You can get green iguana meat at University Seafood & Poultry. Frozen python. Ground camel. A dozen farm-fresh eggs — or a nice bottle of wine to wash it all down.
But most people come for the fish — especially on Christmas Eve, when there is a line around the block of people preparing a Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian-American holiday meal, or a Dungeness crab dinner that has been carefully cracked and cleaned.
This will be the last fish feed to come from the place on Northeast 47th Street. After 75 years in two locations on the same block, owners Dale and Jeanette Erickson are taking down their neon salmon sign and closing the store for good on Dec. 31.
They join another landmark Seattle business, the First & Pike News stand in the Pike Place Market, in closing its doors as the year ends in an ever-changing city.
“It’s been our life,” Jeanette Erickson said Tuesday. “But Dale is not able to work anymore, and I’m tired.” (Jeanette has done the books for decades).
But they are also tired of changes in the city. Parking meters are everywhere. So is construction, making it difficult for regulars to make an easy stop. Their neon sign has been damaged by vandals on a near-regular basis over the past few years.
“Across the street, they’re putting in 34 parking spaces for a 24-story building,” Jeanette Erickson said. “We don’t want to fight that.”
He is 91, she is 89. Enough already.
Customer Joan Mahan learned of the closing when she came in for Dungeness crab to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
“It’s hard to say goodbye to what I call ‘mom and pop’ shops,” Mahan said. “Such a sweet place. Now everything is going to come in a box. When the drones show up, I’m outta here.”
University Seafood & Poultry is unique not only for its staying power and ownership. The store also has every kind of meat you can imagine: Kangaroo, ground camel and goat. They carry water buffalo meat and llama patties, if you’re into that kind of thing.
“There’s a need for it,” Dale Erickson said. “Maybe you have a pheasant dinner once a year. People ask for goat meat, venison and elk. It’s a little pricey, but people want it.”
Dale sampled a “tiny piece” of python once. “It tastes like mild nothing,” he said.
“Don’t say that!” Jeanette scolded. “Its expensive.”
University Seafood & Poultry has supplied fish to The Rainier Club, the Washington Athletic Club and dozens of small restaurants. It has shipped caviar to The White House (the Ericksons don’t know how the Reagans found out about them) and sent king crab legs to actor Kirk Douglas. Musician Yanni likes their caviar. The late Walter Schoenfeld, founding partner of the SuperSonics, the Mariners and the Sounders, used to have the Ericksons send white king salmon to Barbara Sinatra, and kippered salmon to singers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, until he realized, as he told Dale Erickson, “They have more money than I do.”
“You never know when you answer the phone who you’re going to talk to,” Dale Erickson said. “It could be a scientist from the UW or anyone else in the world. You just never know.”
On one wall is a stuffed eel named Eli. He came to the store to be sold, but got a reprieve when he killed all the other eels. He would eat shrimp out of your hand and slinked around for eight years, until Dale walked in one morning and found him dead on the floor.
“He just jumped out of the tank one night,” he said. So they stuffed him, mounted him and hung him over the tank, now occupied by lobsters and bags of oysters.
“He was the king of the mountain.”
The Ericksons have been talking about closing for months, which seems appropriate when you consider University Seafood & Poultry has been in their family for 75 years.
Dale’s father, Louis Erickson, used to work at a Seattle fish wholesaler called Erdley’s, back when fishing boats unloaded and cut fish right on the waterfront pier. University Seafood & Poultry owner Louis Israel, a regular customer, came by one day to say that his son had been killed in the war, and that he was looking to sell.
That was in 1944. Louis Erickson took over, and his wife, Leona, arranged the fish in the cases. At 13, Dale tied on an apron and started working there, along with his two brothers. Dale signed up to go to the University of Washington, but his father couldn’t replace him — it was during the war — so he stayed, while his brothers did other things.
At Cleveland High School, Dale spotted Jeanette “many times,” but didn’t speak with her until they went on a blind date that led to many more — some spent in a boat, where Dale would fish and they would talk and talk. They married in 1951 and will celebrate their 69th anniversary in January.
“Luckiest day of my life,” Jeanette said, looking at her husband. “Mine, too,” he said.
They have two children, five grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.
Dale Erickson worked six days a week at University Seafood & Poultry until a few years ago, when he developed a pain in his shoulder and neck from cutting fish for 75 years. And he probably got a little sore from waving things away. “If I get a shipment in and it isn’t right,” he said, “it goes back.”
The Ericksons’ son, Bob, was supposed to take over the business, but was badly injured in a snowmobile accident in 2001. Bob’s son, Andrew, 35, works there now and would take over if his grandparents asked. But they won’t.
“Why make him live his life under pressure all the time?” Jeanette asked. “He’ll need a bookkeeper and it goes on and on, working six days a week. He should live a normal life.”
Customer Ernest Isola has been coming in since he moved to Seattle in 1974. He’s “hooked” on the boneless quail, which is the centerpiece of a cacciatore recipe he made up.
“I’ve never gotten a bad piece of fish here,” said Isola, a real-estate appraiser who lives in Ballard. “I used to go to breakfast at the Continental and come here. That’s gone, too.
“Now I don’t know who I can trust to buy fish from.”
Neither does Dale Erickson.
“This is the cleanest place in town. Did you smell fish when you walked in?”
Jeanette has no bigger plans than making crocheted blankets for homeless kids, and resting.
And Dale? He held up one hand, and pressed the tips of his pointer finger and thumb together: Zero.