Delicious, natural food is plentiful in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, if you are willing to work for it. From hunting to fishing to foraging, one could easily survive on what Mother Nature provides. It's no wonder that after our ancestors immigrated to the United States and found work (and lost work) up here in the copper mines and logging camps, that they decided to stay and make this beautiful place their home. Generations later some of us are still here, still enjoying this peaceful life, and eating the same treats our Great-Grandparents were feasting on.
Hunting, fishing and foraging is still a natural part of the lifestyle in Finland today. Throughout the year I will dedicate some blogs to this lifestyle that is very Finnish-American.
The very first harvest in Michigan each year is Pure Michigan Maple Syrup. Enjoy the video below as we try sugarmaking for the very first time.
Pure, simple, wild, natural.
Living close to nature allows you to forage, eat and produce what mother nature provides.
I didn’t like syrup as a kid. I put sugar on my pancakes until I was 25. It wasn’t until I tried real, pure maple syrup that I realized how delicious it was. Aunt Jemima can keep her high fructose corn syrup.
Living off the land, foraging what mother nature provides is a very Finnish trait. I’m sure if Finland had an abundance of maple trees, they would be tapping them. Pine and spruce trees make up almost 90% of Finland’s forests. Birch is the next most common tree and turning birch sap into syrup is gaining popularity there.
On the other hand, the sugar maple is Michigan's most common native tree species. Vermont is known as the sugar capital of the U.S. but Michigan has more sugar maples, and could easily top Vermont. Hint hint fellow Michiganders.
The very first sugar makers were Native Americans who were tapping trees as early as the 1500’s and taught the process of producing maple syrup to European settlers.
Travel through the Upper Peninsula in the spring and you will see bags and cans hanging off trees in the woods and in people’s yards. Collecting the sap that flows from maple trees starting in about mid-March, when the temperatures rise above freezing. The sap is crystal clear, almost like water and has barely any taste.
This winter was long and cold. Temps didn’t stay above freezing until the end of March. Our first taps went in on March 21st. To our dismay, each day our bags were less than a quarter full. It was exciting to find a bag half full! We may have started too early for this year’s season. We collected sap from 5 trees for a week, collecting roughly 29 gallons of sap.
That might sound like a lot however it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. Our 29 gallons produced roughly about ¾ gallon of syrup!
After we collected the sap, the next step was to boil it down to syrup. Justin hauled an old woodstove out of our basement and cut a hole in the top to hold a stainless-steel food pan for boiling sap in. It wasn’t long before the sap was bubbling.
After the first pan of sap boiled down to about half, we added fresh sap to the pan, boiled that down until that was reduced to about half and kept adding more sap. Since we didn’t have a full day to dedicate to this process, we did this in batches, keeping the boiled down sap in a separate container. As the sap boiled down, the sticky sweet smell of the steam made you hungry for pancakes!
On the final day of boiling, during a little late-season blizzard, we poured all the batches of boiled down sap together and reduced it further until we were left with a little over a gallon. That was strained to remove any debris or bugs from collection or that landed in the pan in our open-air sugar shack, aka driveway.
We brought the syrupy substance into the house and finished boiling on the gas stove where it would be easier to control and test with the hydrometer. It didn’t take long and we had a golden colored maple syrup. The syrup was a lot lighter in color than I thought it would be and the flavor is a lot lighter as well. I was unsure of the taste at first, but after the syrup cooled I was relieved the flavor was better. After some research we found that the earlier in the season you collect the sap, the milder the flavor. Later season sap produces the richer, darker syrup with the distinct maple flavor.
I would say our first time syrup making was a success. It’s a rewarding feeling when you produce your own food; you know where it came from and how it was made, and I don’t feel guilty when I drench my pancakes in it. Next year more taps, more sap!
Stainless-steel food pan
5 Collection Bags and hangers
Hydrometer and test cup
Pint jars (sterilized)
Glass maple leaf bottles (found at a cute coffee shop in Florence, WI)
The Chapel of St. Urho is located in the forest of Brantwood, Wisconsin. It is one of 4 buildings at Maki Talo (Hill House), a Finnish themed complex owned by Bill Hoffman and built on the homestead of the first Finnish settler in Brantwood.
The Chapel was finished in September 2017 just in time for the scheduled blessing. Since then Bill has hosted family and friends to enjoy the peacefulness and beauty of Maki Talo and the Chapel.
The Chapel is available for weddings, retreats and other services. If you are interested please use the contact page and I will get you in touch with Bill.
The ever popular Irish holiday, St Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday this year, an even bigger reason to wear green, drink green beer and wish you were Irish. It was a beautiful day to be outside and celebrate the coming of spring. I even put on a shamrock scarf and pretended I was Irish for the day.
In the 1950’s not everyone wanted to be Irish. To one up the Irish who teased them for not having any fun holidays of their own, the Finns of Northern Minnesota created their own Patron Saint. Instead of driving out the snakes, their Saint chased the grasshoppers out of ancient Finland, saving the grape crop. Thus began the legend of St. Urho and his celebration on May 16, one day before St. Patrick’s Day. In honor of St. Urho, Finnish-Americans around the country wear Royal Purple and Nile Green, for the grapes he saved and the grasshoppers he expelled. St. Urho’s popularity has even spread to Canada and Finland.
Finnish-American communities still celebrate the feast of the mythical St Urho with parades and potlucks. One community is Brantwood, Wisconsin located 45 miles west of Rhinelander on Highway 8, in southern Price County. I asked Kevin Wollemann, President of Knox Creek Heritage Center in Brantwood what the Finnish population of Brantwood was. “If you go back 50 years it was probably 98% Finns and 2% other!” Today it’s not as much but you can see the Finnish ties are still strong.
Along Highway 8, Brantwood consists of a handful of buildings, including a Post Office, Credit Union and Community Center. According to the 2000 US Census there were only 399 people in the Town of Knox, where Brantwood is located within. I’m sure there is less than that today.
I found half of Brantwood’s residents (almost 100 people) inside the Community Center feasting on an International soup buffet with homemade Finnish bread, mint ice cream and warm chocolate chip cookies.
“We have always had a corned beef and cabbage dinner but three years ago we decided to do a soup buffet because everyone has corned beef and cabbage” Keven Wollemann told me.
According to Kevin this feast is one of four annual fundraisers for the Knox Creek Heritage Center, a settlement of 9 buildings that contain artifacts and displays from the late 1800’s to date that represent the history and heritage of the Brantwood area. The 9 buildings include an original Finnish sauna and a 2 hole outhouse complete with a Sears and Roebuck catalog. This September I plan to visit Brantwood again for a full story on the heritage site.
Out of the 6 soup varieties available there were only 2 left by the time I was done chatting with Kevin. Brantwood resident Bill Hoffman tried 3 of the soups (salmon chowder, pea soup, corned beef and cabbage stew) and he said each were delicious. I was sorely disappointed I missed the salmon chowder. If you go next year I advise you show up a half hour early!
I also met Bill “Caddy” Heikkinen, the main presenter of the evening, who spoke about his recent Honor Flight experience to Washington D.C. Bill was drafted in 1969 and served in Vietnam until 1972.
I’m glad I took a little drive on this warm, sunny St. Patrick’s Day to meet some of those keeping Finnish-American traditions alive. This feast in Brantwood was their 28th annual, in honor of both St. Urho and St. Patrick, celebrating the blending of cultures in even the smallest of communities.
A FInnish-american mardi-gras
“Heikinpäivä! Heikinpäivä!” shouted the Winter Snow Queens. “We are the winter snow queens! And he's our royal king!” The Snow Queens pointed out a spectator on the sidewalk. That snow king just happened to be my brother in law standing with the rest of my entourage. I didn’t get to witness these shenanigans because I was perched on top of a giant blue and white chair in my own horse drawn wagon overseeing the Heikinpäivä parade. It was my honorary duty as Hankookin Heikki; to wear the robe and crown and carry my scepter.
Dancing down Main Street of Hancock, Michigan were many Finnish characters from the Kaleva, St. Henrik who the day is named for, and Finnish-American folklore characters such as Heikki Lunta and St. Urho with a life-sized grasshopper to chase away. All in fun, these costumed characters also teach a little about Finnish and Finnish-American folklore and mythology.
You could say it was a little like a Finnish-American Mardi Gras parade.
Heikinpäivä translates to Henry’s Day or Heikki Day. In Finland every day has a name day, and St. Henrik’s Day is associated with the old traditional midway mark of winter. Old folk sayings like “Karhu kylkeänsä kääntää” or “the bear rolls onto his other side” means that winter is half over when the bear (representing winter) rolls over in the den. So of course, bears parade down Main Street too.
Heikinpäivä originated in Hancock in 1999 by the Finnish Theme Committee as a way to bring Finnish-American culture to third and fourth generation Finnish-Americans. It was 32 degrees and sunny that first day and the streets of Hancock were full of people watching the parade and lining up for pea soup. The festival's fate was sealed and now Heikinpäivä is no longer only a Copper Country festival. Finns in Fitchburg, Massachusetts now have a Heikinpäivä. And Pyhäjoki, a community in Finland has also decided to join the celebration. They even choose a Heikki to honor each year as well. I would be interested in meeting my counterpart in Finland!
After the parade, accordion music blared from the local radio station’s outdoor speakers and the costumed characters began to dance in a circle. Festival goers joined in the Karhunpeijäiset (loosely translates to English as “bear spiral”), a spiraling winter folk dance. All the costume colors twirling against a snowy backdrop is a beautiful sight in mid-winter.
Children spun around in the vipukelkka, or whipsled, a traditional Finnish outdoor game where a sled is attached to a long pole on a pivot on a post. Someone got a good workout pushing the kids around all afternoon. A kicksled race was put on for kids to see who was the fastest on two skis.
Some adult outdoor fun that is more contemporary Finland is the Wife Carrying Contest (Eukonkanto). However, whereas in most places the contest is quite athletic, in Hancock in January, it’s more “street theater” according to Jim Kurtti, director of the Finnish-American Heritage Center. Not only do you have to carry your spouse, you must beat the rugs, swat each other in the sauna and pour coffee for your guests. As Jim calls it “a typical Copper Country Saturday”.
If standing outdoors in January isn’t your idea of fun, a Tori (marketplace) is set up inside the Heritage Center, where you can buy plenty of handmade crafts, food, coffee and sweets. Finnish-American musicians entertained guests with folk music throughout the day in the Heritage Center art gallery.
The largest display of sisu came later in the afternoon with the Polar Bear Dive. Or maybe it is a way for folks to show how hullu (crazy) they are. Not one to be afraid of any icy dip, I was the first Hankookin Heikki to take the dive! Of course I had to do it just to be the first! It was refreshing and got the blood pumping. Kind of like when you jump in the snow after sauna.
There were many more events that day and throughout the month of January to celebrate Heikinpäivä. These are just the ones I attended as Heikki. One of the classes held each year is a Leipäjuusto (squeaky cheese) making class. Jim told me the class fills up because everyone enjoys eating the cheese, so register early!
If you’re interested in attending next year check their website or Facebook page for a full calendar. I am still honored to be chosen as Hankookin Heikki and what a wonderful way to attend my first Heikinpäivä.
Enjoy some sights and sounds from Heikinpäivä 2018 in my video at the top of the page.
The Heikki Lunta Winterfest took place in downtown Negaunee, Michigan on January 19 & 20, 2018. I missed the parade on the 19th however I wasn't going to miss out on some of the activities that Saturday! Watch my video below for a recap of some of the fun events held on Iron Street. There were many activities indoors and outdoors for people of all ages. For those looking to beat the winter blues and learn a little bit about Finnish-American culture, make sure to mark your calendar for 2019.
Visit the Heikki Lunta 2018 facebook page for more information and photos!
I hope you all had a blessed Christmas spending time with family and friends and enjoying your holiday traditions. I added a new, Finnish of course, tradition to my list this year. Prune tarts! Or Joulutorttu, which translates to Christmas tart. Before this Christmas season I had only eaten two in my life. After this season, I’m not entirely sure how many I’ve eaten! Before you go wrinkling your nose at the word “prune”, remember they are a dried plum and who doesn’t love plums!
The first person to ever give me a prune tart, as they weren’t a tradition in my family, was Julie Bedell. I was at her home gathering materials for my documentary about Settlers Co-op last year and she had just finished baking. Fresh from the oven, the prune tart was delicious. I was too ashamed to tell her I had never tried one before.
So, when I decided to learn how to make prune tarts this season, Julie was the first person who came to mind. What I did not know was that Julie is a pro. One year she made 93 dozen prune tarts and she sells them at festivals like Heikinpäivä. Carl Pellonpää even asked her once to come on his show, Finland Calling, and make her prune tarts. Julie declined as her recipe is a family secret. Don’t get excited though, she still didn’t give her recipe to me, however she did share some great tips and tricks how to make them extra yummy. I mean if you don’t give your recipe to Mr. Pellonpää, you’re not giving it to anyone!
This recipe is based off my best friend’s Grandma Betty Johnson’s family recipe, with a few adjustments from Julie’s tips. You can find many variations online. Some use ricotta or cream cheese for the dough! Some prefer lots of sugar in the prune filling and some prefer none at all, like Betty, who says the prunes are sweet enough.
Like me, you most likely do not own a tart cutter. If you do, hold on to it with dear life. You cannot purchase one anywhere that I can find. I checked Risto’s Hardware in Hancock, Michigan who I was told was sure to have them. I talked to the owner and he hasn’t been able to find a supplier for a couple years. The supplier he used to order tart cutters by the thousand, shut down. If you know where I can buy a prune tart cutter please message me! The video does show how to cut the tarts by hand with a knife if you don’t have a cutter. Or maybe we’ll convince Julie’s husband to go into business as he made hers.
Speaking of things being made, our beautiful aprons were made by Vicki Kurtti! Find her on Facebook if you want to buy one!
A tip I didn’t add to the video that Julie and others have given me is to cut your dough into the shapes and place them on a parchment lined cookie sheet and place in the refrigerator to fill and bake at a later time. (Also refrigerate your prune filling) If company is coming over, take the ready-cut dough out of the refrigerator, fill, bake and you have fresh prune tarts for your guests! They are best right out of the oven!
Making this video was a first for me. A couple times you see me operating the camera, as well as being the “host” learning how to make prune tarts. Unlike me, Julie is a natural, and does an amazing job in front of the camera, showing how to transform these basic ingredients into something traditionally delicious.
Watch my video below for step by step instructions! I hope you give them a try and let me know what you think!
sHORTER VIDEO! mUSIC & INSTRUCTIONS ONLY:
PRUNE TART RECIPE:
Based off Betty Johnson Family Prune Tart Recipe, Tips and Tricks from Julie Bedell
Makes about 4 dozen
4 cups of flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup real butter (softened)
2 eggs (room temperature)
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup whole milk
1 egg white
Sift your flour, baking powder and salt together and set aside.
Add butter and 2 eggs to mixer and blend using stand mixer with pastry cutter blade or hand mixer.
Add sugar to butter/egg mixture and blend.
Slowly add dry ingredients and ¾ cup milk, alternating dry ingredients and milk.
Chill dough (4-5 hours or overnight or up to 7 days).
Roll out dough on floured surface 1/8” thick. Cut shape using tart cutter or knife.
Fill with a tablespoon or so of prune filling and join corners.
Dab dough with egg white whipped with a dash of water. Adds a nice golden brown to pastry.
Bake 25-30 minutes depending on your oven (25 is perfect in mine).
Cool on rack.
Share with your neighbors.
1 pound pitted prunes
1 ¼ cup water
¼ cup sugar
Place prunes and 1¼ cups water in medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20-25 minutes until prunes are soft.
Remove from heat.
Add sugar and beat using an electric mixer until smooth (about 45 seconds).
Cool before filling tarts.
Kristin Ojaniemi is a Finnish-American filmmaker, video creator and proud Yooper full of sisu.