Lefse: Norwegian America’s holy bread
Peasant food to some, soft potato flatbread speaks Norwegian to the generations
Judith Gabriel Vinje
Lefse—there’s nary a Norwegian American who doesn’t love the stuff. Defined as a humble Norwegian potato bread delicacy, it serves an almost sacred function as the primary Norwegian-American link to grandparents and their roots.
The velvet ivory rounds with tan polka dots from the griddle emit a subtle scent that most find irresistible.
Eagerly anticipated as the starring treat at Christmas dinner—often served with lutefisk, and more usually wrapped up into a little tube with butter and sugar—lefse is successfully making its way through successive generations to hold its place as the most beloved aspect of Norwegian inheritance.
The major connector to Norwegian roots among generation after generation of American immigrants’ offspring, lefse holds a position almost akin to holy bread for millions. And for many, it is the only link to their heritage, often enticing those who crave it to Sons of Norway lodges and Scandinavian festivals, and more recently, to searches on the internet (where recipes abound, along with sources that sell lefse-making equipment as well as lefse itself).
Grandmothers are fondly remembered who would make dozens of lefse and mail packages of it around the U.S. to their grandchildren around Christmas time. And it is still a major link to the new generations, as lefse is introduced to Norwegian-American children often in infancy.
Not Viking fare
As much as one thinks of lefse as being part and parcel of Norwegian culture and history, it is in fact a relatively new arrival on the menu. It was definitely not Viking fare, although a variety of wheat-based flatbreads were. Flatbread loaves, baked over hot stones or over an open fire, have been found in Viking graves.
Potatoes didn’t arrive in Norway until about 1750, according to Kirsti Lothe Jacobsen, senior academic librarian of the University of Bergen, who curated an exhibition about the potato’s history in Norway in 2008, during the United Nations’ International Year of the Potato.
The potato originated in the Andes Mountains in Latin America. The natives had been growing potatoes for 10,000 years when the first Europeans arrived. Potatoes were brought to Norway by priests who grew them in their parsonages, and hence were called “potato priests” because they spread the message of the crop from their pulpits.
This was a welcome and needed addition to the Norwegian diet, because there was rampant scurvy and Vitamin C deficiency in Norway at the time. The potato is a sure cure for this.
Furthermore, the potato was easily cultivated in the Norwegian climate and soil. But at first, it was met with resistance. The potato finally became appreciated during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, in the face of near starvation from British blockades of the seas around Norway, which led to reduced grain imports and a severe famine. The people learned they could grow potatoes, and “the Norwegian love affair with the potato was born,” according to Jacobsen.
Norway was suffering from the famine about the same time many Norwegians started emigrating to the U.S.
Now, round flatbreads had been made since Viking days in Norway. And for centuries, the flatbread was more like a cracker. It would last throughout the winter, being stored in wooden boxes or stacked on shelves. When you wanted one, you’d dip it in water and soak between damp cloths until it was soft again. Not too long ago, all flat baked goods were made in the Eldhuset, a separate house for preparing food. These included småbrod and flatbrød, which require no refrigeration.
Today in Norway, those are still some of the many versions of lefse available in supermarkets, along with the soft potato variety. And while some Norwegians dismiss lefse as “peasant food,” a large number of Norwegian women still make batches of the stuff, according to Trond Woxen, an Oslo-based writer. It is served with jam and cream, or with herring and eggs, as well as salmon, liver paste, cottage cheese, and mayonnaise. And yes, with sugar and butter. Lefse and lutefisk is a Norse-Minnesota concoction, Woxen notes, adding that in Norway, “One eats the sturdier lømpe and rakfisk, fresh-water fish that has been cured for at least half a year, but without the lye that makes lutefisk.”
Among the Norwegian-American community, there are many ways to access or even make lefse. Scandinavian festivals have lefse booths. Sons of Norway lodges make lefse, teaching the younger generations how to roll just right. One lodge in Vancouver, Wash., uses 60 pounds of potatoes to make lefse once a month!
It’s no simple, primitive thing, however. Making lefse requires some skill, and it also requires certain equipment to facilitate the process. Basics include an electric, temperature-regulated lefse grill, special rolling pin, a lefse turning stick (a long wooden spatula), and pastry cloth covers for the rolling board. All these products are available online. Although many will remember their grandmothers making lefse atop wooden stoves, using a turning stick whittled by grandfathers.
Making lefse can seem daunting to the newcomer. Recipes—with dozens of variants—abound on the internet.
And for those who don’t have time or won’t bother, lefse can be ordered and delivered right to one’s door. There are countless suppliers of lefse in the U.S. Granrud’s Lefse Shack, for instance, based in the northeastern Montana community of Opheim (pop. 283), mails lefse to all 50 states. With four machines, production is almost 600 packages a day. (In 1998, Granrud’s Lefse was named “Official Lefse of Høstfest” held in Minot, North Dakota, in October.)
Beverly King grew up third-generation Norwegian in northern Minnesota. Now she makes lefse and sells it through her business, King’s Norsk Products, and during events like Estes Park’s annual Scandinavian Midsummer Festival. She turns out 250 pounds or more each week. And now, her grandson works with her full-time in the industrial kitchen—complete with automated rolling pins—adjoining her home in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.
No one yet is making ceramic lefse plaques to hang on the wall or lefse Frisbees, but Norsland Lefse makes “Uffda Chips” from real lefse, available with cinnamon sugar or seasoned salt.
As well as being sold at state fairs throughout the Midwest, there are lefse festivals, such as the Barnesville, Minnesota, Potato Days Festival, which hosts the National Lefse Cook-off in late August. Lefse Dagen Festival takes place in Starbuck, Minn., where the town’s record for the World’s Largest Lefse was set in 1983 by residents who baked a 9-foot 8-inch, 70-pound piece to mark the town’s centennial. A 12-foot roller was used to make the round, which was cooked on a 10 by 10 foot steel grill.
But big or small, for Norwegian-Americans of several generations, even if it’s cooked on an old iron frying pan (quite doable) lefse grows in stature as the decades and centuries dwindle away, proving that the most humble link to one’s roots is also the most enduring.
Lefse fit for a Norwegian
Barbara Wiik of Los Angeles is the chief lefse maker for her Sons of Norway Lodge, Edvard Grieg #74. She has taught dozens of Norwegian Americans her method and gets lots of experience because she makes it several times a year.
Says Barbara Wiik: “Why do I make so much lefse? Well, I did marry a guy that was born in Oslo, Norway, 33 years ago and he loves it with butter and sugar, cheese, peanut butter, hot dogs, eggs, and anything else he can think of. I also know a few Norwegians who never seem to have enough lefse during the holidays or when unexpected company shows up for visits. I also send lefse as Christmas gifts to family and friends. They use it for repairing the soles of their shoes, missing shingles and tiles on houses, and Frisbies. Add friends, a bit of aquavit, and lefse you will always have a good time.”
10 lbs. russet potatoes, steamed (I use a vegetable steamer plate. Add water to just above the plate and steam about one hour.)
1 lb. butter
3 tbsps. sugar
3 tsps. salt
2 cups flour
When potatoes are tender, rice them into a large glass bowl adding butter as you go. Use a glass bowl because plastic bowls sweat and make the potatoes too wet. Add sugar and salt.
Put your gloves on and mix very well. Pat down the potatoes in the bowl, cover with a paper towel, and leave on kitchen sink overnight. Do not refrigerate. The next morning mix together 4 cups potatoes with the flour.
Make into 4 oz. balls (use a postage scale if you don’t have a kitchen scale), then start rolling. I use a piece of marine plywood covered with a piece of sail canvas. Use a well-floured, square-slotted wooden rolling pin covered with a rolling sock. Roll as large as a pizza, as thin as a crepe. The thinner the lefse is, the better.
Cook on a lefse griddle or electric pizza maker. If bubbles emerge, pat them down. Cook both sides. When done stack the lefse between two to four terrycloth towels until all are cool. You can cut in fours or just fold two or three lefse into a gallon size baggie. I use freezer baggies if I know they will be frozen a while. Never package your lefse warm—they will get moldy and be ruined.
There are so many tricks to making lefse. The best way is to watch someone who has done it for years and then go from there.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.