herrings bord, a collection of four preparations of pickled herring and one insanely silky dip of smoked herring in lemon chive cream.
The board always features that cream dip and the classic pickled herring with onions, while the other three pickled items rotate based on what’s in season. My board’s rotating items included one with perfectly sour plum, one with fresh rosemary, and one with earthy mushroom cream. The pickle on each is perfect, boasting an understated sweetness that really lets the texture and flavor of the fish itself shine through. The selection of flavors is eclectic enough to keep your interest piqued from the first bite to the last.
Full disclosure, I used to help Lexi out around the distillery, so I may be a little biased. However, my interest in the cafe’s food (all of which I found to be objectively quite good, by the way) has less to do with favoritism than with my specific enthusiasm for Pacific herring.
You see, after visiting that first Tumble Swede pop-up, I called Lexi to get some background info for the recap I was writing. Boy, can she talk, so I got all the background I wanted and then some. As a bonus, I was also regaled with a long, woebegone tale about how hard it had been to source the herring we’d been served and how unjust it was that the Pacific herring she grew up eating was no longer available in Seattle. Intrigued, I started digging deeper, and discovered that the decline of Pacific herring actually has a fascinating backstory.
That backstory became the basis of an article about the fish’s disappearance, and what it would take to bring it back. To make a long story short, Puget Sound’s herring fisheries dried up in the face of industrial disruption of habitat, and local demand dropped below that of the Japanese, for whom herring roe is a delicacy. Thus, the bountiful herring catch in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, instead of being sold here in Seattle, was almost universally shipped to Japan or made into dog food. As a result, all the herring that was available in Seattle was unnecessarily and unsustainably shipped in from the Atlantic.
To some extent, the herrings bord represents the happy ending to that story. Lexi got big seafood distributors like Ocean Beauty to start caring a little bit about Seattle as a herring market again, and even to store a tote of it for her in their freezers. Warner Lew, the fisherman whose Deckhand’s Daughter smoked herring is put to great use in that cream dip, and who contributed quite a bit of insight to my article, is now winning awards for his fish and getting name-checked by the likes of Renee Erickson and Zoi Antonitsas. Herring Week, launched by Lexi to coincide with my article, is on its third year and has more participants than ever.
I remember, after my feature came out and the first Herring Week was complete, Lexi texted me to thank me, telling me that, “Your article really made this happen.”
I was hesitant to accept that praise then, and I am still. The herring evangelism of Lexi, Lew, and a slew of local restauranteurs is what really brought the fish back in vogue, but I will allow that my article perhaps started that ball rolling.
I'll also allow it because, in the era of only reading the headline and viral cat videos and pivots to video, it is hard not to feel completely ineffectual sometimes. I know that helping promote local sourcing of herring isn’t exactly what most people think of when they think of impact journalism, but it was a revelatory experience for me. It was the first time I really realized that writing words could create tangible change, even if only to redirect a few totes of herring. As silly as it sounds, the knowledge that what you write can and does make an impact on the world—for good or ill—has loomed large in my mind ever since.
The way in which a journalist comes to that knowledge is irrelevant, I think. It matters only that they do. It’s easy to forget, in a media industry with an insatiable appetite for cheap, churned-out content, that our work matters. For me, the herrings bord is a delicious reminder.