A place to share culture, language, traditions, and all things Finnish!

Paikka jakaa kulttuuria, kieltä, perinteitä ja kaikkea suomalaista!

The Practice of Pulla  

by Kelsey Pennanen

I lift the tea towel decorated with woven thread by my grandmother’s hand. Immediately, I am hit with the recognizable smell of cardamom and I am hit with a deep sense of familiarity. Taking a deep breath as I instinctively grab the dough, cut it into three even pieces and roll it out beneath my palms. This sequence of motion so familiar, it is a habit.

There is a concept in social theory called habitus, or practice theory. In cultural anthropology, the term is related to the work of Pierre Bourdieu and how reproducing certain acts allows for a reproduction of social culture and remembrance to human memory. Through the act of making the bread, I am replicating the actions of my Mummus[1] before me, feeling their hand guide as I relive their experiences while creating new memories. The tangible experience so familiar. Dough the same consistency as the pouch of fat on my belly, the same that graced the bellies of my mothers and grandmothers before me. Habitus is also sometimes referred to as muscle memory. Through the action of rolling out the dough, my mind is sent back. I am overcome with immense memories of a warm and sunny kitchen rolling dough at my aunt’s house before our big Christmas Eve family gathering. My aunts made sure everyone went home with a loaf of pulla bread… and a bottle of Saskatoon berry wine. The smell, ripe with a tingling zest of past and present. Each loaf of pulla as unique as the experiences that shape me. I add cinnamon to my pulla as inspired by a love of the spice of a close friend in Calgary. I add almonds as recommended by another friend’s Mummu. More recent memories then come washing over. Rolling out dough with the Mummus of the Calgary Finlandia Cultural Association. Making pulla with the other volunteers brought remembrances of family and community.

I take the ropes of dough and begin braiding. Weaving the dough together. Like my threads used in my grandmother’s tea towel. Intertwined. Like my family. My heritage. Through the act of making the pulla, I am reproducing the actions of a cultural practice and connecting myself with my ancestors; both deceased and living. Pulla bread is my habitus. When my pulla is done I sit to take a bite: an image of my (grand)father emerges in my mind. Sitting and drinking his cup of black coffee in the morning with a side of pulla heaping with butter. The loaf spiced with a dash of cardamom, seasoned to perfection as determined by tongues limited by the flavour profiles of the northern latitudes. As I drink my coffee I reflect on my family, our past and present. I think of my ancestors, who came to Canada settling a land already called home, with a belief that they were conquering untamed wilderness. They persisted and triumphed, even when vastly separated from family. Although I cannot physically be with my family to celebrate this season, I can still share in the legacy of cumulative experiences. Through my actions I remember that together we are continuing a long line of cultural practices and traditions. Through making pulla, contributing to the collective human memory. These actions are the expression of our sisu[2], a reminder that we will persevere together. Finlanders, no matter how isolated we may feel, no matter how scattered we are, we will persist. We must work together to support each other from a distance, and to take time to reflect and reconsider our past and present.

Our practices, habits, and traditions connect and rejuvenate us. This is important to keep in mind as we live through challenging circumstances that require us to embody our sisu.  The act of making rolling and braiding dough connects us to our Mummus. The strength of our weathered palms cumulatively pressing against the soft and raw dough denotes the powerful contrast that exemplifies the sisu within all of us.

[1] Mummu: Grandmother

[2] Sisu: That undefinable expression of perseverance and strength that is only exemplified within the Finnish language

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