This essay explores the intimate and often problematic relationship between women and food in rural traditional Finnish communities of the 19th and early 20th centuries. My discussion will take place on the level of cultural representations and meanings found in narrative descriptions, ritual incantations and folk poetry. The idea of a problematic relationship between women and food is of course nothing new to modern women in the West, who are under cultural pressure to be thin and are told that food is "the enemy" of a potentially trim and elegant body. Susan Bordo (1993) has examined how cultural images and stereotypes in the West promote the notion of a problematic relationship between women and food, with particular regard to the female body itself, whose hungers and urges for food are represented as symbolically linked to the female sexual appetite. In the traditional culture of agrarian Finland the problems encountered by women were different, because the particular way in which society reproduced itself was different. The western consumer economy based on competition promotes the bodily expression of self-discipline in the form of thinness and physical fitness, which demands that as women's presence and power within the public sphere increases, their body bulk and therefore physical presence must diminish in order not to threaten the status quo. Agrarian Finland, on the other hand, was a culture of scarcity in which the bodies of farm women were their primary tools of labour and thus survival. Women were restricted to the domestic sphere, yet farm production depended equally on the labour contribution of both husband and wife, a situation which resulted in relative equality on the level of daily interaction (Löfgren 1974:30; Rantalaiho 1994:17-18; Räsänen 1996:53), but which gave rise to serious tensions and suspicions between the genders, namely that the other partner was not pulling his or her weight or was wasting the products of the farm household. Women's 'problematic' relationship with food was not so much related to their consumption of food as to their management and distribution of it within the household. Finnish rural women's bodies did not reflect so much cultural values regarding beauty nor the problematics of a new female bodily presence in public spaces. Rather, the 'problematic' relationship between women and food arose from the fact that women's role in distributing foodstuffs was crucial to the survival of the farm household, the primary social unit of rural society.
In 19th- and early 20th-century rural Finland, the symbolic value of food was shaped by the system of economic production, consumption and biological reproduction, which took place within the agrarian farm household. Within the household, these socio-economic processes were divided by gender: men and women played different roles in production, consumption and reproduction, and indeed this division was the very basis for the farm household itself: no farm was seen to be able to exist for any length of time if it did not contain at least one man and one woman.
In the gendered division of labour, men generally worked in the fields and forest, and their specific tasks included: burn-beat clearing, plowing, sowing, digging ditches, scythe harvesting, grain threshing, horse husbandry, hunting, trapping, fishing and trading. Women worked in the cottage dairy industry, performed the textile and household chores, including cattle husbandry, milking, spinning, weaving, sewing, laundering, cooking, making butter and cheese, grinding flour by hand, and childcare. Women also worked in the fields carrying out grain binding and stacking. The farm mistress was responsible above all for the running of the household and the food economy, and often for the dairying. In extended households, the duties of the mistress were sometimes shared, so that one married woman would see to the cooking and baking, for example, while another tended to the cattle.
While nearly all of women's activities took place within the farm household, men were involved in hunting, fishing, peddling, and forestry-related wage labour which took them away from the domestic sphere for long periods of time. This left not only the household but also the products of male labour in the hands of the women, who then managed the household in the men's absence. The gendered division of labour and poor agricultural conditions which gave rise to a culture of scarcity led to household tensions surrounding the production and consumption of food and foodstuffs.
According to Matti Kuusi's (1953:388) study of Finnish-Karelian proverbs, men were worried that their work and social roles often took them away from the domestic sphere (while hunting, logging or plowing distant fields, for example) where they could not monitor the mistress' use of foodstuffs:
Despite everything, a woman had a lot of power with regards to men and particularly the food stores of the household. While you wander hungry through the forest or toil in the fields, you perhaps begin to remember, with bitterness, the womenfolk who at this very moment are bustling about amidst butter, pork, beer and dough, without your being able to monitor what and how much that swarm of vermin are hoarding into their mouths through tastes and samples (Kuusi 1953:388, in Apo 1995:56).
Satu Apo (1995) has suggested that women were seen as dangerous to the farm household unit because they had primary control over the reproduction, processing and distribution of farm household goods (child rearing, food preparation and feeding). Neglect in this area represented a squandering of the productive efforts of those who produced or procured grain and other goods, namely the men of the farm. Because the Finnish agrarian culture was a culture of scarcity (peasants were often barely able to make a living from the poor soil during the short growing season, and the standard of living was generally low), the issue of wastefulness and irresponsibility was a particularly sensitive one in this context.According to the folklore Apo has reviewed, men in the farm household feared three things: 1) the woman herself would eat and drink "too much" in preparing food and beer; 2) the woman would spoil the children with food that was too good (giving them for example butter, an important item which could be traded or used to pay taxes); 3) the woman would secretly sell the products of the farm household behind her husband's back and with the money buy coffee, sugar, cloth etc. for herself and the children.
A farm mistress who was guilty of self-interest, squandering, or the misuse of household resources was thought to be able to destroy the entire farm household. Alexis Kivi's much-loved novel Seven Brothers (Seitsemän Veljestä), a true-to-life description of Southern Finnish peasant life and thought in the mid-19th century, presents a vivid image of the bad mistress who 'wasted' the household's food on her children:
Aapo: I remember a story I once heard from our grandfather, that ever wise, cautious and far-seeing man. And this is what he told me: There were once two brothers, both sober and hardworking, each with a farm equal in every respect to the other's and each with a wife and children. One remained always prosperous, but the other became poorer day by day, and many were the guesses made at the cause of this difference in the brother's households, without anyone finding the real reason. Then one Saturday evening our grandfather had some errand to both of these farms. He came first to the rich brother's house, where the wife, having finished churning, was sharing out bread and butter to the children; from there he went on to the poor brother's house, where the wife was also giving the children of her churning, but look you, the woman put at least twice as much butter on the bread as her neighbor did, and now the old man had found the reason for the riches of the one and the poverty of the other. For just as the poor man's wife used twice as much butter, so, though almost in unseen ways, twice as much of everything else slipped through her fingers. And thus she would have needed two such farms to keep level with her neighbor's one farm. So said an old man famous for his wisdom.
Juhani: He judged the matter rightly. A bad and wasteful wife is the devouring rat of a household and as ugly to behold as an old boot in a puddle.
Another way in which women were seen to threaten the well-being of the farm household through their proximity to the household's foodstuffs was the practice known as 'home-thievery' (kotivarkaus or pussittaminen), a practice in which women sold the products of the farm household without their husbands' knowledge in order to obtain money or goods that their husbands would not buy for them (see Räsänen 1998). Farm mistresses might use servants, itinerant labourers and cottager's wives as 'middle-men' in their 'home thievery'. Because they could not themselves go to the local country store to sell butter, grain or wool, farm mistresses used 'go-betweens' in order to be able to buy cloth, sugar, and especially coffee (Alanen 1957:333-334). Although women in Finland had long sold products of the farm behind the master's back to Russian Karelian travelling peddlers, such clandestine trading has been best documented during the last half of the 1800s, when new store-bought goods came to the countryside. At that time, the importance of money as a means of exchange was growing, but married women from the landowning class, tied as they were to the farm household, had no access to the wage labour through which money could be obtained. Their husbands might have money, but as most contemporary and later reports make clear, women received little personal benefit from this fact:
But men, who were happy to smoke foreign tobacco in handsome, store-bought pipes and who emptied beer bottles by the dozens, did not usually open their wallets for women's fancies, no matter how much mistresses and daughters would have liked their precious coffee or shawls. When there was no money forthcoming from the master, it had to be obtained in other ways (Alanen 1957:332).
This so-called 'home-thievery' can also be seen from narratives which describe the last decades of agrarian life in Finland, as in the following description of Ostrobothnian farm life in the 1940s:
It wasn't possible for mother to buy anything without father's permission, since father was in charge of the money (...) Mother was lucky, if father didn't happen to be home when the buyer of butter came. Without father's knowledge she sold butter in order to get money for herself. She didn't dare sell very much, since when father looked at the butter-tub he certainly would have noticed, if the amount had greatly diminished. (SKS. SATA 7022. 1991, in Apo 1993: 137).
A similar topic is taken up by the folk collector Samuli Paulaharju in describing a village in Ostrobothnia in the first decades of this century, but his description exhibits more clearly the male point of view concerning 'home-thievery':
The grain and the money were the master's belongings. The old man knew just how much of the yield could be sold so that the farm would not experience any privation. In some places also the mistress might begin to sell off the grain, a little at a time, without the master knowing. But it was an ugly kind of petty thievery, which ruined the farm (Paulaharju 1932:102).
What did women buy with the money gained from home-thievery? One of the most important purchases was coffee. For women, the importance of procuring coffee may well have been linked to cultural expectations and norms surrounding the social networks of married farm women. In Niilo Sauhke's descriptions of women's social life in Salmi prior to World War II, coffee played a central role in the Sunday visits and handwork parties which provided the few opportunities for busy married women of the land-owning class to socialize with their peers. The mistresses hosted the parties in their homes by turns, and since coffee was the most important refreshment offered, it was vital to a mistress' social standing to have some on hand (see Sauhke 1971:59-61). Yet 'home thievery' was thought to lead to general moral deterioration and economic ruin, and it was therefore coffee which was condemned in the press of the period. According to Aulis J. Alanen (1957),
[n]ewspaper articles claimed that wives taught their servants to steal when they themselves secretly exchanged the farm's products for coffee, others claimed that coffee had driven many land-owning peasants to destitution and that 'now that the craze of alcohol has disappeared, in its place has come the devastation of coffee' (p. 334).
Women did not only use the food produced on the farm to finance the purchase of store-bought goods: they also used them to wield influence and gain information through the system of 'knapsack carrying' in which lower-class women gathered information, spread malicious rumours, or sang the praises of others on the behalf of farm mistresses. Such 'knapsack carriers' were secretly paid or rewarded with goods from the farm household:
But in the old days there were some mistresses who, without the other members of the family knowing about it, paid 'knapsack carriers' in kind. They secretly slipped a pat of butter, a piece of meat, a wad of wool, a kilo of flour or something of that sort to some masseuse or cupper as payment for 'knapsack carrying'. If the boy the mistress' daughter was sweet on began to spend time with another girl, then 'carrying a knapsack' about that other girl was always justified, and it was even worth it to pay some gossip-woman a small fee for it. (Harlu. 1966. Maija Jaatinen 1594. - Maria Silvennoinen, farmer's wife, b. 1871).
The 'gossipers' in this scenario were usually lower-class, landless women who were more mobile than farm mistresses, able to journey from farm to farm performing odd jobs for room and board. Farm mistresses, on the other hand, sought the information these 'gossips' provided concerning possible future brides for their sons, and paid their informants in kind, with food or goods from the farm household (see Stark-Arola 1998). Men did not generally play a role in this system of 'knapsack carrying', except as young men in courting situations, when they might send messages through a knapsack carrier to a girl they hoped to woo. Otherwise, it appears that men may have tried to both distance themselves from and discredit this informal information network, denying its political nature by denouncing it as 'mere gossip', as beneath their dignity: "Men did not stoop to giving an account of others' doings."
On the level of cultural representations as well, Finnish-Karelian folklore materials reveal intimate and problematic links between women and food. Namely it appears that the concepts of food and social ties were closely interconnected, and were in turn linked to the (sexual) female body. Food is essential to the very definition of communal interaction: between people, between the living and the dead, and between humans and their gods (see Counihan 1999:13). Eating with another person is a sign of trust, friendship and/or kinship. In many cultures, persons will refuse to eat with their enemies, and the term companion is literally a person one eats bread with (Farb & Armelagos 1980:4). But in 19th- and early 20th- century rural Finland, the link between food and social relations often had a third dimension as well: the association with the female body. Where the creation of social ties was undesirable, food and the female body had to be separated. From a societal point of view, the merging of the sexualized female body with 'food as social currency' was a combination to be avoided in this case. This can be seen first of all in narratives and beliefs concerning love magic and pollution taboos. In 19th and early 20th-century Finland, eating and drinking magic were by far the most common types of love magic carried out by women in order to 'catch' the man they wanted as a husband (Stark-Arola 1998). In this magic, the 'attractor' placed substances and parings from her body into the food or drink to be consumed by the male object of her desire, i.e. the 'attractee'. The things added to the food or drink included sweat, spittle, blood, urine, excrement, hair, and nails. However, the most commonly-used substance in love magic descriptions was menstrual blood. Women made use of the custom of offering coffee or alcohol to visitors in order to 'feed' men substances, usually reproductive substances from their bodies. They also fed men bread or cake which had been in physical contact with their lower bodies: all of these methods were thought to be effective in causing a man to be overcome with lust for the woman, and thus marry her against his will or better judgement:
There was a girl who was not at all attractive to look at. A boy fell in love with her so deeply that when he was at home he sat at the window and watched the road in the hope of seeing that girl. When he did meet her, he couldn't stand her, but rather wanted to get away from her. But once again he began to long for her so much that he shed tears. One of the girl's friends later told how she had seen the girl in question take her own menstrual blood, put it into coffee and offer it to the boy. (Viipuri. 1957. Artturi Railonsala 6931. -Aune Sopanen, b. 1921).
It is told that the farm master Matti Savolainen was bewitched to take Kristiina S. as his wife in such a way that Kristiina's shirt, stained with menstrual blood, was put into the soup to boil. After this, the soup was fed to Matti, and when he left the girl's house, a kind of compulsion came over him and he had to turn back and promise to take her as his wife despite all objections. (Kurkijoki. 1935. Pekka Kyytinen 69. - Maria Kyytinen, farm mistress, 59 years).
One woman made 'red cakes' and put some of her own "red" into the cake. She marked the cake and fed it to me. Innocently and sweetly she gave the food to me. Then I began to crave that woman. (Kittilä. 1930 (recorded in 1920). Jenny Paulaharju 10241. - Juho Koskama, farm master, 82 years).
In former times girls made 'cloud' cakes on their bare thighs and said:
"Kuka tämän kakun syöpi (Whosoever eats this cake),
se tämän perän pitääpi (must follow this girl),
tämän vitun viilettääpi. (must race to this girl's vagina)."
Then she fed the cake in either drink or food to the man she wanted, and the man began to lust after her.
(Sotkamo. 1957. Artturi Railonsala 6181. - Jussi Kiikkumäki).
The following incantation, makes explicit the connections between the food, the attractor's bodily substances mixed into it, and the changes they were expected to arouse in the male body:
Syös näitä suolojaini (Eat these salts of mine),
Suustani sulava voi (The melting butter from my mouth),
Rakeheni raivoks käyköön (Be frenzied for my body),
Sulakohon sytämesi (May your heart melt),
Kylmä kalvo katketkoon (Let your cold surface be broken),
Lämmin veri vuotakoon (May the warm blood flow),
Läpi luitten ja lihasten (Through bones and flesh),
Läpi suonten ja ytinten (Through veins and marrow).
Saiha ennen seppä Ilmarinen (In old times Ilmarinen the smith),
Rauan raukean sulaksi (Made tired iron to melt),
Miks en mie sit soa (Why can't I make you)
Miehen tahtoa taipumoa (Will of man, to bend)
Rakastumoa raivoisasti (To fall in love wildly).
(SKVR XIII3:9951. Kaukola. 1935. -Tuomas Osa, b. 1874).
Such means of using the link between female sexuality and food in order to create enduring social bonds was not approved by society. This can be seen from male counter-magic used against it (Stark-Arola 1998), and warning narratives about love magic which told how alliances created in this way were liable to end in murder, insanity, or suicide. Similarly, when young mothers who had just given birth were isolated from the community for a period of up to six weeks, a period which ended only when they were blessed by the priest (churching), food became an important part means of drawing the boundary between normal "Christians" and the "sinful", even "pagan" unblessed mother in her liminal, unchurched state. Unchurched women were not allowed to eat at the same table with, or use the same utensils as the other members of the household, and they were not allowed to handle food or water that others might eat or drink. Once again food and the reproductive female body were a dangerous combination in a situation where social interaction was seen as undesirable:
A person who has given birth is a pagan. She isn't allowed to eat from other's bowls, nor act as a farm mistress until the child had been baptized and the woman herself had been "churched". (Kuhmo. 1930. Samuli Paulaharju 11471. Matovaaran muori, 72 years).
For six weeks the new mother (rosentsa) must sleep apart from the others, she was not allowed to eat at the table with the others. And she was supposed to use different dishes. Nobody else was allowed to eat out of those dishes until they had been washed with baptismal water. When water has been brought for the child's baptism and the priest has blessed it, then it is used to wash the dishes, as well as the dishes from which the baby has eaten. (Vuokkiniemi. 1932. Samuli Paulaharju 18856. Anni Lehtonen b. 1868).
One must be churched before fetching water
When the mother in the family had given birth to a child, she was not allowed to go to the well to fetch water before she had gone to be 'churched'. If she went, the water would in the well would be contaminated (pilaantui). (Pyhäranta. 1929. Lauri Koskinen b4)240. -Kustaava Nuuski, 63 years).
When a woman has a baby, she is polluted. In former times she was not allowed to touch any food. When the priest had shaken her hand, "churched" her, then she was clean. (Pielavesi. 1937. Hannes Pulkkinen 767. Tiina Paananen, b. 1861).
A new mother was considered polluted (saastaisena) so long as she had not been "churched". The woman was not allowed to eat with others, nor give food to others. She had her own dishes, from which she ate. (Taivalkoski. 1930. Samuli Paulaharju 11452. cottager's wife and sorceress Leena Lasanen, 55 years).
Yet there were also times when this merging of food and the female body was viewed as desirable this was precisely when important social ties were seen to be in danger of breaking down. In the following magic ritual for a wife to cause her husband to love her again, the imagery contains many fusions between the wife's body and desirable (greasy and sweet) foods such as cheese, butter and sugar. The fusion takes place through the mixing of the woman's own blood with sugar and cheese, the bodily contact with food (keeping cheese under her armpit for three nights), and the consumption of this ritual food.
Repairing the couple's relationship (for the wife to do)To the mistress: Make cheese and put it in your armpit for three nights. Then take three drops of blood from the little finger of your left hand and put them in the cheese. Eat this cheese in exactly equal parts with your husband, no one else is allowed to so much as taste it. After this, take a sugar cube and put three drops of blood in it as before, over which you say the words: 'May our relationship be as loving as this sugar is made solid.' Eat the sugar with your husband exactly half and half, but take care that no one else gets it. Then take a box of butter. You should put the box overnight under the heads of a young couple who have recently been married and who still have the sweet love of a young couple. Then butter bread with this butter for your husband, and make the same for yourself. Say over the buttered bread: 'You are the bone of my bone and the flesh of my flesh'. (Ilmajoki. 1885. S. Pirilä 109).
There is also a clear link between sexuality and food in Finnish-Karelian folk poetry, expressed when young women of marriageable age were having difficulty attracting suitors, a serious problem in the view of 19th-century rural Finnish society. Such young women underwent a ritual known variously as 'lemmennostatus' (lempi-raising), 'lemmen-taika' (lempi-magic), and 'lemmen-kylvetys' (lempi-bathing). The term lempi in Finland and Finnish Karelia traditionally referred to a cluster of concepts related to marriageability, physical attractiveness and 'sex appeal', in other words, the power to attract a husband. Despite the fact that in practical and socio-economic terms, the most important basis for marriage in Finnish agrarian culture was shared labour input, lempi-bathing and lempi-raising rituals focus on the level of the ideal, and place strong emphasis on the sexual link between husband and wife.
The object of lempi-bathing was to increase girls' lempi. The rituals were performed by an older person, usually the girl's mother or a ritual specialist of either gender, and the ritual setting was most commonly the sauna or a natural spring. The focus of the entire ritual message was the body of the girl: this was made clear in both the ritual actions, in which her naked body was bathed, literally cleansed, and in the incantations, which repeatedly referred to physical parts or attributes of her body (see also Piela 1990:219).
Lempi-bathing incantations describe the ideal of female bodily attractiveness in terms of all five types of sensory experience: vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell (Stark-Arola forthcoming). It is the sense of smell, however, that is my focus here, since the smells associated with female desirability were smells of foods. In their ground-breaking study Aroma: the Cultural History of Smell, Classen, Howes and Synnott (1994) highlight the important role of smell in the cultures of past centuries. According to the authors, smell is not simply a biological and psychological phenomenon. Smell is cultural, hence a social and historical phenomenon. "Odours are invested with cultural values and employed by society as a means of and model for defining and interacting with the world" (Classen et. al. 1994:3). Although smell has been devalued and 'silenced' in the contemporary West, it was once a highly conspicuous, recognized part of everyday life. In ancient literature, for example, aromas and odors were metaphors for desirability: "the basic olfactory classification of women was to associate desirable women with fragrance and undesirable women with stench" (ibid.: 36). Finnish-Karelian folk concepts, too, made similar associations between desirability and smell. Lempi-incantations provide an inventory of olfactory images associated with desirability, often mixed with other sensory images:
Mikä pisti piikaan (What has stung the girl),
Nenääty neitoon (Infected the maiden),
Kun ei sulhaset sukinna (Since the suitors do not caress her),
Eikä nuuski nuoret miehet (Nor do the young men smell her),
Eikä vanhat vainustele (Nor do the old ones sniff her out)?
(SKVR VII5:4672. Kesälahti. 1896. Ulla Loviisa Pennanen).
Haisukohon suu voille (Let your mouth smell of butter),
Suu voille, vehnäsille (Your mouth of butter, of sweet breads),
Sieramet sian lihoille (Your nostrils of pork),
Kainalot kanan munille (Your armpits of chicken eggs),
Vittu voille, vehnäsille (Your vagina of butter, of sweet breads)!
(SKVR VII5:4610. Impilahti? 1847).
Pala, tuli, pala, takla [=taula] (Burn fire, burn tinder),
Pala, nuoren miehen mieli (Burn, young man's mind),
Mesi keitä, mieli käännä (Cook the honey, turn his mind),
Sima keitä, silmät käännä (Cook the mead, turn his eyes),
Haju entinen hajota (Disperse the former smell),
Jott' ei saisi yöllä rauhaa (So that [the suitors] will find no peace at night)
Eikä paivällä lepoa (Nor rest during the day)
(SKVR VII5:4609. Impilahti. 1847).
Jotta neito meeltä maistuu (So that the maiden would taste like nectar),
Hunajalta haistahtavi (smell like honey)!
From these incantation formulas it can be seen that odors representing desirability were associated with predominantly greasy or sweet foods: honey, butter, bread, egg and pork (see also Tarkka 1998:108). This apparent confusion between food and perfume is not unique to Finnish-Karelian folk poetry: as Classen et. al. (1994) points out, honey was a common ingredient of perfumes in antiquity, and the boundary between food and perfume in general was a hazy one: "In the modern West we think of perfume and food as constituting two very different categories, distinct both in odour and edibility. In the ancient world, however, there was no such division: foods could be perfumed, and perfumes could be, at times, eaten" (ibid.:23-24).
In many cultures, food and sex are inextricably linked, both symbolically and experientially (Counihan 1999:9). According to Carole M. Counihan, "eating and intercourse both involve passage across body boundaries of external substances that are then incorporated into the body. Both are essential to life and growth. The instinctive drives for food and sex are similar, and they often take on overlapping symbolic associationsBoth eating and copulation cause and symbolize social connection" (1999:9).
It is precisely the strong symbolic value of both food and sex in representing and creating social connections that suggests why the combination of these two was seen to be especially powerful. This combination was in itself a powerful symbol utilized in both love magic and social taboos. It has been my aim in this preliminary overview to look at the ways in which gender is linked to food and how this linkage is part of the larger parameters of socio-economic structures and cultural concepts. In every society, the way in which bodies and sexuality are expressed and perceived is related to the particular way in which that society reproduces itself biologically and socially. An important part of both social and biological reproduction is food, so it comes as no surprise that food is a powerful framework through which cultural concepts of gender and sexuality are shaped.
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Docent Laura Stark-Arola
University of Helsinki