I have always been fascinated by my family’s genealogy, mostly because much of it is a mystery to me. There were hints passed down in vague family stories while I was growing up, but there were also family lines that were simply not talked about. I tried to trace my genealogy years ago, but I just couldn’t keep up with it, and it was moved to the back burner of life.
I have recently become inspired to revisit this quest, and I finally have the time and resources to dig into my family’s history, so I had my DNA tested by Ancestry this past spring. While there were some surprises in the results, there were some things I already knew that the DNA testing confirmed.
Working backwards from my parents, the first point of contact with the Old World is on my mother’s line, in Finland, and my test results point strongly to that connection. My great-grandmother was born in Tampere/Tammafors, Finland, in 1892, and immigrated to the US through Ellis Island, with her parents, my great-great grandparents, and two infant sisters, in 1896. Of the two sisters, only one survived the trip. The manifest shows her other infant sibling died during their 2 1/2 week voyage in steerage, possibly of scarlet fever. They left Finland, I have been told, because my great-great grandfather did not agree with the politics of the czar, and he was potentially in for some kind of trouble if they stayed. There are some papers I am trying to obtain, letters of his that have been translated, that would provide some clues. They settled in Philadelphia, which is where my great-grandmother met, and married, my great-grandfather.
I never had any Finnish food growing up. I suppose one reason why is this is my mother’s paternal line, and my mother learned to cook what her mother cooked, and she learned to cook what her mother cooked. That line is most likely English and Dutch, several generations back. I have spoken to my mom about this and she has confirmed that everything she learned to cook came from her mother and grandmother. I am working with some other members of my family who may have some Finnish recipes, but these foods were not part of my life growing up.
My local library would normally be my next source, but Finnish cookbooks are in short supply there. I am lucky to have found a Scandinavian cookbook with lots of Finnish recipes in it (although the Finnish do not consider themselves Scandinavian). Internet searches have been quite fruitful, and I have started a quickly-expanding Pinterest board so I don’t lose track of my discoveries. I stare at the photos, mind racing and mouth watering, as I try to understand how each dish could connect me to a distant place I’ve never seen, a past I’m working to uncover, people who are the reason I am here at all.
There are some foods native to Finland, but it’s not a hospitable place for farming. Hunting, fishing, gathering, and raising animals would have been how my ancestors put most of their food on the table. Traditional Finnish food is pretty intuitive. It features a lot of fish (there are thousands of lakes in Finland, as well as an extensive coastline), root vegetables that tolerate the harsh growing conditions and that keep in storage during long winters, and bear, reindeer, mushrooms and berries found in the forests. Farm animals are raised for meat and dairy products. There are a lot of pickled and preserved foods. The baked goods are full of warm spices, perfect for having with lots of hot coffee, which Finnish people drink all day, every day.
There’s something we have in common. I already feel more connected.
What isn’t as predictable is the heavy use of cardamom, in a country so far away from where it is grown. Its arrival in the Nordic countries has commonly been attributed to the Vikings’ trading in Constantinople, but that is disputed, and warrants more research. However it happened, cardamom remains one of the signature flavors in Finnish breads, cookies, and pastries. I have waxed poetic about cardamom before, so it should come as no surprise that one of my first Finnish food projects will be Pulla, a cardamom-spiced yeast bread. But that is a project, possibly over a couple of days, and I want to get on with my Finnish tasting adventure. I think egg butter is a great place to start.
Egg butter is exactly what it sounds like. Mash peeled hard boiled eggs with butter. Add salt and pepper if you like. I found several different ratios of egg to butter, from 1 egg/1 tablespoon butter, to the version in The Great Scandinavian Baking Book, by Beatrice Ojakangas, that uses two eggs and a CUP of butter. I leaned into the middle but still embraced decadence, and used 3 eggs to a cup of butter.
It is served as a topping for Karjalanpiirakat, little pies stuffed with a rice or potato mixture, (which are also on my list) but it is also spread on bread or crackers. The next time I make it I might cut back on the butter. Maybe.
Now that the weather is changing and there is a persistent chill in the house, I am starting to crave comfort foods, and in these new-to-me Finnish foods I sense a different kind of comfort. I am excited to start cooking and eating these foods for the first time, with my ancestors in my heart and mind and kitchen.
“Finnish cuisine”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnish_cuisine.
Ojakangas, Beatrice. The Great Scandinavian Baking Book. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1988.