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Black and white photo of an eldely man and woman standing side by side outdoors, looking intently at the camera
Juho and Brita Säkkinen. Photo courtesy of Clinton Drake.

Blood Sausage and Family Ties: An Immigrant Story

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This is a guest post by Clinton Drake, a reference librarian in the History and Genealogy Section.

Listen: It turns out my family used to eat blood.

As far as I know, we’re not vampires or anything — although my people do hail from the dark lands of northern Europe — but no kidding, the things you learn looking through old grocery lists.

In my case, these lists were a pair of thin, palm-sized grocery store account books for Juho (John) Säkkinen, my second great-grandfather. In the 1880s, he emigrated from the tiny town of Taivalkoski, Finland (population about 3,000), to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Nearly 50 years later, as the Depression began, he was shopping at a local store and had a certain amount of credit, as was common then. Someone in the family would stop by to pick up a few things and the storekeeper (Charles Tossava, another Finn) would jot down the item and the cost, the payment to be arranged later. The Säkkinen family account shows a mix of Old World staples and American brand names, a glimpse into the life of an immigrant family in the small-town world of the Midwest in another era.

“1 # Sillaka” (salted herring) 15 cents,” Tossava scrawled in pencil. “1 pkg Corn Flakes, 10 cents.” And so on.

And then, on March 24, 1932, he scratched out on a line by itself: “Blood. 22 cents.”

A small page of lined notebook paper with grocery items and prices written in neat pencil.
A page from Juho Säkkinen’s 1932 grocery account, with “Blood” as the fifth item. Photo: Clinton Drake.

That certainly caught my attention. I had come across these books during a recent move from my Texas-sized home in Austin to my D.C.-sized apartment in the nation’s capital, starting a new job at the Library. I tend to be the unofficial keeper of the family flame, with heirlooms that others don’t want somehow finding their way to me. But this move required some serious downsizing, so I found myself going through a stack of such things, saw the account books and started flipping through them, curious.

Before I could fully register the surprise of seeing “blood,” I was transported back to the world of my youth. Memories came flooding back of my grandmother, Juho’s granddaughter, telling me about the strange foods of “our people.” Kalamojakka (fish head stew), lutefisk (dried fish rehydrated in lye) and … blood soup.

But was that a real memory, blood soup?

So, professional librarian and personal family heirloom keeper that I am, I did some research into my Finnish roots. I quickly found a soup recipe with dumplings. It was prepared from rye flour and reindeer blood (!) from northern Finland, where Taivalkoski is located. I went back to the grocery accounts — yep, “rye” was a frequent purchase for my family.

This lead fizzled, though, when I checked with Kent Randell, former archivist at the Finnish American Heritage Center in Hancock, Michigan. He didn’t doubt the purchase for blood, just that it was unlikely to have been used for soup. Kent then introduced me to Jim Kurtti, former director of the FAHC and current honorary consul to Finland, who gave me a list of books to review. I was in luck — one of Jim’s recommended titles, a translation of ethnologist Ilmar Talve’s “Finnish Folk Culture” — was in the Library’s collections.

I dug into this and came across his discussion of “festive fare.” He mentions that Easter day and the end of Lent were celebrated with blood sausage, called “verimakkara,” a dish that is made around much of the world. In Britain, they call it black pudding. In Latin America, it goes by morcilla. (The blood is gathered when the animal is bled at slaughter.) Variations are endless, but in a typical Finnish recipe, I learned, rye flour, grains and several spices are used to make a sausage. After it was cooked, Finns liked to serve it with lingonberry jam.

Did this hold up for my family history here in the U.S.? The account book noted that Juho bought “Easter eggs” a few days before buying the blood. Easter was, in turn, three days later. It certainly seemed plausible.

In the book “Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal,” author Jennifer McLagan provides some history about blood consumption in Nordic countries. In northern areas where food was scarce, blood provided a practical source of nourishment. Between 1866 and 1868, a famine killed about 8% of Finland’s population. When many people were trying to stay alive by eating pine bark bread, discarding nutrient-rich blood likely felt like throwing away the next meal.

Maybe this is why Finns popularized blood cakes (pancakes) called “veriohukainen.” Blood was the substitute for eggs in the recipe, holding the flour and milk together, while adding a dose of nutritious iron. It also, as you might expect, gave the cakes a dark red color.

It’s widely believed that Finns created this dish, so immigrants certainly didn’t leave it in the old country. In 1914, a Finnish domestic worker named Mina Walli wrote a dual language cookbook designed to teach other Finnish domestics how to cook so that they might increase their wages. “Suomalais-amerikalainen keittokirja” (“Finnish American Cookbook”) went through at least four printings. She included a recipe for blood pancakes.

We can agree it was a different era. There are three recipes on page 140. The first is for “Fried Tripe,” the second is for “Stewed Lungs” and then there’s “Blood Cakes.”

For ingredients, she calls for two cups of blood, two cups of milk, two eggs, ½ of an onion, four tablespoons of suet or butter, four tablespoons of rye flour, four tablespoons of white flour, ½ tablespoon of salt and a dash of thyme.

Then — what, you don’t want to know more?

While consuming blood remains taboo in many cultures who equate blood as the life source of the animal, McLagan writes that early Nordic peoples believed that the strength and other desirable qualities of the animal were transferred through consumption.

Whether such beliefs persisted into the modern era, or whether blood dishes were just a traditional taste of home on foreign shores, the recipes clearly made their way to the U.S. That solved the mystery for me. I closed the little grocery store account books and have decided to donate them to a regional archive, where anyone can access them for research or just out of curiosity. Meanwhile, looking at the photo of Juho, I notice it was taken in daylight, so he couldn’t have been a vampire. However, I don’t know what year the photo was taken, and sunshine as a vampire weakness is fairly recent addition to the folklore cannon, popularized with the 1922 German film “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.”

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Comments (8)

  1. I’m looking for a plaque and a 20-year pin that my grandfather earned as a wait for th Senate Press Table. They even have a plaque recognizing him. HIs name is Arthur N. King. When he died in 1964, Roger Mudd spoke at his funeral. Photographer George Tames speaks highly of him in the Library of Congress
    oral histories, too. What every you find on him would be wonderful. My name is V. Regina Moore.

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for writing the Library! I had replied directly to an earlier email with this question.

      Here’s that reply:

      Alas, you’re looking for something in the U.S. Senate and the oral history you cited is in their archives, not the Library’s.

      I would guess that the best way to simply have someone take a picture of the plaque would be to contact you the office of your senators and ask them for help. You could also contact the Senate administration offices, but I’m guessing your rep’s staff might be more responsive.

      All best,

  2. I used go with my Grandfather, to the local Butcher Shop…owned by my Grandfather’s Cousin…and collect blood from a fresh kill… to be used far Blood Sausage… We actually had Blood Sausage, for supper, last night!

  3. Fascinating!
    Blood sausage was part of the cuisine in my family in the old days in Scotland, but the rest I didn’t know. I am an Amazon Author of four books and love hearing about food sources that are new to me. Thank you LBC!
    William M. Johnson, Ph.D.

  4. All of my grandparents came from Poland in the early Twentieth Century (before World War I). Fast forward to Chicago in the fifties, the Polish neighborhood. My paternal grandmother worked in a small local Polish restaurant and would share with my parents a large container of czarnina (duck’s blood soup). As a child growing up (b. 1945), this dark looking stuff appeared truly dreadful and the smell didn’t help. But a few decades later when Grandma, the Polish neighborhood and the czarnina was gone; I very distinctly recalled both the smell and the look and would give just about anything to sit down to a big hot bowl of that homemade soup.

    • Thanks for sharing this great memory!

  5. Kiitos for sharing your Finnish family foodways. There are a couple of cultural festivals in Metro DC with plenty of herring to go around. Specifically, one in Bethesda each November. The East Coast Finn contingent can always use more folks like yourself. Welcome!

  6. Blood sausage continues to be made and sold at food truck parked permanently at the Tammelantori (open air market) in Tampere, Finland. The sausage is grilled and served with lingonberry jam on the side. The rye flour gives it a crunch. You can buy it all year round. It’s great and Tampere celebrates it as a local delicacy.

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