Where do you turn when you're thirsty for a sip of akvavit (aquavit)? There are just so many choices and so much inspiration. At least that’s what everyone felt at this year’s aquavit championship in Sveadal, the Swedish American Patriotic League's beautiful mountain park near San Jose.
This third year's competition, growing yearly, billed itself as the First International Akvavit Competition (or to give it its due: the “Akvavit Kryddat Brännvin World Championship”). It was Vasa District Lodge (Golden Gate) #12’s annual Sweden Day celebration, held a week early to accommodate everyone. The international flavor was a tribute to the panel of the three judges: Originally all three of them were to be Swedish chefs who know a thing or two about aquavit, but Lars Nordell (former master chef at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel and later of the renowned Three Crowns Restaurant in Grand Rapids, MI) needed emergency quadruple bypass heart surgery. So his place was taken by his Michigan companion, the Rev. Ben Hutchinson. This lent a special blessing to all the skåls and added a special meaning to this “water of life.” Another blessing was that since all the rental cabins and many of the leased cabins were filled with Vasa visitors, no one had to drive home that night.
Actually the celebration began the night before when more than 50 people gathered at the clubhouse for a potluck dinner. Rather like the loaves and fishes, this potluck miraculously fed everyone, with plenty to spare. The talk continued into the night, interrupted only as everyone remembered that they had to be back the next morning for the official celebration.
On Saturday, Junior Past Master of the district, Paul Jevert, led those who made it to the opening ceremony in a history of the Swedish flag and anthem and then a singing of “Du gamla, du fria.” Local members of Vasa USA’s Grand Lodge were even in attendance — Grand Master Tore Kjellgren and his wife Birgitta attended the opening ceremony, as did the treasurer of the Grand Lodge, Keith Hanlon and his wife, Emma. Everyone then was invited to lunch.

Concert
Lunch was followed by a beautiful concert featuring the versatile and virtuosic local Scandinavian group, Nykken. The group is remarkable not merely for the beauty of their singing and the choice of their songs, but also for the variety of traditional Scandinavian instruments they play. Also remarkable for such a tightly harmonic trio of voices was their adaption as a duo because Kris Yenney had a previous engagement. With us were Barbary Grant and Verlene Schermer. Usually among Scandinavian folk instrument ensembles one can expect the nykelharpe, which was excellently played this day by Verlene, but also played were a cello, an intricately inlaid Norwegian hardingfele, and Irish harp (similar to what Viking and later Scandinavians played), a cittra (zither) as well as hand drum and bells. The range and harmony of the women was striking but also quite moving when Barbary sang a simple lullaby into the sound box of her harp so the strings vibrated sympathetically. It was apparent that so did the heartstrings of many in the audience.
After this beautiful concert, everyone pitched in to transform the main dining hall, setting up 19 round dining tables of eight, for 150 people were dining (and sampling) that night.

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Competition
Roxanne Schulkin, who ably and confidently took over for her ill husband, Scott, was the master of the Aquavit Competition, ably assisted by son, Scott A., and a huge team of volunteers. Each of the almost 50 bottles were catalogued into their appropriate category: 1) Best Traditional (dill and/or caraway); 2) Best Tasting; and 3) Best Presentation.
The judges were introduced: The Reverend Hutchinson is senior pastor of Cassopolis United Methodist Church in Michigan; Roberth Sundell is the owner/master chef of the famous Pläj Scandinavian Restaurant and Bar in San Francisco; Alex Hult, Borlänge native and Swedish professional hockey player and now owner and master chef of Hult’s Restaurant in Los Gatos. Before their decisions were rendered, they were saluted with a four-fold "Hurrah." Then, while the crowd was kept at bay — if not baying, at least thirsting for their chance at the table — the judges carefully and with much comparing of notes judiciously sampled each of the traditional infusions. (That’s when the betting began as to what each judge’s facial expressions and reactions might mean for his final decision.)
Once the judges had finished the table of traditional aquavits, the crowd was let loose upon that table, with thimbles, shot glasses or even aquavit snifters. Some of the participants were making comments on each and judging their quaffs to the decimal place. Others were merely going through a first round to see which they liked enough for a second opinion. Yet others got through about the first dozen sips before they forgot the first ones and had to make many returns (this, and another process, may be termed “fluid recycling”). My method was to rely upon the opinion of others and sample those — plus those of my friends, which rounded out the rest of the entries.
The tasting, sampling and judging continued for several hours during which there were served some delicious hors d’oeuvres. Jim Melin had spread out half a dozen blocks of Swedish cheeses — herrgårdsost/vadenost, prästost and västerbottensost — along with assorted herrings. Later a huge platter of gravad lax was added. And Astrid Olsson’s high country wild elk as thuringer sausage slices and paté with crackers were an instant sensation. The whole competition lingered leisurely and in high good humor among contestants and their devotees.

Dinner
A delicious dinner was prepared by Chef David Jansson, former Past District Master. Either entrée would have been superb but to be served both pork loin and salmon filets, prepared to perfection with vegetables and a delicious salad was a real treat. The dessert was assorted wild berries buried beneath whipped cream. When he finally emerged from the kitchen to sit beside his wife to dine before serving dessert, David was greeted with a standing ovation.
Throughout the dinner, Past District Master (and newest Sveadal cabin owner), Vicki Fedor-Thurman resumed her duties as MC. She thanked Sveadal, particularly Karen Parks and Ginny Nelson, for Sveadal’s continuing hospitality and then she thanked fellow Vasa members for their spirited support of this Sweden Day event, far greater than when it had been held farther north in California. On behalf of Sveadal, Karen Parks stood and thanked Vasa for growing this new tradition here at their home in Sveadal, since the six Vasa lodges on the east and west sides of the Bay are all members of the League (SAPL), which owns Sveadal.
As he had in leading everyone in “Helan Går” during the competition, Jan Nordin continued during the dinner to lead a dozen snapsvisor. Soon the entire clubhouse resembled Valhalla on a good night. As poignant was Hans Nilson of Lindbergh Lodge, who serenaded the diners on his trumpet, with beautiful notes that calmed the cacophonous conversations.
But everyone was waiting to see if the judges had agreed with his or her own opinion about the ranking of the various aquavits. Roxanne explained that there were two rounds of judging. In the first round, the official judges, with their educated palates, decided upon the winners in the three categories. Next the popular votes of everyone attending would be added to the opinion of the judges for a combined tally.
The judges declared Bob Olson to be the winner of the Best Traditional aquavit. Then a three-way tie was announced for Best Tasting aquavit, with Greta Anderson, Dave Jansson and last year’s champion, Catherine Lipscomb, each declared winners. And Jim Melin was awarded the prize for Best Presentation. There was mighty applause as each name was announced.
Who would the folks declare the best? With dramatic effect and to reassure herself of the winners, Roxanne checked her tallies before announcing the names. For each category a new round of applause erupted, but especially at the end sustained applause broke out when the people’s choice mirrored exactly that of the judges.
This year, Gus Brolin, Sveadal’s master woodworker donated a statue, the Viking, hewn from local timber, as the perpetual trophy for all winners, to which will be affixed a brass plaque indicating the winners for successive years of this perpetual trophy to remain at Sveadal. Best of all, as all agreed, a new prize was announced for this year to be awarded annually, the Jim Melin Spirit Award, won of course this year by Jim, to honor the person who best exemplifies and contributes to the success and perpetuation of this new tradition. I guess you could say that this year Jim set the standard for this Spirit of the Spirits award.
After a rollicking good night, volunteerism again prevailed among those who remained and within an hour the clubhouse was returned to its former state; then all returned to their cabins for a good night’s rest.

Reflections
The success of this delightful weekend celebrating our Scandinavian traditions was the result of many, many hardworking volunteers. But chief among these must be remembered four people.

The best thing I ever did for Vasa was to bring Scott and Roxanne Schulkin (and now both their sons) and make them my Vice Chair and Secretary. On turning the gavel over to Scott, I told him that I only regretted not having accomplished one thing: to focus on current Sweden by featuring the preparation and enjoyment of today’s Swedish cuisine and traditions as well as of preparing and sampling aquavit. Scott is the one who made that dream come alive, for me and for all of us in the district.
For most of his years as our head, he has annually held a Fylgia aquavit preparation during one month in spring and followed that the next month with tasting everyone’s concoctions. As his fame grew and as District cultural leader, he brought this occasion to a larger audience. For several years the tradition has flourished in Sveadal, first with a dozen or so people, then increasing exponentially each year. (Imagine what next year’s attendance will be!) Also fully supporting him was his wife, Roxanne Schulkin; and this year she shined — as leader, as Master of the Competition and as its spokesperson. She determined the judging systems, categories and layout; she fixed the rules for judges, contestants, and tasters; she managed the timing so that everyone enjoyed their aquavit yet also their dinner. She tallied the votes and she announced the winners of this first, expanded Sveadal Akvavit Championship.
A couple years ago Jim Melin joined us. To say that he’s ebullient and enthusiastic is simply lax. When he sets his mind to something, his pursuit is envigorating for all around him. All he needed was permission to hold the event at Sveadal, and he was recruiting half of Sweden and all of Michigan. Not only was he an indomitable competitor but also he took charge by lining up judges, contestants, food and all other aspects of the weekend.
When we first started Vasa’s Sweden Day celebration at Sveadal, Vicki Fedor-Thurman was District Master. She is patient, appreciative and energetic. Growing up in both Vasa and Sveadal, she wanted to bring both closer together. She sponsored our early meetings in Sveadal and encouraged Scott and Jim in their joint ambition.
So, this was a triumph for all four of these individuals. The rest of the district members, particularly those attending Sveadal’s akvavit competition, are most appreciative. We raise our skål to honor Scott, Roxanne, Jim and Vicki, and to appreciate all who joined us. Next year promises to be even better.

Ted Olsson
San Francisco