Lefse, and Giving Thanks via a Food of Immigration, Poverty, and Oppression

Lefse rolling pin rs
Grooved rolling pin (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

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]

Thanksgiving is a day when Americans recall the myths of their founding, usually associated with the English Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1620, ignoring the Jamestown settlers who arrived (and starved) 13 years earlier. But that’s a tale for many other blog posts. Or even something more.

Whatever.

My husband’s Danish-Norwegian family yearns for lefse during the winter holidays, a legacy of the dark and freezing nights far from the mid-nineteenth-century fjords of their maternal ancestors. It’s unthinkable to go without lefse, even after the passing of all those years. Jello salads, too, play a huge role in Scandinavian-American cuisine, and perhaps we shall discuss those at length later.

But, for now, let’s focus on lefse.

And on the impact of passing time on food traditions other than English, which – as we all know and might not want to admit – still influence Thanksgiving menus, chiefly stuffing – or dressing if you prefer politeness. I wonder if the concept of “stuffed” isn’t just a modern interpretation of why the terminology changed in Victorian time, mayhap another example of food fakelore? It’s more American than Victorian (1837 -1901): search these charts which show the frequency of terms over many years via Google Books, not entirely accurate, but better than extrapolating modern meanings onto terminology or just simply expediency – as it’s easier and faster to cook the farce* outside of the bird or other meat. Another word used was “forcemeat,” clear enough in its meaning. Though, remember, the farce (1390)/stuffing (1538)/forcemeat (1688)/dressing (1880) terminology** refers to the same thing, usually something placed inside a bird or other meat, made of bread crumbs, or lacking wheat bread, cornbread, which early American settlers fell back on before wheat became more readily available. A poor substitute, perhaps, but tasty and treated in much the same way as wheat bread when it came to farce. And, possibly, with more similarities to pottages than to traditional farces.

But enough of that tangent, O.K., and back to lefse, also a type of bread.

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 way back when I first was married, I found it a quaint habit absolutely foreign to my Southern-influenced natal family. I later learned that people in the Old Country often 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.

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. And they fell into the back-breaking work of farming, milking dairy cows day in and day out, plowing fields with horses, tending flocks of turkeys and chickens for spare cash, and caring for herds of pigs. All the while in hock to banks, praying for fair weather and abundant crops.

But that did not mean they escaped oppression. Older relatives of my husband, born in a Norwegian-American town in rural western Wisconsin, told me that they never spoke English until they attended the one-room schools prevalent in that area – even my husband attended one until the late 1950s – and if they breathed a word in Norwegian, they suffered beatings at school. Even years later, as they relayed to me in their still-Norwegian accented English, I sensed their pain and humiliation.

Lefse, food of exile. No different than the cuisine of many others who found themselves on strange shores, making do.

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

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, those 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 – how refreshing, no? 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.

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 several points : 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 unless certain protocol is followed. 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. But there’s an answer to this quandary. Use a heavily floured kitchen towel, that special stick, and a designated griddle heated to 400 degrees.

These days, with good commercial lefse available, it’s the rare family that makes their own lefse. But we made some today.

Vaer så god!

POTATO LEFSE

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

4 T. butter

½ cup heavy whipping cream

1 t. sugar

1 t. salt

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Add the butter, cream, salt, and sugar to the still-warm potatoes. Cool potato mixture overnight in refrigerate. Stir in flour.  Form dough into about 15 balls.

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 rollled-out dough on the lightly greased 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 between pieces of wax paper. Fold lefse into triangles. 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

*Farce comes from the French word farcire, “to stuff” – no surprise, right, that French culinary sensibility plays a role here. But, interestingly, the word originally referred to “stuff” passages, interpolate them, in to the Mass and religious plays.

**Oxford English Dictionary (accessed online through Virginia Tech library)

© 2015 C. Bertelsen

Lefse on grill rs

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Kitty, usually we eat them slathered with butter and rolled up. Sometimes with meatballs inside. They are unleavened griddle breads.

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  2. Merril, sounds lovely. I would like to see that squirrel!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kitty Morse says:

    ET avec quoi ça se mange ces crepes? How do you eat these? Anything on top? They look a bit like unleavened griddle bread. Never had one!

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  4. merrildsmith says:

    We always have the same things because our family likes our traditions. :) Nothing too wild–turkey, gravy (and vegetarian gravy), stuffing. . the cranberry squirrel. I already baked a turkey-shaped challah and pumpkin bread. I’m sure you’re busy, too. Wishing you the best!

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  5. Thanks, Merril. Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving. What’s on your menu?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. merrildsmith says:

    Fascinating, Cindy. Thank you for the history lesson, as well as the recipe!

    Like

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