Swedish crayfish fest calls for a bib
Sep. 26, 2007

Last Saturday's Crayfish & Jazz Festival in Kingsburg is the kind of event I love to see in the Valley.

No, it's not because the organizers roped me into being a judge at the crayfish chowder contest. Though the chowders were tasty, I was more interested in how they turned a traditional Swedish event into a uniquely American party.

You see, the Swedes love their crayfish (also called crawdads and crawfish). Every August, they hold kraftskivor, or parties dedicated to this shellfish. The idea is to cook lots of crayfish with dill, then serve them cold with foods such as potatoes, salad, hard crackers and cheese, says June Hess, owner of Svensk Butik in Kingsburg.

Before eating, guests don bibs and hats imprinted with images of crayfish. They drink shots of aquavit or vodka between mouthfuls. And no kraftskiva would be complete without lots of Swedish drinking songs.

Kingsburg's Crayfish & Jazz Festival is a little different. With lots of food and a crayfish-eating contest, it's inspired by the eats, not the drinks.

"They do that in Sweden but not in Kingsburg," Hess says dryly, referring to the aquavit and songs.

Saturday's event, held on Draper Street in Swedish Village, also showed off the city's diversity. Corsaro's Family Pizza cooked up crayfish pizzas. Los Pepe's Authentic Mexican Food spooned battered, spiced crayfish into tacos. Diane's Village Bakery and Cafe served a superb cocktail with crayfish, avocado, cucumber and red onion immersed in a thick, spicy tomato soup.

Then there were the cold crayfish dinners, the nod to Swedish tradition. But after learning to eat crayfish from Jonathan Evans of Jonathan's restaurant, I preferred the just-boiled ones. It's a lot easier to pull hot crayfish meat from the shells.

I followed Evans' lead, breaking the tails off the crayfish, then breaking the tails again to release the meat. We pulled the small pinchers off the claws and used whatever we could find to smash the larger ones. Those little pinchers turned out to be very useful for digging out the succulent claw meat.

The top halves of the crayfish didn't offer much flesh, so we drank the juice from them instead. By the time we were done, we needed lots of napkins. I understood why the wise Swedes wear bibs.

After all of these treats, I was glad the crayfish chowder contest earlier in the evening didn't fill me up. I'd sat down to judge four chowders with Bud Elliott of KSEE, Channel 24, and Mike Jensen, the editor of the Kingsburg Recorder and the Selma Enterprise.

Those chowders were all tasty, but one was a clear winner to me. Jeb's Waffles N' Ribs on Sierra Street loaded its chowder with more crayfish than the others. I'm still not sure whether Jeb's did this just for the judges or whether the version sold at the restaurant was just as generous.

In any case, it worked. This chunky, tomato-based soup was neither too thick nor too thin, and the crayfish flavor was wonderfully strong.

OK, enough. After reading this, some of you probably are upset you missed the event. But you don't have to wait until next year for a crayfish party. Order some by December from Island Crayfish, a company that ships these shellfish from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Island supplied the Kingsburg festival, so the flavor should be similar to Saturday's feast. Call (916) 600-0105 or go to islandcrayfish.com for more information.

And if you want more tips for cooking and eating crayfish, visit any of the restaurants that sold the above foods last weekend.

Their other meals aren't bad, either. Here's one last tip: Try the incredible coconut ice cream at Jonathan's while you're there.