Before Beatrice Ojakangas, there was no cookbook for Finnish cuisine. Today her first book, The Finnish Cookbook, is in its 38th printing. “I guess I’ve just been a bit lucky,” says Ojakangas, who is a member of the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame (2005). According to her husband, Dick, “Around here [Duluth] I am Mr. Bea Ojakangas. It doesn’t bother me a bit, as long as she feeds me.”
Growing up in Floodwood, MN, Ojakangas was “the oldest [of ten]. My mother said it was time to learn to bake a cake, but I couldn’t read or write yet because I hadn’t been to school.” As her younger sister Lil was born in the next room, Ojakangas made what she calls the “salt cake,” her first experience in the kitchen. “My mother said always before you bake something you should taste it and if it tastes flat you should add a pinch of salt,” says Ojakangas. Taste after taste led to pinch after pinch of salt. After baking the cake in a wood-heated oven, Ojakangas realized she “had forgotten the sugar.” She’s come a long way in both her understanding of food and creativity in the kitchen.
With 27 books under her belt, Ojakangas could be said to be the Julia Child of Finnish cuisine. Because she’s “a curious person,” Ojakangas spent a year in Finland traveling around learning recipes and writing her first book, The Finnish Cookbook. Rye, lingonberries, and cloudberries were the elements of Finnish cuisine that were used in recipes passed down verbally from generation to generation. Due to that tradition, Ojakangas says “the same name [of] a recipe will indicate a different recipe in different parts of the country.” Growing up, Ojakangas was the only grandchild who could speak Finnish so her grandmother taught her Finnish food words. “While I was there I would ask people about the words my grandma taught me,” says Ojakangas.
To make a good cookbook, “it has to have a theme or a hook,” says Ojakangas, who has recently published Petite Sweets, a book that veers from her Finnish expertise. Not all of her cookbooks have been Scandinavian themed, but the ones that have are among the most popular. The Great Scandinavian Baking Book received a James Beard Award. Scandinavian Feasts, a book that Ojakangas wrote after traveling to all of the Scandinavian countries, went out of print after 14 months. Recently it has been brought back into print along with 7 other books by the University of Minnesota Press. “The U of M press says they want to keep all my books in print,” says Ojakangas.
Ojakangas also has some experience working in restaurants. “Somebody’s House” was the name of the restaurant that she and her husband owned in the Mount Royal shopping center in Duluth in the early ’70s. “Part of the success was in the name,” says Dick. It was a burger place with a menu that could compete with the Lighthouse, Big Daddy’s, or the Anchor Bar. The menu included 36 varieties of hamburgers, and every month they would change them up. The Noodle Burger ($1.45), the Burgundy Burger ($1.45), and the Swede Burger ($1.15) were among the choices. The Duluth Blizzard Burger ($1.25) was described by the restaurant’s menu as “the hamburger sheltered beneath a drift of sour cream as only Duluth would, or could, have it; the garnish of course, is a kosher pickle and Scandinavian styled pickled beet. Var sa God!” The couple owned the restaurant for three years, then sold it because Beatrice preferred writing and Dick was a professor of geology at UMD. “After we sold it, [the restaurant] supported two [other] families for 10 years,” says Dick.
Last year, one of Ojakangas’ newest books, The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever, was nominated for a James Beard Award for single subject. “You can find casseroles all over the world,” says Ojakangas, who, like many Minnesotans, often calls a casserole a “hot dish.”
There isn’t a book at the printer or in progress, but there is a proposal currently on Ojakangas’ desk. “People are always asking me for a slow cooker cookbook,” says Ojakangas, who doesn’t think she will ever stop writing.
From Heavy Table