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Grim's Grub: The sausage is mightier than the sword

How hunger on the battlefield changed history

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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - war and food history are often deeply entwined. Many of my recipe columns are about how war led to the creation of some famous foods.

But for once, this is something different. Because in this case, it was food that determined the outcome of the war.

It was 1939, and after witnessing Adolph Hitler's shocking invasion of Poland, Joseph Stalin decided he could do much the same. In 1932, Stalin had signed a nonaggression act declaring that his much larger country would not invade and force the Finns to become members of the Soviet Union.

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North-eastern European political map showing the current border between Finland and Russia. Illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

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Stalin saw Finland as a sign of weakness. In 1917, when the Soviet Union was spreading and socialism was growing, Finland resisted, and quite successfully.

Though Stalin had agreed not to do anything of the sort, in 1939 the gloves were off when the Soviet Union bombed Helsinki. Victory against the much smaller country seemed almost guaranteed in what has been now called the Winter War. Finland was, after all, outnumbered 3 to 1.

What was not immediately obvious, however, was the quality of the invasion force. It consisted of the dregs of the former army. Stalin had discharged, arrested and killed many officers of the once robust and frightening Red Army to make room for those who supported him without pause.

That preference of blind faith over experience left the Soviet Union with an army that was inexperienced, undertrained and undersupplied marching into the cold and overall hungry.

There may have been fewer Finns, but they had home field advantage, were better trained and better fed. The Finnish had rations designed specifically to bolster the strength of its fighters, including large vats of fat-filled sausage stew. It was hot, it was filling and it proved almost irresistible to hungry soldiers.

On Dec. 10, the Soviet troops with the 718th Rifle Regiment maintained the advantage of numbers versus their Finnish counterparts. They dealt a major surprise attack on a camp set up near Ilomantsi. After the camp was crushed, a fatal mistake was made.

Anyone who knows of historic military strategy knows that continuing to push on following a victory is often what determines success. But like a cartoon character caused to float in the air by a cooling pie, the starving Soviet troops did not push their advantage.

Instead, they stopped to help themselves to the stew the Finnish troops had prepared for themselves.

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The Finns now knew where their enemy was and noted that they had stopped. They regrouped, surrounded and slaughtered the men as they dined using bullets and bayonets alike. The 718th Rifle Regiment was reduced to just a few survivors. The Soviets lost more than 100 soldiers while the Finns lost 20.

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Pile of frozen bodies of dead Soviet (Russian) soldiers killed in the Russo-Finnish War. Circa. Nov. 1939-March 1940. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

The Finns were able to use the loss of that Soviet regiment to their advantage in battles that followed, but it didn't last. Finland was eventually overwhelmed and ceded territory to the Soviet Union. But the aggressors had shot themselves in the foot and attracted attention they did not want.

Germany and the Soviet Union had agreed not to interfere with one another before Germany marched on Poland and the Soviets on Finland. Part of that was likely because the Soviet Union had appeared so large and unstoppable. Stalin was worried that Finland's defiance before the "Sausage War" was a sign of weakness, but this one-day battle proved to be a bigger liability.

Hitler saw the defeat as a sign of the army's lack of experience, training and supplies, without which he might never have broken his secret truce with Stalin. Hitler saw it as a sign of incompetence that could provide him an opening to invade the Soviet Union.

But history repeats itself, because when Hitler's troops marched into the frozen north of the Asian continent, he did so with troops who weren't much better off. Because of how many fronts he was fighting, Hitler's army and leadership were spread thin, as were their supplies, weapons and food.

Thus, the conscripts who were forced into that long, cold march were even less prepared for the cold than the Russians had been during the Winter War. Whereas the Soviet Union lost just that one-day engagement versus the Finns before reaching victory, Germany's 1941 invasion of Russia ended in cold, hard defeat.

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Had that invasion not happened, the war would have been even more hard fought for the allies.

Finnish Sausage Soup

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Makkarakeitto - Finnish homemade sausage soup. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.


  • 2 cups water
  • 3 small waxy potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 2 small carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon (or 1/2 cube) chicken, pork or vegetable bouillon
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 sausages, knackwurst, knockwurst or bockwurst, though a traditional pale bratwurst also works, cut it into 1/2-inch pieces
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a pot on medium heat, add the sausages and cook until at least one side is lightly browned. Use a spoon to remove the sausages to another container, then add water and scrape the bottom to deglaze and remove the fond.
Once deglazed, add the potatoes, carrots, onions, bouillon and bay leaf. Bring this to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are fork tender. Return the sausage to the pan and allow it to heat for five minutes. Season it to taste.

Sausage Gravy

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Sausage gravy over biscuits. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.


  • 1 pound pork sausage
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups milk

In a large skillet over medium heat, add the chopped onion and sausage. Break up the sausage into smaller pieces as it cooks. Once there is a golden brown crust on the sausage and the onions are translucent, sprinkle the flour over the meat and stir/scrape to mix well.
Finally, add the milk and make sure to scrape the stuck bits of fond off the bottom into the gravy. Continue stirring until the mixture boils slightly, then serve over biscuits.

Baking Powder Biscuits

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Basket of freshly made baking powder biscuits. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.


  • 1/3 cup shortening
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees and grease a large baking sheet. In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Using a fork or pastry blender, cut the shortening into the dry mixture until it resembles fine crumbs. Stir in just enough milk until the dough leaves the side of the bowl and rounds up into a ball.
Drop the dough by the spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet, leaving plenty of space around each. Bake until golden brown, approximately 10-12 minutes.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.

Related Topics: FOODRECIPESHISTORY
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