“Sisu,” [a Finnish word] which denotes a grim determination to do what must be done, regardless of circumstances.
Came across this word in a travel piece on Helsinki in the Sunday paper. I dipped into the article not because I’m interested in going to Helsinki, but because there was the promise of learning something about Finnish architecture, and indeed I did (more about that later), but I kept reading it because mid-way into the piece I came across a passage that made me wonder “who is this wonderful writer?” and, looking at the by-line for the first time, I realized it was my favorite living food writer (MFK gets the dead accolade): RW Apple, Jr.
Apple is, of course, more than that – he’s also an associate editor of the NYT which makes him an all around big-shot – but I love him most for writing things like this:
The Savoy, founded in 1937 and designed by Aalto, is Helsinki’s much lower-key counterpart to Manhattan’s Four Seasons, founded in 1959 and designed by Mies and Philip Johnson – playpen of the powerful, defender of the local culinary faith, temple of classic form.
Perched on the eighth floor of an office building, amid the Esplanade treetops, it is furnished with chairs, light fixtures and even coat racks by the master and filled with his trademark free-form vases, whose shape is echoed in a serving table.
This was the favorite restaurant of Finland’s national hero, Marshall C.G.E. Mannerheim, and his favorite dish, vorschmack, a mixture of ground beef, mutton and minced herring, is always on the menu.
Too folkloric for me, I’m afraid, and I confess that I wasn’t thrilled to see an “orange tart with Sri Lankan cinnamon foam” on the menu recently. Catalonia has a lot to answer for. But there are always lots of things Betsey and I love to eat in this ever-fresh setting, with bright blue and white pansies in its window boxes: white asparagus in season, partridge mousse, grilled herrings with dill butter, pike perche with horseradish butter and salmon with creamed morels (game and wild mushrooms from the all but limitless forests are Finnish passions, and on June 20, the first day of wild duck season, you’ll find the duck on many restaurants’ menus).
See how much you know about Finland now? About its restaurants, historical cuisine, architecture, national heros, Catalonian influences, passions, limitless forests, general atmosphere, and – good lord – duck hunting season.
And only two paragraphs later. Unbelievable. And he spoons it out so deliciously: You take it in like ice cream.
Still not convinced? Read RW Apple Jr on Mangosteens. That should make a believer out of you. (I ache for mangosteens – and I’ve never had one in my life. That’s what makes Apple my favorite food writer.)
So I promised you a morsel on Finnish architecture. Here it is, with a very sweet association with Chicago architecture:
Consider Eliel Saarinen’s Helsinki train station (1919), with its four forbidding stone guardians, strange and giant figures bearing illuminated globes, straight from Nordic myth.
It led to Saarinen’s entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition in 1922, in which he finished second, and that in turn led to his appointment to head the Cranbrook Academy of Art, near Detroit.
There he trained a whole generation of quintessentially American designers, including Florence Schust Knoll, Harry Bertoia, Ray and Charles Eames and his own illustrious son, Eero, the creator of such soaring, optimistic structures as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Dulles airport near Washington.
From RW Apple Jr's «Helsinki's Shining Season» in this Sunday's New York Times.
Hmm. Eames, eh? And the St. Louis Arch? Maybe I should think about checking out Helsinki after all.