With a new TV show and memoir almost done, Bea Ojakangas shows no sign of slowing down
By Kyle Farris / Forum News Service Follow the quiet roads that checker the landscape just north of Duluth. Uphill and then gently down, go to the blue barn with a green roof. Turn left. Take the winding half-mile drive lined with old, scratchy t...
By Kyle Farris / Forum News Service
Follow the quiet roads that checker the landscape just north of Duluth. Uphill and then gently down, go to the blue barn with a green roof. Turn left. Take the winding half-mile drive lined with old, scratchy trees, and you’re there.
Bea Ojakangas is waiting with a wide, white smile. Inside, on her oversized kitchen island, she’s arranged cookies into neat rows and rings.
“Coffee or tea?” she asks. If you pick tea, be prepared to pick a kind; she has many.
Ojakangas, the prolific cookbook-writer of regional fame, is still busy these days. She has a six-part cooking series, “Bea Ojakangas: Welcome to My Kitchen,” airing on PBS North, Channel 8 in Duluth. She regularly contributes recipes to The Woman Today, a bimonthly magazine. And at 80 years old, she’s chipping away at her life’s work, her memoir, which she expects to complete this spring.
“I don’t really think about age,” said Ojakangas, the author of 29 cookbooks, the most recent - on soups and breads - coming in 2013. “If somebody wants me to do something, that drives me to do it. I’m motivated by ideas: something I read, something I heard, just a snatch of a conversation. Watch out. I might grab it.
“Maybe one of these days I’ll just collapse.”
The tea has cooled a little, enough to drink.
“I just had some tea, too,” she says. “Have a cookie.”
Beginning last October and ending in January, Ojakangas opened her house to a small TV crew. The PBS series had been long in the making, she said, and though she’d cooked on TV many times before - most notably alongside Martha Stewart and Julia Child - having her own show was a different experience.
Before, Ojakangas had always cooked in front of a live audience, meaning her mistakes were broadcast to “the whole world.”
“I look at it and think, ‘Oh my gosh. I should have combed my hair,’ ” she said.
The new show was taped in advance and edited. Juli Kellner, who produced the series for PBS North, said the taping (which, as the title suggests, occurred in Ojakangas’ kitchen) was unusually intimate.
“It was a peek into her life,” Kellner said. “We’ve filmed before in other people’s kitchens, but it’s not every kitchen that you cook in that has a James Beard Award hanging on the wall. Who else would you want teaching you to cook?”
Ojakangas likes to keep things simple, sometimes to a fault. She nearly failed her first year of home economics at UMD when she wouldn’t wear a girdle.
“I was just not very motivated to dig into the proper way to serve or whatever,” she said. “I was not motivated to be a fancy tea-drinker.”
She’s also not protective of her recipes, and she can’t fathom why someone would be.
“I think that is so silly,” she said. “Any recipe can be figured out if someone wants to, if it’s really that good.”
Ojakangas lives in Gnesen Township with her husband, Dick, a retired UMD geology professor. Their house is pushed back from the country road, bound by an army of trees. The long, winding drive is cleared after snowstorms by the neighbors, and other friends help with odd jobs around the 50-acre property, which Bea describes as “almost on the moon.”
For most meals at the Ojakangas house, it’s just Bea and Dick, who used to do a little cooking himself. Now Bea does almost all of it.
The special for this evening: a salmon fillet and whatever vegetables Bea can find in the refrigerator.
“This isn’t fresh salmon,” she says. “This is Rogotzke’s frozen salmon.”
As she has for years, Ojakangas still visits her church, First Lutheran on East Superior Street, to help with the cooking. She just finished directing this spring’s Lent dinners.
Ojakangas said she wouldn’t cook if it were just for herself, and she wouldn’t write if she didn’t enjoy it. Each of her 29 cookbooks has “come for a reason,” she said, and many have mirrored stages of her life.
“Gourmet Cooking for Two” came when Bea and Dick had two young kids and couldn’t get out of the house.
“We’d have to get a babysitter, and we didn’t have the money to do it anyhow,” Bea said. “I cooked a meal that I pretended was something the restaurant was making.”
“The Complete Fondue Menu and Party Book” came when the couple was tasked with entertaining (and feeding) their many friends.
“We’d tell people to bring their fondue pot, and we’d put it all together,” Bea said. “It was a fun party.”
Her first and perhaps best-known work, “The Finnish Cookbook,” was published in 1964, shortly after Ojakangas spent a year in Finland (It’s still being sold in Helsinki, she notes).
That first book “opened a big door,” she said, calling it her proudest work. She moved to Duluth, to a house in the city, the year it was released.
For now, the memoir has taken priority over any new cookbooks. She’s written about 60,000 words, and she wants to write a few more.
“I don’t sit down and just write, write, write, write, write,” she said. “I pick it up when I think I’ve got a story to tell.”
It’s quiet in the kitchen but for the sound of classical music coming from the radio.
It’s time to leave, time to take the winding half-mile drive and turn right at the blue-and-green barn.
There’s still a little tea in your cup, and cookie crumbs speckle the counter.
“That’s all right,” Ojakangas says. “That’s all right.”
“Bea Ojakangas: Welcome to My Kitchen” airs at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays through April 25 on PBS North, WDSE Channel 8 in Duluth. Find more information at www.wdse.org .