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Let’s Eat: Keeping food memories alive (8 photos)

A local woman taps into her Finnish heritage through food.

Tarja Keski-Pukkila, owner and founder of Mirjam’s Kitchen, started the home-based food business as an homage to her maternal grandmother.

Keski-Pukkila makes Finnish meatballs with gravy and other Finnish dishes and meals for sale through George’s Market and Celebrations. “Mirjam was my grandmother; she was 96 and she passed away about four years ago,” Keski-Pukkila explains.

“She came from Finland; she was a homemaker but she worked at numerous restaurants on Bay Street. When she retired, to make extra income, she made Finnish meatballs with gravy, and sold it at the Scandinavian Deli, across from the Hoito,” she says.

She has fond memories of helping her grandmother make the meatballs. Occasionally her mother would join in as well; three generations of Finnish women working together in the kitchen.

“It’s something I always enjoyed doing, so I would occasionally just make them and give them to family and friends. It was comfort food to me. It just brought me great comfort. This is what I wanted to do for a number of years, so I decided to try it and see if it would work,” she says.

In December she brought the meatballs and gravy, as well as traditional Finnish casseroles, cabbage rolls and rice pudding, to craft markets, where customers were very happy to find homemade Finnish food.

“I got a really good response from people; they felt that Finnish food was something we didn’t have a lot of in the city, which is surprising, considering the number of Finnish people,” she explains.

She approached Danny Thompson, co-owner of George’s Market and Celebrations, to sell her food there. “He’s just amazing; always kind words, giving me good advice and encouraging me,” she says gratefully.

Keski-Pukkila still works as a dental laboratory technician, and cooks in the evenings and on her days off. In addition to the all-beef meatballs in gravy, she makes dinner plates’ usually meatballs with mashed potatoes and a vegetable, or meatballs with gravy and egg noodles.

There is also Mojakka, Finnish rice pudding, and Hernekeitto (Finnish pea soup) made with local ham from George’s. “It’s different from French Canadian pea soup - we use whole peas,” she says, adding that Thursday is traditionally pea soup day in Finland.

A few customers have phoned her to ask for dinner plates, so she makes a few and delivers them herself Saturday morning. “The dinner plates are in a microwavable dinner dish, and I just enjoy making them because it’s like making somebody dinner,” she says.

“It has been very, very busy, but I’m just enjoying it thoroughly,” she says. “I can’t believe it. I just thought it would be meatballs and gravy. It’s so much more. Not only am I cooking more than I thought I would be, I’m learning more about Finnish culture, Finnish recipes. Learning new things, learning more about my heritage.”

Keski-Pukkila has fond memories of working at Finnish restaurants on Bay Street when she was young. She met many “beautiful, strong Finnish women” working there; immigrants from Finland. “We used to have chalkboards at the Hoito, and all of those foods on those chalkboards were homemade early that morning. I would love to bring that to people again,” she says.

Decades have passed and most of the women who cooked in those restaurants have long retired or passed away, but Keski-Pukkila hopes to bring that food back to life through Mirjam’s Kitchen.

“I would love to deliver somebody a meal that was on that board,” she says. “I would like to do that for people.”

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