Finnish foods remind me of my father’s cooking

What are your earliest food memories? A pancake doused in maple syrup? The taste of your mother’s milk? The wonder of cotton candy? Mine I realize, are the foods of my father. Pancakes made on a large aluminum griddle that was warped even back then. Scrambled eggs that had to be stirred for what seemed to be forever. These are the foods of Sunday breakfast, when the kids could help cook.DSC05290

I suppose it is unfair to remember the foods of my father when my mother was by far the more accomplished cook, making nearly all our meals out of whatever was available on a very modest single salary brought in by my dad, maybe $8,000 per year. When we lived in Mexico and got vegetables from a share arrangement, beet soups showed up almost every day. She knew how to cook fancy meals for company, veal, strudels and the like. From her I got a broad love of cuisines and cooking.

My father at 90 with Danny, one of his grandsons

My father at 90 with Danny, one of his grandsons

From my father I now realize I got a nearly undiluted north German palate causing me to love potatoes and cabbage, parsley and dill, pfefferlinge mushrooms (chanterelles) and currants, blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries, and raspberries, strong cheeses, rye bread, sausages and smoked meats and fish, and beer. He added to this list in his long life, but now he is 90, and his tastes have reverted to these pure, simple delicious flavors of the north. And I love them too.

What exactly they were crystallized for me on a recent trip to Finland. The flavors came together centered on rye bread and potatoes with cheeses, smoked fish and sausages bringing in the protein, cabbage the body, with accent notes from parsley and dill. Mushrooms and berries of many kinds, foraged for, almost seem to be the point of living.


Hotel room meal from a Finnish grocery store.

These pure northern flavors do not much overlap with the much-touted Mediterranean diet of the more violent flavors of oregano, rosemary, and thyme, or the strong vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. I know these days we can have it all, prancing around the globe between lunch and dinner. But those northern flavors that I experienced so young have a special place for me.

Of course Finland is not Berlin, but its more northern location may weed out the

With former postdoc, Perttü Seppä before sauna

With former postdoc, Perttü Seppä before sauna

peripheral flavors. Finland is special for many reasons, isolated linguistically and genetically in Europe. It is so recently escaped from glaciers it is still bouncing back from the weight of the ice in a process called post-glacial rebound. This means that at places in the south, like the field station Tvärminne, rocks emerge to trap the boat where there was previously space to go over, every summer. Even the few annual millimeters of rebound make a difference. It is also the place of world class researchers, Johanna Mappes, Lotte Sundström, Hanna Kokko, and the late Ilka Hanski, to name just a few.

I’m not Finnish, but Finland reminds me of my roots more purely even than Berlin might today.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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