Pea Soup and Polka at the Swedish Cultural Center

Photos by M.P.
This isn't some whimsical food contest; for Gunnar Damstrom, it's a battle for pea soup supremacy!
"Do you want to hear a story?" asks Gunnar Wallin.

"Tell her about the king," his wife, Brigitta, insists.

"I am," he says. Wallin explains that once Sweden had a king named Erik XIV. "He was not very popular, so they poisoned his pea soup," he says, then laughs.

It's not the kind of tale you lead with when you're trying to win a food contest, especially with the vat of the pea soup you're entering bubbling behind you. But Wallin isn't worried. "This is a slam dunk," he proclaims.

Wallin's rival for king of pea soup is stirring his own pot downstairs at the Swedish Cultural Center. Gunnar Damstrom ("Gunnar" apparently being the Swedish equivalent to "John") snaps to attention in front of his own entry and declares "it's very good."

When asked the secret he tiptoes to the corner and peaks into the hall, wary of Wallin's spies. The difference, he says, is that he makes the soup itself out of the water in which he softens up the peas. And he uses smoked pork shanks for the ham.

Gunnar Wallin retains the "Best Swedish Chef" title.
His soup is also made of green peas, rather than Wallin's yellow. But Damstrom admits he doesn't really think there's a difference in taste. Still with St. Patrick's Day coming up, he's hoping for a festivity advantage.

Unlike the kottbullar (Swedish meatball) contest held two years ago, the judges in this case aren't pros. The Center's members, most of whom have already been downing Svedka martinis at happy hour in the bar overlooking Lake Union, will decide the winner.

Pea Soup is a tradition in Sweden going back to its Catholic days in the 15th century. Peas were cheap and easy to grow. So the Swedes used the soup as a base, filled it with ham, and had a Thursday feast before the Friday fast. By the 16th century, the country had gone protestant, but the tradition stuck. Wallin says that in both his school and military days, he ate pea soup every Thursday.

Wallin won the kottbullar contest, giving him the "Best Swedish Chef" rep at the Center. Then, after much smack talk over who had the best incarnation of pea soup, the Gunnar's decided to face off before the voting Swedish (and friends) public.

As with the meatballs there are entrenched philosophical differences over the proper preparation. Doug Warne hosts a weekly Scandinavian music program on KKNW (1150 AM) and prefers Wallin's heavily spiced and well-mashed peas.

First we eat, then we polka.
Trudy Lindberg disagrees. "I don't like all that stuff." She believes the soup should be simple and pea-flavor forward, as is Damstrom's.

The votes are tallied and donations collected to pay the accordionists and prepare a meal for the Millionair Club, a homeless services organization. Cultural Director Kristine Leander walks to the front. "I'm here to break the suspense," she declares. "The winner... is Gunnar!"

Everyone laughs and cheers. Wallin came out ahead on the votes, but both men get medals and rounds of applause. And after the last spoonfuls are finished and the final sips of cocktail polished off, the crowd packs the dance floor to polka.

And you thought Fridays in Belltown were exciting.

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