Mar 192019

Today is the birthday (1844) of Minna Canth, born Ulrika Wilhelmina Johnsson, a Finnish writer and social activist. Canth began to write while managing her family draper’s shop and living as a widow raising seven children. Her work addresses issues of women’s rights, particularly in the context of a prevailing culture she considered antithetical to the expression and realization of women’s aspirations. Her play The Pastor’s Family is her best known, although none of her plays is known particularly well outside of Finland, and few are translated into English. In her lifetime she became a controversial figure because her views did not mesh with the prevailing ideology in Finland, but these days she is hailed as a pioneer, and her birthday is recognized as a Flag Day (the first Flag Day to honor a woman be officially recognized in Finland (2007) and is also designated as a day of social equality).

Canth was born in Tampere to Gustaf Vilhelm Johnsson (1816-1877) and his wife Ulrika (1811-1893). Her father worked at James Finlayson’s textile factory initially as a worker and later as a foreman. In 1853, when he was given charge of Finlayson’s textile shop in Kuopio, the entire family relocated there. Canth received an exceptionally thorough education for a working class woman of her time. Even before moving to Kuopio she had attended school at Finlayson’s factory which was intended for the workers’ children. In Kuopio she continued to go to various girls’ schools and, as a testament to her father’s success as a shopkeeper, she was even admitted into a school intended for upper class children. In 1863 she began her studies at the recently founded Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary, which was the first school in Finland to offer higher education for women.

In 1865 she married her natural sciences teacher, Johan Ferdinand Canth, and had to drop out of the Seminary. Between 1866 and 1880 she gave birth to seven children and began her writing career at the newspaper Keski-Suomi, where her husband worked as an editor. She wrote about women’s issues and advocated temperance. In 1876 the Canths were forced to leave the paper because Minna’s pieces had caused social friction. They were, however, both employed by the competing Päijänne the following year. Minna published her first works of fiction in Päijänne: various short stories, which were compiled in her first book, Novelleja ja kertomuksia, in 1878.

Canth stood up when there was public debate about women’s rights. In 1885 a bishop had argued that God’s order required that women were not to be emancipated. The writer Gustaf af Geijerstam then argued that men could only aspire to one day have the purity of women because they were fundamentally different, and this was the reason for prostitution and other immorality on their part. Canth objected strongly to this argument as it meant that men could defend their poor morals by reference to their implicit shortcomings, whereas any women involved in prostitution would lack the same defense.

Minna Canth’s most important works are the plays Työmiehen vaimo (The Worker’s Wife) from 1885 and Anna Liisa (1895). In Työmiehen vaimo, the main character Johanna is married to Risto, an alcoholic who wastes all his wife’s money. Johanna cannot prevent him – her money is legally his, not hers. The play’s premiere caused scandal, but a few months later, parliament enacted a new law about separation of property. Anna Liisa is a tragedy about a fifteen-year-old girl who gets pregnant without being married – she manages to hide her pregnancy, and when the child is born, she suffocates it in a fit of panic. Her boyfriend, Mikko, and his mother help her – she buries the baby in the woods, but a few years later, when Anna Liisa wants to marry her fiancé Johannes, she is blackmailed by Mikko and his mother. They threaten to reveal her dark secret if she does not agree to marry Mikko, but Anna Liisa refuses. In the end, she decides to confess what she has done. She is taken to prison, but is much relieved after owning up and seems to have found peace.

After she died in 1897, Canth’s works were either forgotten on trivialized in Finland, and remained so for most of the 20th century. It has only been in the 21st century that her plays and novels have been highlighted as pioneering works, and she has been granted the recognition that she lacked for a century.

I have mentioned Finnish recipes a number of times, and the subject of pies of various (strange) types keeps popping up. Here is a video on Karelian pastries, a rice pudding filled raised rye dough that is popular throughout Finland.

May 232013


qoung tart tea room

On this day in 1889 Louisa Lawson, Australian campaigner for women’s rights, poet, and mother of Australian poet Henry Lawson, founded the Dawn Club at a meeting at Forresters Hall, Sydney. It was one of the earliest clubs to discuss women’s rights, especially the right to vote.  It was an outgrowth of her journal, Dawn

After the inaugural event, meetings were commonly held in one of Quong Tart’s tea rooms. Tea rooms at the time were popular places to meet and have tea with light snacks and pastries of all sorts.  Quong Tart was a tea and silk merchant from China, and his tea rooms were spectacular. A popular meeting place for the Dawn club was the Loong Shan Tea Giyse at 137 King Street, Sydney. It was his grandest tea room, with marble fountains and ponds with golden carp. Upstairs was a reading room and large meeting hall.

These quotes are from her speech at the inauguration of The Dawn Club:

“Now as we have no time to be elaborate or diffuse, we must be methodical, and we will take first the reasons why women claim the right to vote; and then we will pick up the objections one by one and turn them inside out to show their entire vacuity, and finally review briefly what women are doing now in other countries (in order to show how woefully we in New South Wales are behind the times).”

“The whole principle of the Justice of the woman’s vote agitation may be compressed into a question: Who ordained that men only should make the laws to which both men and women have to conform?”

“Men tell us we are responsible for the home and education of children, that the morals of society are in our keeping; they have bound our hands and placed us in the front rank of the battle”

“I see a new heaven and a new earth . . . brother and sister standing shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart in the great fight for right, truth and justice, for better laws, for better protection to our sons and daughters, for better and purer homes.”

The self-governing British colony of South Australia gave women the right to vote and, furthermore, enabled women to stand for the colonial parliament in 1894, well before any European nation, and only a year behind New Zealand, first in the world.  The Commonwealth of Australia federated in 1901, with women voting and standing for office in some states. The Australian Federal Parliament extended voting rights to all adult women for Federal elections from 1902 (with the exception of Aboriginal women in some states). Catherine Helen Spence stood for office in 1897 in South Australia (unsuccessfully), a first for the modern world.

Tea rooms were originally set up in the Western world by tea merchants so that people could taste the many varieties of tea on offer.  Dainties typically accompanies the tea sampling.  Soon they grew into places of social gathering with more elaborate foods on offer, sometimes even full meals.  Many had meeting rooms for large gatherings. Quong Tart’s tea rooms had meeting rooms for up to 500 people.

Let me take this opportunity to correct an error that is a royal pet peeve of mine. People in the U.S. and restaurants there continue to perpetuate the error that afternoon tea with little sandwiches and fancy cakes is “high tea” thinking “high” in this context means “regal” or lofty.  It is not.  High tea is the opposite of afternoon tea.  It refers historically (and to a degree now) to a full dinner eaten by working class families directly after returning from work, and by children who ate their dinner early because they were too young to eat with the adults.  There is some debate as to the meaning of the word “high” here. Some people say it is in contrast to low tea, based not on quality, but on the height of the tables. High tea was eaten at a high table, low tea at a low table (like a coffee table).  Others believe it refers to the early hour it was eaten (5:30 to 6 pm), related to the meanings  of “high” in “high time” or “high noon.”  Whatever the reason, STOP USING “HIGH TEA” TO REFER TO AFTERNOON TEA!!!

I’m giving a recipe for classic English tea cakes today, to have for afternoon tea. They’re a bit like a scone except they are raised with yeast.  Typically you eat them fresh from the oven. If you have leftovers you can cut them in half, and brown the cut faces under a broiler.  Then slather them with butter.  This recipe is nice and spicy.  The ‘mixed spice’ of British cookery is primarily used in sweet baking, similar to France’s sweet quatre-épices. It typically incorporates powdered cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice in equal parts. In this case because cinnamon and nutmeg are already in the ingredient list I would add a pincheach of ginger, cloves, and allspice.

English Tea Cakes


13oz (375g) strong white bread flour
½ tsp sea salt flakes, lightly crushed
¼oz (7g)  fast-action dried yeast
1 tsp ground mixed spice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ orange, zest only, chopped fine
1¾oz (50g) caster sugar
1¾oz (50g) unsalted butter, cubed
5fl oz (150ml) 2% milk
1 egg, beaten
4½oz (125g) mixed dried fruit
sunflower oil, for greasing


Mix the flour, salt, yeast, spices, orange zest and sugar in a large bowl.

Put the butter and milk in a small saucepan and heat very gently until the butter is melted and the milk is just lukewarm. Remove from the heat and whisk in the egg. Make sure the milk and butter mix is lukewarm only, otherwise it will scramble the egg and kill the yeast.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the warm butter, milk and egg. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a ball.

Turn out on a very lightly floured surface and knead for five minutes to form a smooth, pliable dough. Knead the fruit into the dough until evenly distributed, then place the dough in a lightly greased bowl. Cover loosely with a tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place for 1½ hours, or until doubled in size and spongy to touch.

Knead the dough lightly, divide into six portions and roll into balls. Using a rolling pin, flatten each ball to a circle about ½in (1cm) thick and place on a large baking tray lined with baking parchment. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for a further 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Remove the tea towel and bake the teacakes in the center of the oven for 15-18 minutes, or until well risen and golden-brown. Serve warm, cut in half and spread thickly with butter.

Yield: 6 teacakes