Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Article in the New World Finn

I wrote a little thing for the New World Finn a little while back exploring, among other things, mojakka.

An Imperfect Explanation of the Origin of the Word Mojakka
published in New World Finn, Vol 10, #1

The clouds are breezing southwards at a significant clip. The light of the sun is reduced to a feeble blue-grey hue, streaked with highlights of rose and flax. The windows of the building across the yard illuminate one by one as their respective residents return home after a long day. Usually the kitchen is the first room to radiate light from its window. Mail is read, groceries are unpacked and preparation for the evening meal begins. The snow has melted from the roof and rivulets of runoff pool in the parking lot beneath the gutters.

I am looking out the window on a late November afternoon. I live in Jyväskylä, between downtown and the university campus. I moved here permanently four years ago, shortly after Hanna and I married. I rarely speak English anymore. This has been difficult, since most Finns are more than eager to speak English any chance they get. When I first moved here I made up my mind that I would speak as little English as possible during interactions with my Finnish friends. Luckily my friends think well enough of me to cooperate.

Sometimes our conversations lead to those who emigrated from Finland to the new world, and the culture that they created. I’ve explained to my friends how the Finns begat Finlanders and how the Finnish language developed on the other side of the big water. Eventually there is mention of mojakka.

Mojakka is known and loved by all Finlanders. Quite often (as is the case with me and my siblings, as well as all of my nieces and nephews, and quite possibly the rest of my extended family) the English term beef stew isn’t realized until school age, and even then it doesn’t stick. Mojakka is the only word I accept for the haute cuisine of my people, the Finlanders of North America. As most anyone who has ever been to Finland or Salolampi can tell you, mojakka is a word that is not in common usage among the Finns, an ethnic group closely related to us Finlanders.

The fact of the matter is that the origins of the word mojakka have remained a mystery. Generally, in Finglish (Fingliska), loanwords were taken from spoken English and adapted to the Finnish sound system. A few examples: Voiced word-initial stops g, d, and b are sounds alien to Finnish. They were supplanted by the corresponding voiceless sounds k, t, and p-think kofferi, taunstee, and prekfesti (that’s gopher, downstairs, and breakfast). The English voiceless affricate ch, as in chicken, was generally replaced by s (charge-sarsata).

But this story isn’t about the phonological features of Fingliska. It’s about the mojakka. This story is about the origins of that one word, that lovely word that belongs to us, that word that makes us who we are. But before I can take you to the end of the story, we have to start at the beginning.

Linguistic researchers and Finnish experts have long tried to uncover the origins of the word mojakka. The late Pertti Virtaranta (researcher and lexicographer extraordinaire, the man who compiled the Amerikansuomen Sanakirja-A Dictionary of American Finnish, elevating Fingliska from a mere pidgin to a full-fledged dialect of Finnish) could offer no more than a definition “liha-, joskus kalaperunakeitto tai muhennos” (meat, sometimes fish and potato soup or stew). There have been countless unsatisfactory explanations. For example: the word derives somehow from the Irish mulligan stew. This is a stretch for even the most creative language researcher. Some have suggested that the word is Hungarian, Slovak, or even Macedonian. A thorough search of the languages of Europe provides nothing even close to an acceptable source from which mojakka could have been taken as a loan word. The explanations for the origins of mojakka range from the plausible to the ridiculous. Larry Saukko once related to me the tale of how a particular blowhard made the ostentatious claim that the term came from the supposedly disgusting lunch that lumberjacks were served daily. It was apparently so revolting that, if still hungry, the gypos would ask the cook for “more yucka” and eventually the word mojakka was born.

None of these explanations have ever satisfied me.

It was the spring of 2007. After a long winter of hard work it was decided that a vacation was in order. My good friend Matti Perälä, tango singer, bartender, and family man, was the first to broach the subject. His father-in-law, Keijo Siekkinen, author and Finlandia Prize nominee then suggested a trip to Jerisjärvi, near Muonio, where the Union of Finnish Writers has a cabin available for the use of its members. A quick phone call was made and the cabin was reserved for us for the week following Vappu (Mayday).

We came to the decision that Keijo would handle the 12 hour drive north and I would be responsible for the return trip. This arrangement was reached mainly due to the fact that at age 39, Matti has managed to avoid the joys of driver’s license possession which is extremely convenient for him during long road trips. We left at 10 pm on Friday evening, Keijo eagerly taking his position behind the wheel of the 99 Opel station wagon that Hanna and I acquired from her parents at a purchase price well below market value. The snow of Central Finland had long since melted and the evening was just turning to night.

The trip north was fairly uneventful. The European Hare (Lepus europaeus) population was in heat and clogging the roadways with their nocturnal activities. Thankfully only one managed to clunk its head on the bottom of our car, although for hundreds of kilometers the roadsides were littered with previous victims of automobile traffic.

At Tornio we crossed the river to Sweden for a change of scenery. We continued up the western bank of the Tornio River to Pello, where we crossed the river once again, back into Finland. By 9 a.m. we were in Muonio, drinking coffee in the café of the Esso gas station.

Keijo,Matti,and Willie. Near Muonio

The cabin was situated in a lomakylä near the shores of Jerisjärvi. A lomakylä is generally a group of cabins in the form of a housing association, with units owned by individuals and organizations, as well as units for rent. This particular lomakylä is located just across the highway from the Hotelli Jeris with its excellent restaurant, top-notch sauna facilities, and king-sized avanto (the legendary hole in the ice for winter swimming, among true avanto aficionados sauna is optional).

The excellent swimming area at Hotelli Jeris.

A few days were spent with sauna, swimming, fine dining, and half-hearted hikes into the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park. I say half-hearted since there was still snow, and the icy crust on the surface wasn’t always sturdy enough to support the weight of three well-fed hikers. Our longest hike was possibly 6 miles but even that distance may be a bit of an exaggeration. One afternoon during a game of dominos the topic of conversation turned to mojakka. I explained how no one had ever brought forth an acceptable explanation of the origins of the word itself. Keijo immediately pulled the phone from his pocket and said “Let’s ask Martti.” This is a scene I have witnessed many times over the last few years of friendship with Siekkinen. If Martti doesn’t have an answer, he’ll call back after half an hour of research with an answer.

So Keijo called Martti.

Martti Pulakka is an author, translator, publisher, scholar, and all-around Renaissance man. He has written, edited, and translated material of all types, including a few issues of U.S. Marshall Morgan Kane, a comic book of the Wild West genre so beloved by kids of all ages in Scandinavia. Well read and articulate, it is impossible to have a non-intelligent conversation with him.
Keijo hung up the phone and said that Martti would be calling back shortly. We continued with the dominos, pausing now and then to admire the spring sunshine filtering the pines and reflecting off the surface of the melting snow.

Martti called back with his answer, which to me was the first satisfactory explanation of the origins of the word mojakka that I had ever heard. It had to do with obsolete Central Ostrobothnia dialect among other things. But the boys and I were on vacation so I filed the factoid into the appropriate section of my memory and we headed across the highway to the Jeris Hotelli sauna.

If you find yourself in Finland in the springtime, a trip to Lapland may well be in order. The first weeks of May are the grey zone between tourist seasons. Not enough snow for the skiing enthusiast and too much snow for the German hiker. Hotels and restaurants are preparing to close down for a month of rest and rehabilitation. Our afternoon at the Jeris Hotelli was the last of their official winter season. They had no guests. The sauna facilities on the beach were ours alone for a nominal charge. The lake was still frozen over, with the exception of the avanto kept open with the help of air pumps. Sauna, icy water, sauna, icy water, I won’t go into detail. I’m assuming the readers of this fine publication already know the drill.

Feeling clean and having basked in the intense rays of the springtime arctic sun we made our way up the hill to the hotel’s restaurant. Whitefish fillets, reindeer flesh, potatoes prepared in a variety of ways, and Lapland-style rieska bread soon were placed on the table before us. Perhaps the best part of the meal was the soup made with the young shoots of the väinönputki (Angelica archangelica), a plant that is found in the wild in Scandinavia, but is cultivated to the south in Europe for its flavor as well as its medicinal properties.

Unfortunately the trip, like all good things, came to an end. Twelve hours of driving with plenty of coffee breaks and we were all back home in Jyväskylä.

A year and a half has passed since then. I have left my old place of employment for a job at Vakiopaine, an establishment that falls into the category of kultuuriravintola, or cultural restaurant. Restaurants of this type in Finland generally provide a venue for cultural activities and presentations. Vakiopaine for instance has rotating art exhibitions, live music, storytelling evenings, as well as a black box theater in the basement. Coffee spiced with cardamom, and other various beverages, both alcoholic and nonalcoholic, are served to an enthusiastic clientele. There is no food menu, but hungry customers are encouraged to order takeout from the plethora of pizza and kebab joints in the neighborhood and enjoy their food with a beverage of their choice in the relaxed atmosphere of our bar.

Quite often while at work I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Martti. The word mojakka has often been a topic of discussion. It turns out that mojakka has been used to some extent in certain parts of Finland to describe soups of various nature. In Kalajoki and Himanka the word mojakka has been occasionally used to describe either a soup of fish and peeled potatoes or a type of gruel prepared with with fish. In Perho the word mojakka was used to describe any soup prepared with meat. This does not however give us enough evidence to state unequivocally that mojakka came from Finland. In fact, these examples are irregularities; the word mojakka is not used in any region of modern Finland to describe a hearty stew made with beef and vegetables, seasoned with allspice. It is actually highly probable that in the above instances, the term came to Finland with those migrants who decided to return to the homeland, of which there were quite a few. A bit of research shows that the earliest mention of soup called mojakka in the aforementioned regions occurs in 1937, half a century after the first major wave of migration to North American from these regions.

Martti Pulakka has managed to come up with a far more acceptable explanation. In Finnish there are a number of adjectives that incorporate the –kka suffix. Examples include kipakka, (sharp, fiery, bad tempered), kirpakka (bitter or pungent), topakka, (energetic), and napakka, (brisk, vigorous). One such adjective from the Central Ostrobothnian dialect that has fallen into disuse in modern times is the adjective mojakka, which had the same meaning as tukeva (sturdy, solid, hearty, substantial). The Finland that the emigrants left behind was not the land of plenty that their future homeland would prove to be. Meals were often sparse, and meat was eaten rarely. Soup was generally thin and watery. Muhennos or stew was a culinary concept virtually unheard of in working class households. It is quite possible that when the emigrants arrived in North America and encountered the more substantial stews available in the lumber camps and boarding houses, they described said stews as mojakka keitto (hearty soup) or perhaps as mojakampi keitto (heartier, more substantial soup).

The transformation from adjective to noun is rare, but not unheard of. Examples of this phenomenon that work in both Finnish and English include Vihreät (the Greens), työttömät (the unemployed), as well as colors (the black dress vs. she looks good in black). The transition from mojakka keitto or mojakampi keitto to just plain mojakka is not so hard to imagine. In fact the following scenario seems highly plausible. An adjective from a regional dialect travels with the emigrants to the new world, where it is transformed into a noun, which comes into common use among the emigrant community.

This by no means is a perfect academic explanation. However, it makes sense to me. And even if it is way off the mark, hällä väliä! (Who cares!?), Grandma’s mojakka recipe will remain the same.

The sun has set and the streets are silent. Winter is here at its cold and rainy worst. The snow of last week’s blizzard has melted completely away and the temperatures hover several degrees above freezing. The streetlights are dimmed by a wind-driven mist. The windows across the yard grow dark, one by one. Another day in Jyväskylä is drawing to a close.

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