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Fred Anderson of Cloquet created his Grouse Mojakka to feed a troop of Boy Scouts.
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Gary and Pat Ekman of Esko, Minnesota, were multi-time winners at the annual Mojakka Cook-Off with Gary's Lake Trout Kalamojakka.
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After Gary died in 2006, the People's Choice Award was named in his honor. The annual mojakka event is a fundraiser for the local animal shelter and is held the Sunday before St. Urho's Day at the historic Northeastern Hotel in Cloquet. This year the event will actually be on St. Urho's Day - March 16.
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Konnie LeMay/Lake Superior Magazine
Bert and Judy Whittington of Cloquet added an annual Mojakka Cook-off to their fundraising.
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The Cloquet Fire Department brings its own mojakka to the cook-off thanks to the efforts of Fire Engine Operator Pat Marciniak and Captain Steve Kolodge. Their recipe came from Steve's wife's grandmother, Mayme Ronkainen - quite the passing of tradition.
To summon sufficient sisu – fortitude – for his task ahead, St. Urho first dined on hearty mojakka before heading out to rid the ancient Finnish vineyards of those pesky grasshoppers.
At least, that’s what my uncle told me.
Perhaps my uncle embellished the story a bit – as if adding to the legend was really necessary – or maybe he was trying to get me and my cousins to eat our mojakka – a “leftovers” soup that, it turns out, originated here in the “New Country,” just like the story of St. Urho. (St. Urho’s Day, for the uninitiated, is March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, and thereby one-upping the Irish chaser of serpents.)
Finnish immigrants who settled in this Lake Superior region in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario are credited with creating and naming this signature dish.
The origin of the word mojakka is a bit of a mystery; in modern Finnish the word for soup is a not-even-close keitto.
Mojakka can range from a thin soup to a thick stew. Made with beef and a generous helping of rutabagas and potatoes, it is lihamojakka (LEE-ha-moy-a-kah), my children’s favorite food after a day outside skating and sledding.
Made with fish, it is kalamojakka (KAH-la-moy-a-kah), otherwise known as “the soup that frightens children.” My friend’s mother called hers “fish head soup” and used to tease us about getting an eyeball in our bowl.
“It will pop in your mouth just like a blueberry,” she used to claim. It would take another decade for me to work up my own sisu to try kalamojakka, only to fall in love with a buttery, milky version of this fish soup flavored with allspice.
Truly, you can make mojakka out of anything – chicken, pork, sausage, venison. Any leftovers you have in the fridge are fair game, although some mojakka purists say that without allspice, it’s not really mojakka.
Mojakka changes from kitchen to kitchen. Influenced by family traditions and personal preference, it seems every cook has his or her own favorite ingredients and signature method of making mojakka.
In March, the most competitive (and fun-loving) of mojakka masters will face off at the annual St. Urho’s Day Mojakka Cook-Off at the historic Northeastern Hotel in Cloquet, Minnesota, owned by Bert and Judy Whittington.
Although it’s usually held on the Sunday before St. Urho’s Day, this year it actually falls on the day of the “wearing of the purple.”
The regional cook-off was born in 2003 after Tim Winker of Wink Timber Media Agency came back from Newfoundland, where he discovered regional foods like “fried cod tongues.” (Who knew cods had tongues.) He tried to think of a very regional dish to use as a fundraiser for The Friends of Animals Humane Society of Carlton County. (He is webmaster of www.mojakka.com.)
The Whittingtons, who have a tradition of hosting about one fundraiser a month for various groups, agreed to host the cook-off. (In 2006 their Northeastern Saloon and Grill received the business of the year award from the Carlton Area Chamber of Commerce.)
Each year, a team of three esteemed mojakka judges is charged with the difficult task of choosing the “best of the best” in three categories. After a fair-minded blind taste test, first-place trophies are presented for the best Kalamojakka (fish), the best Lihamojakka (beef) and the best non-traditional Potluck Mojakka. Of course, the judges aren’t the only ones doing the tasting; about 100 people attend every year, paying a small fee to enjoy some award-winning mojakka. Their donations raise $600 to $1,000 every year for the Friends of Animals.
“We have children to 90-year-old people here,” says Judy.
Everyone in attendance is invited to vote for their favorite mojakka and the highest vote-getter receives The Gary Eckman People’s Choice Award.
Neither Bert nor Judy claim Finnish heritage, but Judy makes her delicious kalamojakka to share every year. (She politely doesn’t enter it in the contest, but has won the People’s Choice Award.)
Bert strives to be impartial as well: “I try them all, every year.”
Bert, whose ancestry is British, became familiar with mojakka while growing up in Aurora, Minnesota. He was once crowned king of the Laskiainen Palo-Markham’s Finnish sliding festival, but that was by association and not heritage; he was dating the woman (of Finnish stock) who was named “queen” of the festival.
As for the dreaded mojakka “fish eye” story, Judy says after years of tasting kalamojakka, “We’ve never seen an eyeball.”
Although mojakka was born of immigrants dating back, perhaps, a hundred years, it has kept pace with the times. You can find more recipes and information about the St. Urho’s Day Mojakka Cook-Off at mojakka.com.
Some will say that the old ways are still the best ways. For them mojakka is best when made outdoors in a big iron cauldron, bubbling over a wood fire. Eaten with homemade rye bread and shared with good company, it’s the perfect way to celebrate a mid-summer’s night, a mid-winter’s day, or St. Urho’s Day.
Kalamojakka or Kalakeitto
(My favorite adaptation of a recipe by Elna Maki in The Old Country Cookbook)
- 6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 onion chopped
- 2 lbs. fresh fish fillets cut into bite-sized pieces (preferably northern pike)
- 1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
- 1 c. whole milk or half and half
- 2 peppercorns
- 5 whole allspice
- 4 Tbsp. butter
- Salt to taste
Put potatoes in kettle and place fish fillets over them; add onion, peppercorns, and allspice. Add enough water to reach fish fillets but not cover them. Cover the kettle and cook without stirring until potatoes are tender. Do not pour out the water. Add evaporated milk and whole milk (or half and half) and butter. Bring to a simmer for 2 or 3 minutes. Add salt to taste – do not boil after salt has been added.
Lihamojakka or Lihakeitto
- 1-1/2 to 2 lbs. of beef, cubed
- 3-4 potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1 large onion (or 2 medium) diced
- 3 carrots, peeled and diced
- 1 small rutabaga, peeled and cubed
- 5 whole allspice
- Salt and pepper to taste
First brown beef in the bottom of the kettle in a little butter then add vegetables, allspice and just enough water to cover. Cover the pot and simmer until veggies are tender, not mushy. Add salt and pepper to taste. (Note: A tablespoon of cornstarch mixed with a scant quarter cup of water added to the soup will make the broth thicker and more stew like!)
Juli Kellner has produced and hosted more than 40 cooking shows for WDSE-TV. She lives in Duluth with her husband and two children … and hasn’t eaten a fish eye yet.