AROUND LA WITH AVA®: The Sauna Starts In Southern California
A benefit of being on Planning Committees is that you hear of lots of neat things before they happen. Sitting on the Committee helping with plans for Finland’s 100th Independence Anniversary Celebration, I have learned that there are plans to introduce America to the unique Finnish Sauna Culture by sending a Sauna cross-country during 2017. The launch point will be right here in our City of Angels.
Realistically, many things could de-rail the Sauna launch. All kinds of things could potentially quash the plans—natural or manmade disasters, controversy, a strike, politics, …! Still, I think it is such a good idea that I would volunteer my own Sauna for the journey. My Sauna was named the “traveling Sauna” by my parents who bought the Sauna shortly after emigrating from Finland to the US in the late ‘50s. It was one of the first major ‘household purchases’ they bought once here. The Sauna feels permanent, but breaks down into six pieces—and it moved with them through the years. They moved many times!
When my folks retired, they left their prized Finnish possession in my care when they returned to Finland and Spain for their Summer/Winter bases. My Sauna is electric, so we would need a really long cord for a cross-country trip!!
Sauna Secrets-Pondering A Local Conundrum
Because of my family’s ‘traveling Sauna’, I grew up as children do in Finland. The Sauna is a natural part of everyday living—and a weekend without a Sauna is not a weekend! The silence of the warm Sauna, the aromas of the vihtas, the bracing cold water ‘splashes’, and the peace of being alone and at home at the same time knows no national boundaries and flies no special flags.
One surprising secret I have discovered in much of the area Finnish American community is that there is hesitation, misunderstanding, embarrassment, and even trepidation about the Finnish Sauna. In a word: the Sauna is Finnish—not a natural part of local generations’ experience.
As I pondered this ‘secret’, I asked myself how many of my local contemporaries had actually had been in a Sauna—to say nothing of having the peaceful, cleansing ritual as an integral part of natural existence. The answer has to be: far fewer than I thought!
A Personal Revelation
Then, I recalled attending a special dinner party shortly after becoming a newly single years ago where a popular producer/bon vivant properly attired in his velvet smoking jacket played host and his trophy wife orchestrated magnificent food courses. A bit nervous at being “…out and about” in my new status, I had to think long and hard on how to answer the host’s provocative dinner party conversation-starter of a public question of the evening: “… what has been your second most pleasurable experience in life?”
I gave my truthful, heartfelt answer to the dinner guests. I described a Finnish Sauna with the beauty of the lake, the silence (except for the occasional fish jumping), the warmth exuded by the rocks, the light scent of the birch switches soaking in the water bucket. Sitting on the beautiful hand-made/hand-loomed laudeliina watching the never-ending sunset over a mirror-like lake on a perfect midsummer night, the exquisite beauty of nature at that very moment spelled perfection to me—and still does.
I described the memory of a 10 year old sent alone to visit my homeland for the Summer with Uncle Jarmo and Aunt Kaija.
The conversation that night stopped except for the many questions about the Sauna, Finnish nature, and how that ‘Maslowian’ peak experience became my retreat and antidote in moments of sadness or stress. I may have subverted my hosts’ evening conversation plans, but many “Finnfans” were born that night—many of whom subsequently reported positive experiences visiting Finland and having a Sauna in the Finnish countryside by the edge of a beautiful lake!
The Sauna Simplified
If you have not gotten into the experience, it is hard to wax poetic about it. The Sauna is really not complicated. You go into the hot room until you sweat, go out to cool off, repeat as you like! Throw water on the hot rocks if you feel like it! Cool off. Shower. You have Sauna’ed!! Time for a makkara and a Lapin Kulta!! My secret guilty hydration pleasure is a glass of bubbly (White Star-with a strawberry) enjoyed out of an Iittala Archipelago champagne flute! Result: happiness, inner peace rosy cheeks and a big smile!
The Sauna Complicated
When you read about the Sauna in Finland, it is often described as a public communal experience. Business and political meetings—and negotiations, are transacted in the Sauna. If you are not Finnish, this seems counterproductive unless the idea is to get everyone’s defenses down! I guess that is called getting down to basics!!
Truth Be Told
America is a Puritanical country in many ways. Nudity is uncomfortable and public nudity is not accepted. Those of us who have spent most of our lives here are much more modest than our Finnish ‘cousins’. It is difficult to fool the initiated as a dowager friend of mine discovered when visiting Finland. She spent over an hour in the dressing room pretending she had been in the Sauna alone. Her hosts smiled knowingly, but were not offended, when she re-appeared with her neatly coiffed “helmet head” hairdo still in perfect shape!
If you have not “made your body into your own personal work of art” through rigorous workouts and physical discipline—or cosmetic surgery, you do not have to be an exhibitionist. It is OK. I have simple solutions for you. [Two words = Big Towel! Three words = Two Big Towels—one to sit on; one to wrap yourself like a big burrito! Problem solved!!]
Sense and Scents
Food good. Sauna good. Food in the Sauna not good!
While I have heard of people strapping a roast to their engine block on a long ride here in California—and, I do admit to poaching a whole salmon in my dishwasher before the day a glorious, huge French copper fish poacher came into my life [more later, maybe]. The Sauna, food preparation, drinking, and eating are separate events! First you have a Sauna; then you drink; and then you eat!
Part of the beauty of the Sauna experience is the silence and the clean aromas: the cedar of the heated interior walls, the birch switches essence as you flagellate yourself or beads of birch water drop on the rocks from the spray you create. These aromas—even fresh human perspiration, are part of the proper scents experienced in a Sauna.
[Warning: California Birch trees do not produce the expected Finnish aromas!]FYI You can purchased frozen birch vihtas in Finland but USDA customs may not approve.
Among the aromas that have no place in the Sauna include: dripping makkara grease, spilled beer, and young male ‘contestants’ creating their own ‘steam’ when left to their own devices—if you get my drift!
Don’t get me wrong about Sauna Food. Cooking with the best ingredients in nature and from nature defines Finnish cuisine. Good Makkara as part of a post-Sauna meal is a match made in heaven. [Please see “Isomummin Makkara” in an earlier ALAWA column. Add a nice Finnish potato salad with dill dressing, homebaked Finnnish bread and an ice cold olut!! (beer) Just be sure the cooking is done on your outdoor grill or indoor oven—not on the Sauna rocks!!]
As a little tyke, I did take ‘brain notes’ on the best foods related to the Sauna. Again, Isomummi rules! Every morning started with a swim in the lake; then, it was time to check the katiskat (traps) for fish. The two of us went off in a rowboat for the adventure. She was most excited when there was a nice, big lahna (bream) flopping around in a trap. She knew just what to do with it!
Next stop, the fish cleaning station on the shore where we went to gut and scale this flat, oval shaped beauty! Isomummi was a concert pianist and her fingers flew in whatever she was doing. That bream was cleaned, scaled, and salted in the wink of an eye. The scales were large and looked like sequins from a mermaid’s costume to this excited toddler.
The salted bream was wrapped in parchment paper which was further wrapped in about 6 large pieces of newspaper forming a tight pouch. Once wrapped, the package was dipped in the lake and put into the fire compartment of the sauna water heater. After about an hour, the fish was done. The newspaper turned to wet ashes. Once peeled away, the parchment package revealed a delicious fish to be enjoyed later for dinner. [I have used the same technique with a whole salmon on top of a barbeque grill. I added dill, lemon slices, and salt on the inside. Be sure the salmon fits on the grill with the top closed. Takes about an hour to cook. Let rest before opening. A salmon I prepared with this method was a big hit at a local Chumash Indian wedding reception.
FINNS THIS SUMMER
“Midsummer” In LA
Literal Midsummer on Juhannus began with news of a “beached whale” on the shores in the LA South Bay at Dockweiler Beach. Please do not make any connection to the theme of this column, even though the afterglow of a Sauna might make you feel like a ‘beached whale’!
The whale washed up right at the Hyperion Water [= Sewage] Treatment Facility. Curiously, this is the premier parking location throughout the year for campers, ‘glampers’, and RV enthusiasts, themselves, for their vacations. Go figure. The next ‘premier’ stop going South is the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. So, go figure some more!!
Official Midsummer seemed to come too early this year. Many were not able to catch up, including the ever popular SCAN Nansenfield Shrimp Fest. ‘Maypole marvels’ Mons and Anita were in Sweden in June this year. They usually spend hours making the beautiful floral May Pole on the soccer field that the crowd dances around. This year a floral arrangement on a chair was all that was needed to get the folks dancing.
Finns I spotted supporting SCAN included Virpi Sidler with Bill Russell. Jukka Vuorenmaa was there with his crew in tow. All of us enjoyed watching a wonderful Norwegian peeling his shrimp and adding his special Norwegian mayonnaise to his treasure. He created quite a homemade delicacy before telling that the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in San Pedro has the secret mayonnaise for sale.
The SCAN Brits have the best kept culinary ‘stash’ for those not into shrimp: makkara! Andy (the pleasant, dedicated caretaker at Nansen Field) was manning the grill. These were not conventional bangers. He made the best veal sausage with caramelized onions that was worth the drive from LA to PV. Add dessert of fresh strawberries and kringle –what could be better?
Paal Berg, Erik Mikkelsen, Sue, and others made for a fun evening and a joyful celebration. I can’t wait until next year. I love being the Finland representative at the SCAN meetings and have had nothing but fond memories since being asked to represent Finland at SCAN by our Consul General Kirsti Westphalen during her tenure.
This is a great dedicated group of people who are lots of fun. The SCAN location is just fabulous up there in Palos Verdes. It is a wonderful party venue for all sorts of indoor and outdoor activities that is available to Nordic organizations at reasonable rates. Check out their scheduled programs and events, as well as, the new Heritage Memory Walk where you can donate a personalized brick to a loved one in your family or create another special memorial.
Anu Partanen Book Launch
What an exciting evening celebrating noted author and journalist Anu Partanen as she began her US book tour on her thought provoking treatise The Nordic Theory Of Everything. Consul General JP Markkanen hosted an interesting group of local Scandinavian ‘movers and shakers’ to hear Partanen’s presentation on Nordic Values which elicited very lively comments from the assembled participants. Thank you, Anu. Your work gives us much food for thought and great grist for discussions ahead.
The Ambassador Came to Call
Family weddings and other personal business brought Ambassador Anne Huhtamäki, husband Veli-Matti Mattila, and daughter Eeva (a newly ‘minted’ Medical Doctor) to Los Angeles for a very brief visit.
When they arrived, they brought “regards” from having spent an evening with Bitte and Jörn Donner at a concert in Tammisaari in the prior few days.
We enjoyed a fun evening of reminiscing and learning about her life and the current situation in the Balkans. The menu theme was meant to reflect places Anne has served it was probably too subtle and was lost. Because of the warm evening, almost everything was chilled : ahi tuna avocado boaths, noodle almond ginger slaw, poached chicken in a tahini garlic sauce, salmon Nicoise salad, baby lamb chops with roased shallots, fruit tart with orange flower essence.
Artist Daniel Fyffe in Helsinki–Tuonetar Opening at Makkaragalleria
I had been contacted by Bitte Westerlund about local LA artistic treasure and friend Daniel Fyffe. She was excited about his opening presentation of his artwork in Helsinki. Somehow, perhaps because I have an Uncle and a Cousin living in the same neighborhood as the Gallery, I ended up sponsoring sausages for the event.
LA based Kaya Kouvonen made it to the opening. She is pictured with the artist. You may also recognize Ristomatti Ratia, an artist and designer himself—and, the son of the founder of Marimekko, Armi Ratia. If you missed the Helsinki opening, you will be happy to hear there will be a Los Angeles event sometime soon. Let’s keep up the theme and have makkara refreshments!
There is always makkara around when it is Summer. This year, the biggest thing at the box office on a recent weekend was Sausage Party!
‘They say’ there are two things you do not want to see ‘made’: sausage and politics! This political season, there is a strange absence of the bumper stickers you normally see during a Presidential election year. There are some “Feel the Bern” Sanders left over. The few Hillary stickers around have a big H with a right arrow through the middle that looks like a traffic sign saying “…this way to the hospital”.
The most accurate ‘they say’ sign I have found is depicted in a photo I took at the Huntington Gardens parking lot last week that is pictured here. Perhaps it reflects a general consensus. In a strangely ironic ‘coincidence’, the name of a Senatorial Candidate for California this year is “Kamala” which means “Terrible” in Finnish.
Can you imagine what Mr. Trump would do with that translation???
Fact checkers and political strategists must be multi-lingual today! ‘Spinning’ that translation has its difficulties!!
As we begin to move into the big celebration year HAVE A SAUNA!!! Relax!! It is time to enjoy all things Finnish!