DULUTH -- Summer is on the way at last! May Day, the first day of May, marks the approximate halfway point between the winter and summer solstices. As far as I’m concerned, May 1 is one of the most colorful, positive days of the year, though there isn’t much done about it publicly today. May poles, colorful ribbons and spring flowers fill my imagination even though it is truly a bit early for us here in the Northland. Maybe I feel the hopefulness of spring more this year than ever.
May Day has been known as a “labor day” in some European countries. In rural areas, it was historically the day when farmers led their cows into the mountains to graze the spring green grass while they planted their crops below. Somehow, the day became celebrated as “Labor Day” and has fallen out of favor.
In Great Britain, May 1 was historically celebrated as “Beltane.” The celebration rituals were done to protect the cattle, crops and to encourage growth. There were bonfires as part of the ritual, and household fires were doused, then re-lit from the Beltane bonfires. Doors and windows were decorated with yellow May flowers, and all of this was accompanied by a feast. There is no mention of specific food; however, a friend claimed that it was a time when the last of the past year’s preserved foods were consumed. These elaborate celebrations died out by the mid-20th century.
There have been many variations of this celebrated day throughout history. I remember making little paper baskets in grade school, into which we put spring flowers and brought them home to our mothers. One friend told me about her family May basket tradition. She even made a basket for me and hung it on our door. She included a note explaining that all you need for the project is a square of paper, such as newspaper, a sheet from a magazine or anything. You simply turn the paper into a cone and tape or glue on a handle. Then add a piece of candy or a couple of wildflowers. She remembers hanging the basket on a neighbor’s door, knocking and quickly running away. This is a fun activity for kids, and elementary school teachers love it.
The year we lived in Finland, we marveled at how quiet the Finns are — so quiet that there is almost perfect silence even in an overcrowded bus. In department stores, soft music plays in the background as people bustle about. After public programs where people gather, it is perfectly quiet as the people silently scurry out after the program through the exit doors.
However, on May Day, suddenly the whole country reverberates with a steady roar. Grownups and children carry huge bouquets of colorful balloons to the delight of the children. The university students dance all day and night, singing and shouting. This is probably a relief to have the long, cold winter with the summer ahead. May 1 is called “Vappu” and to this day is a huge celebration.
People invite each other to their homes to enjoy bubbly sima and crisp tippaleipa. Sima is a kind of homemade bubbly mead that is nonalcoholic, lemon flavored and refreshing. Tippaleipa is similar to the funnel cakes you'll find at state fairs.
This is a cruller made of a thin batter drizzled into hot fat to resemble a kind of bird’s nest shape. There are several variations on the theme, but this is my favorite. This recipe makes about 15.
1½ teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons warm water
1 cup lukewarm milk
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups all purpose flour
Hot oil for frying
Blend the eggs and sugar, but do not beat them enough to get frothy. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water; mix in the milk. Combine the egg mixture with the yeast mixture. Stir in the salt and flour and beat until smooth. Let stand until bubbly, about 45 minutes.
Heat the oil to 375 degrees. Pour about 1 cup of the batter into a heavy-duty plastic bag. Clip one corner to make a small opening (about 1/8 inch or less). Squeeze the batter into the hot oil, moving the bag in a continuous round to form a bird’s nest shape about 3 or 4 inches in diameter. Fry for about 1 minute on each side and using a fork or tongs, turn over to brown the second side. Remove from the fat onto paper toweling to drain. Dust with powdered sugar and serve as soon as possible.
This is a lemon-flavored sparkly nonalcoholic drink. Plan on allowing a day or two for the bubbling to develop. Have four clean quart or liter-sized bottles available.
4 quarts water
2 lemons, washed
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
About 1/4 teaspoon dry yeast
2 tablespoons raisins and 4 additional teaspoons sugar
Bring the water to a boil. With a potato peeler, cut the zest from the lemons and remove the white pith, then slice lemons as thinly as you can. Place the lemon zest and slices in a large stock pot or ice cream pail. Add the sugars and pour the water over the lemons, peel and sugar. Let stand, covered, until lukewarm. Sprinkle the yeast over. Cover and let stand for 24 to 48 hours until tiny bubbles appear around the edges of the liquid. Strain the sima. Drop a couple raisins and 1 teaspoon sugar into each of the clean bottles. Cork loosely and store in a cool place. When the raisins rise to the surface of the liquid, the sima is ready. Refrigerate before serving. Makes 4 quarts.
Beatrice Ojakangas is a Duluth food writer and author of 31 cookbooks. Find her online at beatrice-ojakangas.com.