It was the early ’70s and I was seated at Somebody’s House restaurant in Duluth, up the road from the University of Minnesota.
Should I splurge on a burger? At 85 cents to $1.50 each, it would make a dent in my meager college finances.
One look at the menu — 36 burgers — and I didn’t need convincing. These were exotic for the time, open-face sandwiches with whimsical names and wild descriptions.
There was the Duluth Blizzardburger, “The hamburger sheltered beneath a ‘drift’ of sour cream as only Duluth would, or could, have it; the garnish, of course, is a kosher pickle and a Scandinavian style pickled beet. Var sa got!”
And there was the HHH burger (that would be named after Minnesota’s Hubert Horatio Humphrey, vice president of the nation from 1965-69). The Cannibalburger (which was not to be confused with the Toplessburger): “Be daring! The hamburger just singed on the grill — really it’s raw!”
Also on the menu: the Beatlesburger (with a wig of coleslaw), the Russianburger (served with caviar) and more sandwiches than I could afford to try.
Not until decades later did I discover that the creative mind — and dry sense of humor — behind this venture was none other than Beatrice Ojakangas, the prolific cookbook author from Duluth, with her Finnish heritage and baking prowess.
She was ahead of her time. Way ahead.
The author of 29 cookbooks now boasts a memoir, “Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients From my Life in Food” (University of Minnesota Press, 197 pages, $22.95), though she won’t actually be boasting because, well, Scandinavians don’t do that.
So she won’t mention her recent induction into the Hall of Fame of the Nordic Høstfest in Minot, N.D., where her name appears alongside Walter Mondale, Knute Rockne and O.E. Rolvaag.
Nor will she mention that her volume “The Great Scandinavian Baking Book” was awarded a spot in the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame. Or that her first book, “The Finnish Cookbook,” published in 1964, is still in print, a rarity matched by few cookbook authors (that was 52 years ago!).
Never mind that she cooked with Julia Child and Martha Stewart on their TV shows.
Her claim to fame may lie in the freezer of your supermarket where pizza rolls are stored. Ojakangas developed 55 flavor options for a project by Jeno Paulucci, the Duluth businessman who owned Chun King, a company that produced Chinese foods. He wanted to expand the use of his eggroll technology.
Those snack rolls (now sold by Totino’s) might well have been the flavors of cheeseburger, Reuben, or peanut butter and jelly (a Paulucci favorite). But when the familiar pizza ingredients were brought out during a demo with the big guy himself, all conversation stopped.
“He slammed his fist on the table and said, ‘It’s Jeno’s Pizza Rolls,’ ” said Ojakangas, who was paid $3.50 an hour for her work.
Culinary training started early for Ojakangas, on a farm in Floodwood, Minn., where she grew up, the eldest of 10 children and, not surprisingly, learned to cook, sew and farm. Now 82, her tales in “Homemade” make for a more contemporary version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie,” as she tells of milking cows, baking bread and doing farm chores as a child.
Her cooking skills led her to the county and state fairs, for which she practiced food demonstrations in front of the livestock. Rebellion came at the age of 18 when she was determined to go to college, where she would earn a degree in home economics. (Her parents had wanted her to take a job as a bank teller after high school.)
Ojakangas had bigger dreams, and they revolved around food, which was not surprising for someone whose nickname has been “Peaches” since birth. (Her Finnish grandfather couldn’t pronounce “Beatrice,” which to him sounded like “Peaches.”)
But first there was time in Oxford, England, where her husband, Dick, was stationed. From there, she entered the Pillsbury Bake-Off on a whim with a recipe for Chunk O’ Cheese Bread. By the time she heard she was a finalist, she was back in the U.S. with her first child’s due date the same day as the competition.
Fortunately, that baby came early, and she went on to win the second grand prize of $5,000.
A Fulbright scholarship for her husband brought them to Finland for a year, an opportune spot for the couple, who both spoke the language and had that heritage. With two small children in tow, Ojakangas wanted her own outlet and found it through the U.S. Information Service, where she proposed that she would travel around the country and present cooking demos on American food to Finnish women.
But she had as many questions on Finnish food traditions as did the participants of her, and she gathered those notes and recipes, which would come in handy later.
A move to the West Coast, again prompted by her husband’s education, brought her to the offices of Sunset magazine, where she started work as a typist and soon became one of the food editors. During the evenings, she worked on her Finnish cookbook.
From there it was back to Duluth, where Ojakangas set up shop in her home, at the end of a long driveway, way out in the country. When she’s not writing cookbooks, she’s offering inspiration to the cooking effort at First Lutheran Church in Duluth, which I’m told has the best lutefisk dinners and Lenten suppers in the North Country.
No surprise there. Those burgers were the best, too.
Makes 8 (2 1/2 cups sauce).
Note: This is also known as Welsh rarebit, and is richly flavored with sharp Cheddar and beer. The sauce is also good over toast. This was a standby on the menu at Somebody’s House restaurant in Duluth, which Beatrice and Richard Ojakangas ran. She tells the story in her memoir, “Homemade.”
• 2 c. (8 oz.) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
• 2 tsp. cornstarch
• 1/2 tsp. dry mustard
• 1/2 c. flat beer
• 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
• Freshly ground black pepper
• Grilled 1-in. thick Italian or French bread or 8 large hamburger buns
• 8 grilled meat patties, done to your liking (beef, turkey or vegetable)
• Slices of fresh tomatoes
• Sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme or parsley, for garnish
In a bowl, toss cheese with the cornstarch and mustard.
Combine beer and Worcestershire sauce in a saucepan and heat until simmering. Stir in cheese mixture until cheese is melted. Add the black pepper.
Top the bread with a grilled burger and a slice of fresh tomato. Spoon sauce over meat and garnish with a sprig of herb.