Edith Salminen │email@example.com
Almost a year ago from this very day, I embarked on an exciting and demanding adventure, writing my Master thesis. Like many other second year Master students, I was disoriented, bewildered and extremely stressed out because of it. Outright, I was lost in the maze of ideas that didn’t cease to overwhelm my brain. Only one thing was set in stone: if I were to spend six months of my life doing research, sitting in front of the computer from dusk until dawn, reading countless articles and dozens of books on one specific topic to then analyse and write about it, I needed to choose a topic that truly inspired me. Easy. Since I considered myself a full-fledged foodie, almost a gastronome – I chose food.
After a few not-so-successful thesis proposals tackling rather complex food-related multi-cultural phenomena in Europe, I once again felt like road-kill on the Master thesis high way. I had gone fishing further than the sea, as we say in Finnish. I was struggling with a rather indefinable research question that was way out of my reach. Defeated by academia, I came to a full stop. I needed to focus and find my centre. Where am I, what do I have around me, I thought, what is closest to me food-wise? Patently, I needed concrete inspiration, so I started going through my kitchen cupboards in the hope of finding guidance. Food item after food item made me smile, reminding me of my travels abroad, precious moments spent with beloved friends, somewhere in the world. For a while, I found myself utterly captivated by the most delicious nostalgia. Suddenly, however, it hit me: I am a Finn and I live in Finland, but there were almost no distinctively Finnish products in my kitchen. I became even more confused.
At first, it seemed reasonable. After all, I had been living abroad for the past four and a half years and had only recently returned back home for the purpose of writing my thesis. Still, I found it somehow odd and inexcusable. As a matter of fact, I was ashamed of myself. All of a sudden, I felt lost in my culinary identity; if we are what we eat, then what does that make me? Judging by the food I had stored at home, I was certainly not a Finn. And then a storm of questions took over my already overheated brain; do I know what Finnish food really is? What does Finnish food culture say about Finns? Which produce is most common for Finnish soil? All along I thought I knew the answer to each question when in fact, I wasn’t so sure about any of them.
The next day, at a grocery store, my radar was up. I paid extra attention to what I was about to put in my basket. After I had walked around for a few minutes at my local supermarket, still in a slightly confused state of mind, I realised that if I wanted to find real Finnish goods, I was in the wrong place. Decisively, I stacked away the basket, walked out the supermarket, hopped back on my bike and headed towards a smaller food store – a kind of indoor, everyday Farmers’ Market if you may – located in the centre of Helsinki. On the way there, it all became crystal clear: this is what I ought to devote six month of my life to, finding my culinary roots, unravelling Finnish food culture and thus finding my own culinary identity.
The effects of my choice were immediate. As soon as I entered that other food store, I already inspected the food with whole new eyes and a whole new intrigue. Somehow it seemed like each product coming from a small-scale producer in the region was a piece of me. I was filled with utter happiness and a strong urge to know them all: the producer, the product, how it was done, how it grew from Finnish soil and how it finally ended up on the market shelves and from there to people’s homes and kitchens. Something as banal and ordinary as a potato suddenly gained enormous value before my eyes. Why hadn’t I felt this way before?
The problem of the ever-so-globalized world we live in today, and especially here in Europe, is that we are rather limitlessly able to get our hands on food from all four corners of the world. Paradoxically, it is often cheaper to buy produce that has travelled halfway across the world compared to produce coming from nearby. Safe to say, the food system in Europe is drastically unbalanced, humongously stressed and extremely unsustainable. This is linked to many ’man-made’ tendencies, which I also found myself guilty of. The equation is simple. Take Finland, for example. Firstly, we tend to underestimate and undervalue what we have closest, what we have in abundance around us, considering it ‘nothing special’, ’unworthy of attention’. Secondly, because we also want to buy cheap food, we choose foreign over local, turning a blind eye to the good cause to support local producers, community and region. A sad reality: mass-produced tomatoes from the Netherlands that we got in the supermarket all year around are about three times cheaper than the sweet and juicy Finnish ones best consumed in the summer time. I rest my case.
The more research I did on the matter, the more I realised how Finns think about their own culinary heritage and the distinctive Finnish raw materials both in regards to value, quality and tradition. Most Finns will certainly talk about the delicious recipes their grandmothers make, but it often ends at that. These recipes would most of the time never be reproduced in their own homes on a daily basis. The lack of confidence and value for Finnish food was obvious, not to mention how revolting the misbeliefs that people have about Finnish food being tasteless, difficult and time consuming to prepare. Very quickly, I understood that not only was I writing a thesis about a topic that I was extremely passionate about, but I was also doing the little thing one person alone can do to safeguard her land’s distinctive biodiversity, the characteristics of the terroir, and becoming reconnected to my own land.
Finnish leipäjuusto (lit. bread cheese) is something that only a few make at home these days. Until recently I belonged to the ones who absolutely love this cheese, buy it in the supermarket, and have no idea how to make it (thinking it’s very difficult). It’s a piece of cake! I’ll never buy super market leipäjuusto again. Vive la tradition!