WEST PARIS — Holiday cooking presents one of the unique opportunities for culture to shake off its dormancy and assert its historic traditions.
At least, that’s the idea cooked up by the ladies of the Finnish American Heritage Society. At their meeting hall and museum last week, the third- and fourth-generation descendants from the first Finnish families in the region opened up their histories — and kitchen — to the task.
The dishes are emblematic of the Christmastime tables of Western Maine’s Finnish population, likely echoes of the dishes served when the Nordic people started immigrating over a century ago.
Most of the dishes are unique to the holiday season, while others are daily staples; fish, according to the members, is as common to the table as a knife and fork.
Some of the dishes are rare treats. Cloudberry jam is a golden-yellow spread pressed from the same-named fruit is found in the Arctic tundra and boreal forests, making it a delicacy.
After some consulting, the names of the dishes were provided by the society; when in doubt, they consulted the memory of 92-year-old Ann Salo, who after retiring from the newspaper businesses still writes regular columns to the press in Finland, proved to be a veritable encyclopedia of names.
Table laden, the food was a prop for the society to weave stories of their forefathers as though they had sat among the diners. Some 400 Finnish families, largely from one parish in Finland, fled famine and war between 1900 and 1914 to take over abandoned farms. They set up logging businesses and their own churches, convenience stores and imbued the area with their customs.
Many descendants remain in the area, and treasures, which have been passed down to them from their Finnish heritage, have been slowly amassed at their headquarters at 8 Maple St., where Finnish-language classes are offered periodically. The society formed in 1982.
President Dale Piirainen recalled trips with his uncle, Veikko Piirainen, 92, to Finland, where the generations have widened the difference between the dialects spoken in Maine from those in their ancestral homeland.
“The Finnish are a purposeful people — they won’t chatter about things unless they have something to say. The best compliments I received there was I was quiet, too,” Piirainen said.
No Finnish holiday meal is complete without fish. Lipeäkala, or lutefisk, is salted whitefish — herring or cod will do — dried and immersed in a lye bath for several days before being rinsed. It’s common to balance its sharp flavor with potatoes.