Trying to turn a skeptic into a lefse lover
MOORHEAD, Minn. — Please don’t send me angry emails and letters about the story I’m about to write.
I want to start by saying I admire Norwegian-American culture every Christmas and think it’s totally incredible that you savor the traditions of your ancestors from the old country. (I’m actually a little jealous. The closest my family ever came to honoring our ancestors at Christmas was when my sister and I decided to cook a traditional British meal, including Yorkshire pudding, plum pudding and sticky toffee pudding. While it was very good, it was also time intensive and we never made the recipes again.)
But Norwegians, you take it to a whole new level. Your great-grandparents may have come to the U.S. 150 years ago, but many of you still make the traditional fare that filled their 19th century bellies — things like lutefisk and lefse. Of course, even among Norwegians, lutefisk is met with mixed reviews, but everyone seems to agree on lefse — they love it.
This is where I’m going to get into trouble, but I’m going to say it: I think lefse is a little overrated. I can almost hear Norwegian-Americans silently cursing me under their breath (aka Scandinavian rage). It’s not that I dislike it. I think the soft potato flatbread is pretty good hot off the griddle with a little butter and brown sugar.
But every year around Christmas, my Norwegian friends go positively nuts for it, tweeting about it, making Facebook videos about it and peppering their Instagram feeds with all kinds of lefse love. What am I missing? At Christmas time, I can enjoy lefse, but I promise you I more likely have visions of peanut blossom cookies dancing in my head as I slumber in my bed.
But because I am a foodie, I want to understand what I’m missing. Can I evolve into a lefse lover too? (After all, my Ancestry DNA profile tells me I’m a whopping 2 percent Norwegian).The plan
WDAY’s Kevin Wallevand, originally of Vining, is about as Nordic as they come. He wears Norwegian sweaters all winter long and dines on rommegrot and krumkake whenever he gets the chance. In fact, one of my favorite stories about Kevin during our days working together at WDAY is when he asked me to bring a dish of rommegrot from a Concordia College Christmas buffet I was attending. I obviously filled the little plastic cup way too full because on the way back to the station, the rommegrot spilled all over my black wool coat. The look in Kevin’s sad little eyes was heartbreaking as he licked the scant remains that still clung to the cup while I was left picking dried rommegrot off my coat all winter. Lovely.
But back to the lefse. I really do want to understand and learn about this beloved food, so Kevin took me to Moorhead’s Trinity Lutheran Church to learn how to make lefse with some experts — and, perhaps, change my mind about its greatness.The process
We arrived to find longtime lefse teacher Lucia Schroeder and a handful of volunteers hard at work making lefse for the bake sale that was already underway in the foyer of the church. On the counter sat a lefse griddle, an unusual looking rolling pin and something that looks like a yardstick called a turning stick.
There are a number of different ways to make lefse from potato flakes, russet potatoes or even Yukon gold. You can add butter, margarine or oil, and sometimes evaporated milk. The Hungry Jack recipe for "Quick and Easy Lefse" is close to what Lucia showed us. It’s a pretty simple process of mixing potato flakes, oil or butter, water, milk, salt and flour, and forming it into a ball.
The key is to roll out the dough nearly paper-thin using a rolling pin, which is corrugated and covered with a pastry sock and a lot of flour.
The dough is then carefully placed on a heated griddle to cook for just about a minute, or until Kevin says it has brown spots similar to “grandma’s hands.” Flip the lefse with the turning stick to cook on the other side for about 30 seconds. Then let cool between two damp towels to prevent it from drying out. Better yet, eat it hot off the griddle.
That’s what Kevin and I did. We sampled lefse made with both potato flakes and also real potatoes and tried it with butter and sugar.
Kevin says his family tends to use butter and cinnamon sugar, and I prefer butter and brown sugar. I didn’t find the real potatoes versus the flakes to be very different, and both were very good.A conclusion
So am I now a lefse lover? Probably not. I think lefse is good, not earth-shattering.
But I think I’ve come to an important conclusion here. It’s not just the taste of lefse my Norwegian friends, like Kevin, love. It’s what the food represents — warm family gatherings full of laughter and love where Grandma cooked and childhood memories were made. It didn’t matter much if the lefse was served with butter, sugar, cinnamon or even the Christmas turkey. It was just that the lefse was there, year after year, Christmas after Christmas. In an ever-changing world, lefse is a constant, beloved tradition.
So,while I personally might not love lefse, what I do love is that it continues to make so many of my wonderful friends happy every Christmas. That makes me smile.
So God Jul, Norwegian-American friends. Enjoy your lefse. As for me, I spy a plate of peanut blossom cookies over there with my name on it.