Strange Flesh

Once you’ve paid forty bucks to sit down with a hundred complete strangers wearing party hats and paper bibs, the rest should be easy. It’s so easy, in fact, that some folks put away as much as two pounds of crayfish before the American Swedish Institute’s annual krafskiva was over. Assisted by scheduled shots of aquavit, the crowd even allowed itself to be led in a three-part round, singing “R2-D2, R2-D2, 3PO, 3PO, Obi-Wan Kenobe, Obi-Wan Kenobe, Han Solo, Han Solo” to the tune of “Frere Jacques.”

To make all this happen, Anna-Lena Skold, the American Swedish Institute’s chef, had boiled about twelve hundred of the critters with sugar and dill for this year’s festivities, a provision of about a pound per guest. But few people stuck to this ten-crayfish average. The crowd tended to divide into fanatics who cracked fifteen shells or more, and their ambivalent spouses, who put a few token samples on a plate and admitted, as did Sylvia Strand, “I’m doing this for him.” She nodded toward Rodney Strand, who predicted he would lose count at about fifteen and keep on going. Finding the meat tender and buttery, I nonetheless quit at five.

About two-hundred million years ago (the Triassic, if you must know), when crayfish and lobsters parted ways, it’s unlikely they had hungry Swedes in mind for a destination. The crayfish side of the family had merely adapted to less spacious freshwater environments, says Dr. Keith Crandall. Crandall works in the Department of Integrative Biology at Brigham Young University, where much of the existing crayfish knowledge has accumulated. “They have also adapted to other environments,” Crandall said. “There are a number of cave-obligate crayfish without pigment and without eyes.” A lot can happen in two hundred million years, but despite their long separation, crayfish and lobsters remain “sister taxa,” said Crandall, meaning that they share a most recent common ancestor.

Indeed, the crayfish on the American Swedish Institute’s tables looked like perfect, tiny lobsters. They even turn the same pretty scarlet when boiled. And they also come prepared for revenge on those who would eat them. Access to the meat is gained by cracking a little beast open with bare hands (no fancy lobster tools here), at which point the crayfish, as if under pressure, sprays a fine mist over the diner. Hence the bibs.

Patty Strandquist, tablemate and English teacher from Apple Valley, was undeterred by the crayfish’s posthumous self-defense. “I’m liking it,” she said. “It’s a bit of a wrestling match.” She had brought her friend Lois from New York to enjoy this taste of Minnesota, and the pile of red shells near their plates grew steadily despite their admission that they had “no method at all” for getting at the meat.

Lisa Niforopulos shared a technique she learned during childhood vacations in Sweden. And she wished the waitresses would quit removing her shells; she had lost count. “Now I don’t know where I’ve been,” she complained as she broke the tail clean off a cephalothorax. She sucked the meat directly out of the shell—a method Swedes consider not a vulgarity, but a necessity. (In New Orleans, where crawdads are also popular, they have a rather blunt way to describe this technique.)

After another mandatory sing-along from the American Swedish Institute Crayfish Party Songbook, Niforopulos explained what makes crayfish worth eating in such quantity. “They’re sweet and delicate tasting. The dill sets them off nicely.” Not to mention the high lipo content, which might explain why Swedes established the tradition of bingeing on them before winter. A pound of crayfish can deliver more than eight hundred milligrams of cholesterol to the consumer. It would take five jars of mayonnaise to meet that goal, leaving an obvious choice for most folks. And, as Niforopulos concluded, “It’s fun to eat with your hands.”—Joe Pastoor