A while ago, we (Sitra’s Strategic Design Unit) released a book on Helsinki’s street food culture, which, taken with a liberal pinch of salt, covers the last 150 years or so of food in the city. It ends with the currently burgeoning food scene in the city, as exemplified by the culinary insurgency movements of Ravintolapäivä—covered here—and the temporary incursion of the "Camionette" crêpes van at Kamppi last summer—mentioned here.
Our short book goes into more detail on the emergence and significance of those very recent events, but also puts them in a context of Finnish history and culture, and particularly Helsinki’s history. As Helsinki is a youngish city, we took its relevant food history to date back to a first “golden age” of food culture as a trading post and military base under Swedish and Russian rule, and then fast forward through the straitjacket constraints of the freshly-minted Finnish national identity after independence in 1917, via the constriction of prohibition in the ’20s, pausing briefly on the severe war years before basking in the temporary liberalisation of the 1952 Olympics.
We then pick our way through the complex social mores of the 50s and 60s—which started with women not being allowed into restaurants on their own; nor barstools for that matter—before the emergence of fast food and cheap air travel leads to another expansion and contraction, through the late twentieth century, into the "New Nordic Cuisine" of recent years.
In some ways, the history of food holds up a mirror to the history of the country, which indicates what fundamental cultural patterns and industrial and political systems we’re dealing with when we look at food. Which is exactly why we’re interested in it, of course.
We asked a few smart locals to help with the book—thanks to Ville Tikka and Nupu Gaivert, Tea Tönnov, Kaarle Hurtig, and many others who were interviewed for the book. Archive photos were carefully selected from Lehtikuva (not a great service but there's a great archive in there somewhere), US Library of Congress (the source of the wonderful hand-coloured prints of old Helsinki) and many others. These sit alongside contemporary photo-essays.
My colleague Bryan Boyer and I then ended up designing and writing the book. (See this related entry on using print-on-demand for work-in-progress and design choices.) We took too long on production, of course, which is a problem with self-imposed deadlines; but that means I can share some layouts that didn't make it, including a single-word pull-quote style I saw in The Wire magazine, and rather liked, but was probably a little avant-garde for this purpose; and before we had to integrate the Low2No brand.
We made the book for a few reasons.
Firstly (and probably least importantly) we like to make things, to explore formats, to make our often abstract work concrete (or at least paper) in some useful way.
Secondly, the self-imposed need to make the book served as the “Macguffin” that drove us to immerse ourselves in food history, Helsinki’s food culture, its relevant institutions, the sphere of our project more broadly. (More on identifying and using Macguffins here.)
And thirdly, as a physical artefact, it serves as a kind of token to open doors, start conversations.
The kind of conversations strategic design engages in often concern what we call “dark matter” (see more on that in this new essay for Strelka Press, Dark Matter & Trojan Horses)—which is shorthand for the organisational culture, legislation, regulatory environment, intellectual property issues; the imperceptible material or substrate which either enables or blocks. (Again, there’s more on our metaphorical reading of “dark matter” here.)
So we’re interested in street food not in order to get falafals on Helsinki’s street corners—though that would be nice!—but because food is such a productive area for understanding systems; systems of culture, systems of production and consumption, systems of governance and so on.
Food is something that everyone has to address, in both qualitative and quantitative senses, several times a day. It is at once cultural, social, economic, physical, digital, industrial, political, and so on. It is about what are streets can be used for, and who decides that. It's about our health, our wealth, our understanding of cultural diversity. it's about industries, logistics, and supply chains. It's directly about sustainability and climate change, as well as social innovation and wellbeing, community formation, individual free will, identity formation, class, entrepreneurship and more besides.
It could hardly be more fundamental.
We’re particularly interested in street food, or "everyday food", as a productive way of exploring cultural diversity in Helsinki. It carries the seeds of a more diverse Helsinki, and so could be incredibly useful. (I also go into the backdrop for this in the aforementioned Strelka Press essay.)
So the book is partly just a tangible summation of some of our early research, but it's also a clear statement of why food is such an interesting perspective from which to better understand and shape cities. We've been working with, and around, the City of Helsinki for over a year now, constantly discussing the ideas explored towards the end of the book, and things are beginning to change. Not because of our efforts, as the city has witnessed several amazing other initiatives in this area, which we detail in the book. But the book may have helped a little (though traceability in this area is almost impossible.)
Finally, I experimented with the writing a little, producing four "super-short stories" to set the scene.
In some sense, they’re a formal counterpoint to photoessays at the end. Yet in retrospect, this also felt a little like the 14 Cities series I produced while at Arup. It was also influenced by having read Diego Marani’s extraordinary novel New Finnish Grammar just beforehand. The evocative writing in that book is worth around ten history books on Finland during the Winter Wars, and I wanted to balance the "deliberately academic-lite" research with something a little more open to interpretation and allusion. (Drawn from a vague understanding I have of Kristeva’s ideas about the short story as a more open form of text.)
The stories also have a little of the scenarios produced in the Low2No workbook—they sort of work as an equivalent of that here, almost a "strategic design fiction". But they're written to be a little more ambiguous, perhaps, trying to capture what is both simultaneously good and bad about Helsinki street food culture. It's also not the kind of thing that the recipients of this book—policymakers, for instance—are used to reading in this context.
(One thing I've learnt is that if you want to change the content and tenor of a strategic conversation, or if the outcome you're looking for might be a radical change to established practices, you have to use every conceivable cue—such as formats, language and environments—in order to signal this change, even subconsciously. If policymakers are used to getting the output of Microsoft Word or Powerpoint, or receiving material via a standard report template, or used to meeting in a particular space in a particular way, then you might well have to change all of those things. You're looking to subtly jolt the audience out of established habits, practices and behaviours, they will tend to lead only to previously established outcomes.)
Hence four short stories to open the book.
They were fun to write and, as a kind of verbal sketching, they helped me frame the rest of the text a little, and get into character. I thought they might work well either interspersed in the text, a kind of punctuation within the overall narrative, or as an amuse-bouche to clear the palette (hey, I resisted food references this far!). We decided to open with them, to set the scene. I’ve reproduced the first of them below, and it's the most obviously New Finnish Grammar-inspired, though hardly holds a candle to Marani's work. Does it work?
Snow falls softly on Esplanadi, dulling the noise from a passing truck. German soldiers are heading north, fresh off the SS Ariadne passenger steamer puffing smoke into the cold night air at as it sits in the South Harbour.
The bar at the Kämp Hotel is warm, noisy and packed by comparison, full of journalists, academics, politicians, wealthy industrialists and their wives, and what is still a relatively new breed in Finland: international tourists here to see the ‘Daughter of the Baltic’. There is much chatter about the rumour that Greta Garbo has been seen vacationing in the Åland Islands. It’s early evening. Cigarette smoke curls around the bar. Helsinki’s bourgeoisie are picking at canapés to accompany their cocktails, vol-au-vents prepared by the hotel’s French cooks.
Across the grass and gravel promenade outside Kämp, the glass terrace of the Savoy restaurant glows golden in the dark sky. Savoy is a year old and still the talk of the town. The restaurant had been architect Alvar Aalto’s first commission in Helsinki, designed as a jewel to top the ‘Industrial Palace’ building. A liveried black porter welcomes in well-heeled members of the Helsinki set, shuttling to and fro in a series of small elevators from ground floor to the birch-veneered interiors above. The menu is also French-inspired, but peppered with the first dashes of a Finnish fine cuisine: boiled halibut with hollandaise sauce; smoked salmon with spinach.
Down below Savoy, a man sways on a street corner, his hat and heavy overcoat casting a bulky shadow across the snow as he glugs pontikka from a bottle. The prohibition act had been rescinded in Finland a few years earlier, but years of illegal distilling of pontikka has left a healthy—or unhealthy—surplus of lethal home-brew on the market. He draws a few admonishing glances from the elegant ladies chattering in the doorway of Kämp, of which he is entirely oblivious.
The snow falls...