Up north, a mother lode of food traditions. The families that settled here shared recipes and cultures
Sarma and strudel. They're not as familiar as pizza nor as trendy as croissants. But Minnesota families have shared these and other delicacies with relatives and friends for generations. No place in the United States is quite as cross-cultural in the culinary sense as the Mesabi Iron Range here in northeastern Minnesota - Garrison Keillor country, where small towns such as Cook, Eveleth, and Hibbing are scattered around Beatrice Lake and Side Lake.
Of course, there's nothing new about swapping recipes. But with good home cooks from 40 different ethnic and national backgrounds - a mother-lode of food traditions - you have some interesting swapping indeed.
It started in earnest back in the late 1800s, when thousands of people immigrated to work in the iron mines that dot this land of scenic grandeur, cascading rivers, and lakes.
They came from Yugoslavia, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Cornwall, and Wales, and lived in company-built homes near the iron pits. What made their recipe trading different is that they were swapping dishes not just from another kitchen, but from completely different cultures.
Germans living among Norwegians learned to make Norse seafood dishes. Italians taught Swedish friends to make the fennel-seasoned roast called porketta. Finnish cooks learned the secrets of English trifle and scones in exchange for showing neighbors how to make ``squeeky'' cheese and braided bread.
And the mixing of recipes has survived. Slovene mothers, years ago, were so generous with their recipes for potica, a walnut-rolled sweetbread, that today it's a must at special parties for people of any heritage.
``It wouldn't be a wedding on the Iron Range without potica, the walnut-rolled sweetbread, or sarmas, the meat-stuffed cabbage rolls,'' says food columnist Eleanor Ostman, who grew up in Hibbing and now lives in St. Paul.
``If our families didn't make all the ethnic dishes, our friends and neighbors did,'' she says, as she prepares some Cornish pasties the way her Finnish mother used to make them.
``Here in these small neighboring towns everybody eats lasagna, baklava, sarma, sauerbraten, fish soup, Cornish pasties, and other traditional foods no matter from which ports the boats left en route to America,'' Ms. Ostman explains.
Originally, mining companies lured workers to the area with such incentives as impressive education facilities for their children. United States Steel built the $4 million Hibbing High School in 1921, with indoor swimming pool, marble halls, and crystal chandeliers in the handsome theater-auditorium.
In the 1970s, however, the steel industry slowed and there were mine closings in the region. An exhibit center called Ironworld USA was opened in Hibbing to attract tourists and to provide jobs. Today, however, the plants that processed taconite, a low-grade iron ore, are closed. Gone, too, is the once energetic logging industry.
But the foods shared and swapped by the various ethnic groups endure. They remain deeply meaningful, helping sustain a rich heritage with special ties to the past. Intermarriage helped promote this kind of mingling; spouses shared traditions that included special foods.
The social interaction continues today. For instance, a Vietnamese noodle shop is filling a space here that once was a Scandinavian bakery. And newer immigrants like the Hmong people in Minneapolis and St. Paul are acquiring elements of the Lao and Thai cuisines because the ingredients are readily available in Oriental groceries.
One example of the mixing of food cultures is the Sunrise Bakery. Back in 1913, when the Italian-owned bakery first opened, it provided hard rolls for the lunch pails of Hibbing's miners. Today, Ginny Forti represents the third generation of her family to operate the business. She proudly shows me her Finnish pulla, Swedish rye, Norwegian sweetbread, and German stollen.
Long counters display English scones, Irish soda bread, Jewish bagels. There are Bohemian kalachi, French eclairs, and Yugoslavian potica. All these are everyday items in this Italian bakery.
Potica (pronounced poe-TEET-zah) has become a symbol of this area's culinary richness. It is a major part of the Sunrise Bakery's business.
``I got interested in the possibility of marketing potica when Eunice Shriver came to the Mesabi range, campaigning for John Kennedy, who was running for president, back in 1960,'' Ginny Forti says. ``Mrs. Shriver was so pleased with the layered nutbread she wanted it to be served at her brother's inauguration. So we had a box designed for mail orders, and I tried to promote it in the Twin Cities. But nobody seemed to know what potica was - just like they didn't know what pizza was 30 years ago. I gave up at the time, but it grew in popularity by word of mouth. Today we send thousands of potica by mail all over the US. People from all over the world stop by to sign our guest book on the counter for mail-order foods.''
Keeping up the tradition of ethnic foods is automatic at the Ironworld center at Hibbing. In its demonstration kitchen, local cooks prepare ethnic foods that were specialties of their grandparents. For visitors, these women are a living museum. The $5.50 a hour they are paid for their cooking helps support families at a time when jobs are scarce locally.
This recipe comes from ``The Old Country Cookbook: Iron Range Ethnic Food'' by Myra Williams Meittunen. English-Finnish Pasty Pastry: 4 cups flour 1 tablespoon salt 1/2 pound lard
Filling for each: 1/2 cup cubed potatoes, uncooked 1/2 cup chopped onion 1/4 cup rutabaga, grated 1/3 to 1/2 cup cubed round steak, uncooked 1 teaspoon butter Salt and pepper
Cut lard into flour and salt until the size of peas. Blend in cold water until dough is slightly sticky. Use flour to roll out into about 6 circles the size of a pie pan. Combine vegetables, meat, and seasoning and mix well.
Place filling on one side of each pastry round. Dot with butter. Dampen edges and fold one side over filling. Press down carefully. Crimp or flute edges to seal tightly.
Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees F. Makes about 6 pasties.
Eleanor Ostman's Finnish family recipe includes carrots, and she puts 2 pasties in a pie pan to hold shape, although a baking sheet can be used.
This recipe is from Betty Rostvold of Keewatin, Minn. Betty's Italian Porketta 6 pound pork butt, remove bone and flatten 2 tablespoons salt 2 tablespoons black pepper 4 fresh garlic cloves, pressed or chopped 1/4 cup olive oil 1/2 cup fresh fennel (or 1/4 cup seeds)
Combine seasonings and oil; brush or rub mixture on both sides of meat. Roll up and tie into roast shape. Roast at 350 degrees about 3 hours.
Porketta is an Italian dish and should be seasoned to your taste. If you don't like lots of garlic, use less. A true porketta should be baked a long time so meat can be pulled apart, rather than sliced. Sarma 1 large cabbage 1 lb. ground beef 1 lb. ground pork 1 cup raw rice 1 medium onion, chopped 1 egg 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 2 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon black pepper 1 lb. sauerkraut 1 cup tomato juice or sauce
Cut core from cabbage and put cabbage in boiling water so leaves come apart easily. Cool, separate leaves, and cut out large ribs.
Combine meat with other ingredients except sauerkraut and tomato juice. Take a leaf of cabbage and about 1/3 cup of meat mixture. Fold over cabbage sides and roll up.
In large pot, layer the sauerkraut and sarmas, placing sarmas seam side down on sauerkraut. Add tomato juice and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, covered and simmer about 3 hours, adding more water if necessary. Serves 6.
The Sunrise Bakery is located at 1813 Third Ave. E, Hibbing, MN 55746.