I am a huge fan of ethnic food, which is one of the main reasons why I live in Minneapolis. But sometimes I forget that my European roots have some pretty great contributions to the “ethnic” category, with names that can compete with the likes of sambus and masamam and rellenos.
Take lefse (lef -suh) for example. The first holiday I spent with Eric’s family, we sat down to Thanksgiving dinner and I surveyed the fantastic looking spread my mother-in-law had put out…turkey: check. mashed potatoes: check. stuffing: check….but then I spied something that looked remarkably like the love-child of a tortilla and a crepe, and I innocently asked the table, “What’s that?”
Despite the fact that my Swedish ancestors and Eric’s Norwegian kinfolk probably lived mildly similar lives, I’d never seen, nor heard of, nor tasted lefse until that day a few years ago. After the initial shock wore off, I could see a lot of happiness in their eyes as they introduced me to this “poor man’s food” of Norway.
The dough is made of a mixture of flour and potatoes, milk and cream, then rolled within an 1/8 inch of its life on a muslin cloth. This is not a friendly dough. It longs to stick to the cloth…and more flour is added…and more sticking happens…and then your father-in-law, who is a pastor, gets the closest to cussing you’ve ever heard. There were “gosh-dernits” and “dang-bustits” flying all over the kitchen. When you hear the vocal racket subside, then you know you’ve got the right consistency for perfect lefse.
Then, the delicate flatbread dough is transferred to the lefse griddle with this long, thin wooden stick that I’m sure Norwegian children probably used as viking swords. There, it sits on the heated grill for about a minute, then is flipped with another long stick, until it browns and bubbles slightly on both sides.
After that, it’s ready to be buttered liberally and sprinkled with sugar..and eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert. You can put some jam in there. You can throw in your left-over turkey. Essentially, it’s a wrap. But a potatoey, soft, chewy wrap, that I think best goes with butter and sugar. (Purists…please feel free to weigh in on what is “best” or most traditional).
So that’s lefse. Carefully crafted. Simple-tasting. Blissfully traditional. We all have those foods that mean home to us…the ones you make at holidays in a warm and busy kitchen with some sort of festive music in the background. Lefse is no exception. It’s an event to make, and one that we were all involved in. It’s an un-decadent food from un-decadent people–but with a touch of sugar, it’s a delicious addition to a holiday meal. Call me nostalgic and a moderate history dork, but I love to imagine poor Norwegian immigrants scraping together enough cash to buy some sugar for their lefse to make Christmas really feel like Christmas. Food has that power to bring us home no matter where we are…
What are some of the foods that bring you home?
PS: Here is a story in the Norwegian oral tradition…
Ole was on his death bed. But before he died, he wanted to have one last taste of lefse. Even as weak as he was, he was able to crawl out of bed and go down the stairs to the kitchen. After about 20 minutes of agonizing pain he reached the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator door he slowly reached for the lefse. He was just about to grab it when suddenly a hand came out from nowhere, slapped his hand, and a voice boomed out, “Ole, that’s for the Funeral!”