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Originally published Sunday, September 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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In Sweden, end of summer means crayfish parties

When the long days of the Nordic summer begin to wane, Swedes celebrate a century-old love affair with a clawed crustacean. Some 4,000 tons of...

The Associated Press

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — When the long days of the Nordic summer begin to wane, Swedes celebrate a century-old love affair with a clawed crustacean.

Some 4,000 tons of crayfish, nearly a pound per person, are cracked open and devoured in Sweden each year.

The popularity of crayfish parties transcends simply gorging on tasty seafood. The feasts give Swedes a chance to bid farewell to the season when the sun sets only briefly and gird themselves for the return of months when the sun sets just after lunch.

Served by the plateful and topped with sprigs of fresh dill, the tiny lobsterlike crayfish have brought friends and family together since the late 19th century.

"They're ugly, but they taste so good," said 30-year-old Sandra Stenstrand, enjoying herself at a crayfish party in Stockholm.

A red-and-yellow paper lantern with a cheerful moon face bobbed in the breeze. Images of small, flaming-red crayfish adorned the tablecloth covering a simple wooden table.

Small shot glasses were set next to paper songbooks of quirky seasonal tunes. While conical party hats are optional, there are other items no self-respecting Swede would do without.

Stenstrand said strong, sharp cheese, a bit of vodka, a quiche and a warm apple pie are typical companions to a mound of crayfish.

Bibs were fastened, and the platter of shellfish was presented on the table.

Fresh crayfish are boiled with dill, split open by hand, and surveyed for the meager amounts of succulent meat waiting to be pulled out.

Frank Stenstrand, Sandra's husband, is a crayfish pro. His fingers worked quickly dismantling a crayfish. First the claws were snapped off and sucked clean, and then the head was pulled free allowing him to concentrate on the meaty tail. He popped the meat in his mouth and started over.

Sandra's husband rounded the table with a plastic trash bag, collecting the mounds of broken shells and used, greasy napkins to make room for more crayfish.

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"We laugh, eat a lot of good food, and when the moment feels right, we'll sing a song then take a drink of vodka," said Frank Stenstrand.

The group soon launched into "Helan Gar," a fast-paced song that taunts singers into drinking full shots rather than sips. Diners lifted their vodka, acknowledged others with a moment of eye contact, and finished their drinks.

Crayfish have evolved into more than just a Swedish delicacy. It is such a significant part of the life here that passports now carry an image of a crayfish and a sprig of dill that become visible under ultraviolet light.

Despite working its way into the hearts of Swedes during the past century, there aren't too many living here. About two-thirds of the crayfish eaten each year in Sweden are imported, mostly from China.

The Noble crayfish once dominated the warm, fresh waters of Sweden's 100,000 or so lakes. Before becoming popular with Swedish royals in the late 19th century, the yearly harvest was mainly used as fertilizer.

Then a mold lethal to crayfish came to Scandinavia.

It arrived in a box of imported crayfish brought to Stockholm in 1907, said Lennart Edsman of the national Board of Fisheries. When nobody bought the spoiled crayfish, the shipment was tossed into nearby Lake Malaren and the mold spread throughout Sweden, devastating Noble stocks.

Edsman said Sweden's Noble crayfish stocks now are just 5 percent of what they were 100 years ago.

A North American crayfish species, believed immune to the disease, was introduced in 1970, but it became a carrier of the mold, which continues to thrive.

Despite the decline, Swedes are addicted to celebrating summer's end with their beloved crayfish.

"Crayfish are a part of the Swedish summer," Frank Stenstrand said. "If you are going to say goodbye to summer, I can't imagine a better way to do it."

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