The Midwest’s “Finnish Triangle” is a Land of Saunas and Squeaky Cheeses
A look into the lives, and kitchens, of the Finns who've kept their Scandinavian heritage alive for over a century in northern Minnesota
I’m in the middle of the area known locally as “the Finnish Triangle,” sampling a highly unusual yogurt whose active culture arrived here 100-some years ago on a sun-dried rag. Every surface in Miriam Yliniemi’s bright kitchen is covered with a bowl or platter wearing a crinkled beret of aluminum foil. The bluish February sunshine shoots low through the large plate glass window, jumping from foil top to foil top and lighting up her kitchen like a disco. Even though I’d asked Miriam to just make the karjalan piirakka, traditional rye hand pies, she’s chosen to override me and instead make a feast that charts a day in the life of a Minnesota Finn, from morning to midnight snack. There’s a pile of flour-dusted ruis, Finnish rye bread; joulutorttu, flaky cream-rich star-shaped pastries with prune jam centers; a towering whipped cream cake topped with a mosaic of fresh fruit; and in the center of her stove, a large disk of “squeaky cheese,” fresh curds broiled to a speckled brown, still warm and weeping whey at the edges. Before I can wedge off my winter boots, she peels a soft plastic lid from a sky-blue Tupperware container and hands me the traditional Finnish breakfast: a cup of homemade yogurt dusted with a flurry of cinnamon sugar. “This is viili. Our yogurt. It sets at room temperature.” The viili has the consistency of custard but falls from my spoon in a long slithering cord. Stretchy like mastic, it has a disarmingly glutinous quality—a muscularity to it that suggests it might just keep on moving on its own. But that tension-hold breaks in the mouth, where it dissolves in a sweet puddle, its tartness soft like background noise. “What does viili mean in Finnish?” I ask, my crush on this yogurt progressing from flirtation to full-blown love by the third spoonful. “Wild,” Miriam says. And it is. The sourdough of yogurts, this culture needs no coddling or extra heat to activate. Stirred into milk, it gels on its own. “Miriam,” her husband, Elmer, coaxes from his easy chair in the nearby living room, “tell her the story!” But Miriam, a highly articulate woman who has nearly single-handedly kept Finnish food traditions alive for the area youth, who has translated three academic books from Finnish into English, waves him off with a tsk-tsk flip of her manicured silver hair. Turning her attention back to spooning creamy ovals of rice pudding onto thin coaster-size circles of rye dough, she quickly lines up rows of ruffled rye pies—machine-perfect karjalan piirakka.
She can’t talk while she’s making them, I get it. Her knuckles flash, her fingertips pinch the dough into even pleats, her eyes rarely lift off the countertop horizon. She has a good hand, I think. Her fingers know the difference between right and wrong, good enough and great.
So Elmer, the retired pastor of the Apostolic Lutheran church in Wolf Lake, and a vivid storyteller, tells me instead.
“When our relatives first moved here from Finland at the turn of the 20th century, they found that after a while, their viili culture weakened, so they wrote to their relatives back home. The women there soaked clean rags in viili—”
“Not rags,” Miriam interjects. “Probably something handwoven. Weaving is very important to Finnish culture.”
“Right, woven cloths. They soaked them in viili, dried them in the sun until they were stiff, and then mailed them to Wolf Lake.”
“And you’ve kept it going ever since?”
“Yes, of course,” Elmer says, dropping a wobbly cube of the now-cool squeaky cheese into his hot coffee, the tiny Finnish cup almost disappearing inside his large hand.
“This is traditional?” I ask, dropping a cube into my own cup. A shimmery constellation of fat droplets rises to the surface. I sip quickly and tip the warm cheese into my mouth. Not as weird as it sounds, the coffee tastes toffee-tinged but not sweet, a bit like Bulletproof coffee studded with cubes of soft gum—squeaky, milk-flavored gum.
“Sure, when you’re having a coffee break, you want to warm up the cheese to make it squeak again, so you drop it in the coffee,” she says.
We sit down at the table formally set with Finnish tableware, designs not only inspired by winter but seemingly constructed from its raw materials: glassware molded from icicles; blue glass candleholders the color of a sky slinking into twilight; a tablecloth woven in alternating bands of white and tan, fresh snow and old snow. Finns know that the beauty of the North lives in its contradictory extremes: searing sunlight, insulating snowbanks against the house, air so cold it burns your cheeks.
Miriam pulls a tray of karjalan piirakka from the oven, brushing the browned frilled tops with a final glaze of melted butter. I take one and smear a clod of butter mashed with hard-boiled eggs into the gash of hot steaming rice, as instructed, which melts instantly into a silky yellow puddle. At the bite, the crisp rye pastry crumbles, and I think it’s just about the oddest, most hard-to-categorize, weirdly delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. Both feminine and earthy, the rye pies look like a fancy pastry a child might whip up out of her mother’s kitchen scraps for her dolls at teatime, and they taste just as otherworldly perfect.
We conclude the breakfast feast with slices of delicate sponge cake sopped with fresh fruit and juice and held together with an inch-thick grout of whipped cream. My belly dares me to finish it, and I do, picking up every light, staticky crumb on the plate with my fingertips. I get the sense that no occasion around here goes down without cake.
Before I go, she fills a clean pill jar with viili, what she calls “the seed.” With this precious culture in hand—my sorely needed prescription—I feel as though I’ve been given a glimpse into the greater subculture of the Wolf Lake Finns.
My husband, Aaron, and I live about 20 miles from here. I’m reminded of a moment a few years back while skiing on our trails when we passed over a curious cluster of snow mounds before realizing that we had skied right into a wolf pack’s home den, all of whose members were likely napping peacefully in their snow caves. Discovering this underground cuisine, hidden in plain sight, is just as thrilling. I’ve always considered this tightly knit and self-sustaining community of hardworking people to be protective of their values, their faith, and their families, but now that I’ve tasted their food I wonder if my assumption was wrong: Maybe they didn’t move here to keep their culture intact and unspoiled. Maybe they moved here to keep it wild.
Three towns—Sebeka, Menahga, and New York Mills—form the points of the Finnish Triangle, which was homesteaded almost exclusively by Finns at the turn of the 19th century. The jokesy Finnish culture present in the towns of Menahga and Sebeka is the one I’m familiar with: the St. Urho’s Day parade that celebrates the made-up saint who drove the grasshoppers from Finland, the Wife Carry Competition (the victor wins his wife’s weight in beer), and the famous Changing of the Guard, a line of men ceremonially peeling off the one-piece long underwear they’ve worn all winter long. They call themselves “Finlanders,” and they’re rowdier than the Apostolics, more apt to hang out at the Menahga Muni (the municipal bar). But the more traditional cultural heart of the Finnish community resides among the dairy farms of Wolf Lake Township. My own Two Inlets area, just two townships over, feels a world away. The hills are higher here, the roads windier, the winter light hotter and more unreal.
Many of the area’s dairy farms are certified organic—eight at last count. At Salmen farm, 10 miles from Miriam’s house, the world might be frozen, the noonday temperature hovering at 20 below zero, but the milk in the barn still flows.
As a Minnesotan without a drop of Scandinavian heritage inside her, I realize that my dairy senses need some tuning—a feeling that increases when I arrive in Tyyni Salmen’s kitchen. I can tell that I don’t see milk the way that Tyyni sees milk. Like the veteran skier she is, she scopes out the bucket of fresh milk as she does the latest snowfall; she looks beyond the whiteness to see conditions. The five-gallon bucket full of milk fresh from the bulk tank is crying out to be made into cheese.
As Miriam did, Tyyni raises my simple request for squeaky cheese to the third power and also makes the star-shaped prune pastries, plus a pot of smooth yellow pea soup, and of course brings out a fresh jar of viili. Hers, made from unpasteurized milk, is clotted heavily at the top, due to the higher butterfat content of the farm’s organic milk, 4.2 percent butterfat as opposed to the average conventional 3.6. The flavor is kaleidoscopic in comparison to store-bought milk, with a bit of barn floor on the nose. Earthier, yes, but lustier too. As I experienced walking past the milking stalls filled with sweet, unblinking cows, the aroma initially shocks but quickly fades.
Tyyni, a small woman with a girlish voice and a gray-blonde bob, stands at the stove in a knit skirt and wool knee socks. As we talk about Christmas traditions, she tells me that she’s the proud grandmother of 40, and I try to conceal my shock. Her face is as unlined as a teenager’s.
“For Christmas, what do you make for the main meat?” I ask.
“Usually more than one ham!” she replies, while cracking open a two-gallon plastic bucket to reveal a slow wave of creamy milk.
“And many pans of squeaky cheese.”
She sets a wire hanger bent into a star shape on top of her electric burner to diffuse the heat, pours the milk into a large well-worn pot, and seasons it with a big pinch of salt and a smaller pinch of sugar. I recognize this as the typical Scandinavian restraint with dairy. Similar to the way my Norwegian-American mother-in-law sweetens her whipped cream—with just a wink from the sugar—Tyyni keeps her cheese pure and chaste.
As the milk heats, I admire her shiny painted wood floors, her potted plants rambling everywhere, her wide-slatted dining-room table, bleached and sanded down to raw smooth wood in the Finnish way. As at Miriam’s, the winter light beams like a stage light through the place.
Tynni scoops out the cheese curds into a rectangular cheesecloth-lined wire sieve, pushes on the curds with a backhanded ladle to remove the standing whey, and then flops the contents expertly into a baking pan and pops it under the broiler. We stand at the oven door and watch it frizzle under the heat, the brown spots spreading across the surface of the cheese. As we watch, members of Tyyni’s family stream into the house and ladle goldenrod-colored soup into bowls. Four cousins who seem to be all the same age pile into one living-room chair to wait for the cheese. When it’s done, she cuts it into cubes and the kids make swift work of it, swabbing the cheese through a saucer of her homemade raspberry jam. The fresh curds, sweet and salty, squeak in my teeth.
“You have time for a sauna?” Tyyni asks, pointing to the whitewashed building across the driveway, its chimney puffing steam. Built in the 1930s, the sauna has the traditional two rooms: a front changing room, lit by a kerosene lamp, and a dark back room lit by a curtained window and a raging woodstove fire. Usually, men and women sauna separately, in the nude. Today, the little boys volunteer, in swim trunks for my benefit, and scamper in. Tyyni drops grapefruits into the snow to chill and says, “So refreshing after a sauna.”
After about 10 minutes, the boys, their skin as pink as boiled crab shells, blow out of the sauna door and hit the snow, rolling down the hill like a bunch of bear cubs. Shaking off snow, they each take a wedge of cut grapefruit and go back in.
I laugh, and Tyyni says, “You think that’s funny, the teenage boys down the road are really crazy. They drive their snowmobiles after their saunas to cool off, and one night they came all the way to our driveway—two miles away!” “They were riding naked?”
“Of course!” She tucks a plastic-wrapped wedge of squeaky cheese into my hand, squints out at the closest rolling white hill, gives me a quick hug and says, “I think I still have time today for a ski.”
As I leave, I turn back to take a picture with my phone and see that it has turned itself off because I’ve been standing out so long in the cold.
The third stop on my Wolf Lake Finn tour takes me down an even skinnier trail, to the house of my friends Bruce and Budd at the end of a forest road in the south Smoky Hills. Bruce Engebretsen is Swedish-American but grew up 20 minutes west of Wolf Lake amid a number of Finnish ladies who schooled him in their domestic arts. A dedicated handweaver, he and his spouse, Budd Parker, moved here a couple of years ago with their collection of antique wooden looms, spinning wheels, history books, old cooking tools, and Budd’s enviable stash of enameled Dansk cookware. Here in the summer months, in the middle of the woods, they hold weekly weaving workshops that are open to anyone. In his studio, Bruce demonstrates everything from spinning flax into linen to Sami belt weaving; they make a cauldron of soup, pull a mountain of bread from their outdoor wood-fired clay oven, and call potluck for the rest. The evenings often end with Bruce at the piano leading a sing-along of old-timey songs while the crowd passes around a bottle of homemade pea-pod wine.
I came here to round out my Wolf Lake education not only because Bruce is a disciple of Finnish food and weaving but because he’s promised to make me vispipuuro, whipped cranberry pudding, and to help cook a Finnish feast in their clay oven—in the middle of February. He’s invited yet another cold-hardy Minnesotan, Amy Tervola-Hultberg, a Finnish language and culture educator from New York Mills who is eager to make her wood-fired ruis, or traditional Finnish sour rye.
She begins with a porridge of cooked rolled rye, called rye chops, then adds a lump of her bubbling rye starter and enough flour to make a sponge. After it rises, she adds just enough flour to make a sticky dough and pats it out onto a heavily floured surface in two shapes: flattened rounds, for sandwiches, and the more traditional donut shape. The central hole is essential, for these breads were traditionally made all at once, stacked on a dowel, and stored for months.
“Didn’t the bread get hard?” I ask. “How did they eat it?”
“Oh yes, it got hard, as hard as wood, but then they would shave it off in thin slices with a handheld wood planer, you see,” Bruce says, demonstrating the slide on the countertop, “and soften it in a bowl with sour milk.”
“Sounds delicious,” I say, and we all laugh. Then Bruce says, “Remember, these people were no strangers to famine. In food, sometimes there’s hardship, too.”
Amy holds up her hands, furred with sticky dough. “But not today,” she says. “We’re going to eat it fresh, when it’s perfectly soft and chewy.”
Bruce whips the vispipuuro pudding made with foraged cranberries. “The wild highbush cranberries that grow here taste a lot like the traditional lingonberries,” he explains. The dark cranberry juice, thickened into a slurry with farina, lightens as it whips until its shiny, pink meringue-like cloud rises up over the rim of the bowl. Across from him, I roll a pork belly that I’ve pre-salted and rubbed with herbs to go into the clay oven. When it’s tender, we’ll slice it, fry it until crispy, and dress it with blackened leeks and mushrooms. This, together with a dish of creamed spinach and a huge pan full of wood-roasted cabbage cooked in horseradish cream, will give us plenty of fatty, creamy juices to sop up with the bread.
When Budd calls the oven ready, we take turns hustling outside. Inside for more food, outside to cook and stand around the oven, back inside to grab another dish, back outside for another snow-chilled cocktail. Those of us with glasses are blinded by hot-house fog, the bane of our Minnesota winter existence.
Amy takes hers off and says, “This meal takes sisu!” and everyone but me knows what the word means.
“Sisu,” Amy says. “Finnish perseverance. Grit. It means digging down within yourself to tap into a heroic will to succeed, even in the most adverse of circumstances.”
“The cool thing,” Bruce adds, “is that sisu is personal, but it usually benefits the group.”
Finnish or not, I think, sisu has got to kick in at 20 below. I’ve never heard the Finnish character described this way, but I recognize this tenacity deep down in my rural Minnesotan bones. Bruce and Budd, with their house full of utilitarian old relics and their backwoods cultural community-building, have sisu. The Wolf Lake Finns, preserving their wild, natural foodways in a beautiful patch of hill country in Minnesota, have sisu. Amy, driven to bake loaf after loaf of rye until the chew feels just right, has sisu.
We toast to that, with a pink-grapefruit champagne cocktail I’ve improvised. It has no Finnish connection beyond that it simply reminds me of Tyyni’s sauna grapefruits in the snow and reflects extremes: bitter and sweet, healthyish but potent.
We may not be devout, and not even altogether Finnish, but today we feel it.