A few nights ago, upon embarking on our quarterly trip to the local Swedish-themed big-box store–to purchase cheap napkins and European-designed coffee mugs (made in China)–we stopped at the cafeteria as we normally do to purchase some inexpensive-yet-mildly-tasty meatballs, unaware that that night the store was playing host to a “Swedish Crayfish Party”… featuring an all-you-can-eat crayfish buffet bonanza.
We made our way to the line between tables full of crayfish munched, crunched and slurped upon by a throng of folks. Tweets must have abounded ’round the Asian community as they made up 95% of the diners present. Having never even seen crayfish before, our kids stared wide-eyed at the ruby-red creatures; their limp claws hung over the sides of galvanized serving buckets in the center of each table. We watched, fascinated, as kids the same age as ours happily twisted and tore at the creatures, expertly drawing out the tender tail meat. Piles of broken red shells sat on each table looking like so many spent cartridges littering the ground–around a machine gun nest–after a 3-day battle.
We meandered our way through the line out of sheer morbid curiosity. The frenzied employees behind the counter shoveled cooked crayfish onto paper plates (they’d run out of the ceramic kind) doling them out to waiting hands as fast as humanly possible, arguing over who’s turn it was to go out and refresh the buffet troughs. We picked up a plate of crayfish to let the kids try and managed to wrangle some real plates for the other food items present. Just getting to the buffet tables took some creative jostling, for competition among the serving plates proved fierce.
Apart from the ubiquitous “Swedish” meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy, odd, new items met our gaze, ones not normally present in the Swedish-themed cafe: a yellow soup with baby octopus floating in it, whole slightly-gray shrimp in the fetal position, still steadfastly in their peels, cooked fish-heads, whole red potatoes coated in bits of greenery, a sort of salmon seviche (that gave off a powerful odor), plates of cold ham, plates of crackers–of all make and grain–and above all, a giant bowl of cheese cubes. The moment food was replaced in the serving dishes, a feeding frenzy of sorts occurred whereupon tables emptied and folks came running back for more. The shrimp and octopus soup appeared the most popular items–apart from the crayfish–but most left the cracker and cheese plates untouched. Finding the cheese cubes muenster of good quality, we gladly partook.
After finding an empty table we sat amid a cacophony of slurps, cracking, gurgles, crunches and smacks. The image of one entire table of people with red legs protruding from their mouths, sucking in unison will forever be burned into my memory. The crayfish intrigued us, and taking a cue from our enthusiastic fellow diners, we attempted to twist one open. It exploded, sending mustard-yellow matter of unknown origin over the table. As we ate I noted the large canvas pictures on the adjacent cafeteria wall; the images depicted a peaceful Swedish village populated by accordion-playing folks in lederhosen, standing in fine contrast to the strangeness present in the dining room.
We did not find the cold crayfish pleasing to eat, but slathered in lingonberry sauce (or as Daddy calls it ‘dingleberry’ sauce) they weren’t so bad. After our rather surreal dinner we strolled the marked aisles of the warehouse-like store, trying to work off the ribald mixture of food in our stomachs. We grinned widely while encouraging each other not to vomit, yet eyeballing which vase might accommodate such an action, if necessary. We found ample distraction in listening to Daddy’s critique of the drinking vessel handle designs, debating whether or not one could indeed lift a full cup of coffee with one finger as well as listening to his remarks on the fluff-challenged pillows proffered by the bedroom section.
Finally free of the maze, we left the store and headed home–still reeking of crayfish–wondering when that little voice in the very back would say: “Mommy… I don’t feel good…”