Lefse, Food of Exile

Homemade Lefse in Norway (Used with permission of Michele Graham.)
Homemade Lefse in Norway (Used with permission of Michele Graham.)

“Yew tak yust ten big potatoes
Den yew boil dem till dar done.”

~~Beginning of a lefse recipe~~

Term: lefse (food)

Definition: thin, unleavened bread of Norwegian origin, traditionally made of a potato-based dough and baked on a griddle

[Source: Dictionary of American Regional English]

I used to worry that the lefse we ordered from Wisconsin for holidays might go bad because the vendor only offered a two-day and three-day shipping service. When I began studying up on lefse for this article and found out that people in the Old Country made lefse for the entire year at one fell swoop, filling the stabbur or wooden storehouse, I realized that a day here or there would hardly make a difference.

So what exactly is this stuff that Norwegian Americans swoon over and about which non-Norwegians say, “What the hey??”

And therein lurks a tale.

C. Bertelsen)
Lefse Rolling Pin (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Lefse, a thin, flat bread so beloved of Norwegian Americans at holiday times, tells a somber story. Behind the knobby brown flecks and the grooves cut by special lefse rolling pin lies an odyssey of poverty, exile, and longing for Norway, the home country.

Over 855,000 Norwegians emigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1875. Most left because of the impossibility of farming Norway’s mountainous, rocky soil.  Only about 5000 square miles of 125,000 could be put to the plow. And even then, huge boulders and rocks stood in the way of the plow. America’s Homestead Act of 1862, meant to draw immigrants to populate the young country, encouraged many Norwegians to leave their homeland.

But another situation galvanized this exodus, largely unmentioned in diaries and letters:  the social stratifications of Norway demanded humiliating submission by the poorer classes to the rich. As democratic movements sprang up like fairy rings after a summer rain – in Latin America, the United States, France – the peasants of Norway looked west and saw a way out. By coming to America, they escaped the rigid feudal hierarchy of Old Europe.

C. Bertelsen)
Ingredients for Lefse (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

And so they came, bringing lefse and lutefisk, immortalizing both of these poverty foods that sustained them through bad harvests and arctic winters.

Rolling Out Lefse (Used wiht permission.)
Rolling Out Lefse (Used with permission.)

Food of exile.

Women used to get together in Norway and make enough lefse to last for a year. Dried and stored in a barrel, this lefse – called Hardanger – consisted of various types of flour and liquid ingredients. Potatoes didn’t appear in lefse until the mid-1700s. This lefse could only be eaten by wetting and warming it slightly. Resembling the hardtack eaten by sailors and soldiers of the times, lefse provided a crucial addition to the meager diet of Norwegian peasants and, later, immigrants to the United States.

Meanwhile, in Norway, life moved on, and lefse and lutefisk disappeared into the black hole of quaint culinary history. Today, there’s something called lompe, used to wrap around a hot dog in eastern Norway, while in the western part, cooks make lefse called potetkake, similar to the lefse Norwegian Americans know. It is also called potetlomper.

But not in America. In the early days after immigration, a woman’s worth could be measured by the thinness and lightness of her lefse, not her figure. Take the  “Little Lefse Maker.” That’s what it says on the gravestone of a 92-year-old woman – Grandma Helga Schomdahl (1892-1984), buried in a small Minnesota town.

Baking lefse (Used with permission.)
Baking lefse (Used with permission.)

Cookbooks (see list below) include recipes for a variety of lefse, particularly Potetlefse (potato lefse). Most church cookbooks and others give no details on the intricacies of making lefse. Good lefse requires discernment of : 1) too much or too little flour, 2) the proper temperature of the griddle or pan, and 3) the mixture’s temperature – it can’t be too cold or too warm.

Truth be told, making lefse is chaos incarnated. The sticky, gummy dough makes a cook’s rolling pin look like a child dipped it in library glue. And the countertops – whew, it’s as if a troop of trolls blew through the kitchen, playing in the flour, starting a food fight.

These days, with good commercial lefse available, it’s the rare family that makes their own lefse. Probably with good reason!

Vaer saa god!

POTATO LEFSE

1 ½ to 2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, and riced, to make 4 cups (lightly packed)

4 T. butter

½ cup whipping cream

2 t. sugar

1 t. salt

1 cup flour

Add the butter to the still-warm potatoes. Cool potato mixture to room temperature. When cool, stir in the remaining ingredients. 1/3 cup lefse dough makes a 12-inch final product. Form dough into patties, let sit for 5 minutes (this helps the flour to soak up the liquid better).

Roll out on well-floured pastry cloth. Pick up the lefse with the stick or thin knife like a slicing knife for roast beef. Put it on the griddle or the pan. Cook 30 seconds – lefse will bubble up and show brow flecks. Turn over gently with the stick and cook briefly on the other side.

Stack the lefse in piles of 10-12. Let cool. Store in plastic bags in freezer for up to six months.

NORWEGIAN COOKBOOKS OF NOTE

(Not included are all the church and community cookbooks available.)

Aunt Hildur’s Excellent Norwegian Recipes, by Richard A. Thorud

Authentic Norwegian Cooking, by Astrid Karlsen Scott

Christmas in Dairyland, by LeAnn R. Ralph

From Norway to Newport … Flavors of the Fjords Norwegian Holiday Cookbook, by Faith Cottrell Raymond Connors et all.

The Last Word on Lefse: Heartwarming Stories – and Recipes Too!, by Greg Legwold

Grandma’s Norwegian Cookbook, by Ted Salveson

Leftover Lefse, by Art Lee

Lutheran Church Basement Women: Lutefisk, Lefse, Lunch, and Jell-o, by Janet Letnes Martin and Allen Todnem

Norwegian National Recipes: An Inspiring Journey in the Culinary History of Norway, by Arne Brimi and Ardis Kaspersen

Notably Norwegian, by Louise Roalson

OooLa La! Lefse!, by Chef Christian Jeanmarie Guibert

Time-Honored Norwegian Recipes, by Sigrid Marstrander

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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  1. Pingback: Norwegian Lefse

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