Lefse helps families stick together

Generations reunite for food and heritage

Photo: Keith Swanson 60 pounds of potatoes and 30 family members make this lefse special.

Photo: Keith Swanson
60 pounds of potatoes and 30 family members make this lefse special.

Solveig Lee
Mount Vernon, Wash.

The day was Saturday, November 22, 2014, just before Thanksgiving. As in years of the past, family members arrived at the home of Eugene and Marie Swanson in the Nookachamps near Mount Vernon, Washington. Once again, about 30 family members—children, grandchildren, and their spouses—arrived to make lefse, as well as learn a bit of their heritage.

Eugene’s mother was Hilda. Her parents were Albert and Pauline Olsen. As a toddler, Eugene loved to see his mother make, then he could sample, those Norwegian goodies—fattigmand, krumkake, and lefse—as well as lutefisk. She made potato lefse and occasionally, a special lefse called krina lefse. Eugene never made it himself, but he could see to it that family would learn to do so.

Eugene’s heritage stems to a small village called Fagervik in Helgeland, Nordland. It was a village located between the ocean and a high mountain. His grandfather, Albert, was a fisherman who went to Lofoten and Finnemarken and other areas to fish, often being gone for months at a time. The women and children were left home to care for family and the animals. The year was 1893 when Albert decided that all of the family should leave Norway and emigrate to America. A friend in America paid his passage. In America, Albert worked to pay for that passage, then earned money for the tickets for his wife and three children.

In April of 1894, therefore, Hilda, who was then six years old, left her homeland and traveled steerage on the ship that landed in New York City. They traveled on the train to Chicago, then on to Granite Falls, Minnesota. The final part of the journey—10 miles—was by horse and wagon.

In 1896, Albert moved to North Dakota, where he filed for a 160-acre homestead. With a team of horses, a wagon, and one colt, the family took off for their next home. Roads are said to have been merely trails that followed the Sioux Line railroad. The cow was behind the wagon. Chickens and a rooster were in a crate on the back of the wagon. His mother walked the cow so that she kept going. In the summer of 1896, they began to make a sod house. In the spring, they built a lumber “shanty” to use for storage.

The family’s next move was to Washington state and a home by Liberty Bay and Poulsbo, Washington. The year was 1913 when the Olsen family moved to Mount Vernon. At first, they lived on a farm near Avon. Through the years, they witnessed many changes, such as coal-oil lamps used in the house, coal-oil lanterns in the barn. By 1915, a small rural telephone company with a 10-party line came to be.

Through his adult years, Eugene worked in construction. He built many schools and houses in Mount Vernon. He is especially proud of the construction of First Lutheran Church in that town.

So has been a life well lived. Heritage and acceptances of challenges are but a joy.

As Eugene watched his mother make lefse when he was young, he continues to watch his children, his grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren enjoy that which has been filled with happiness.

Now the family makes potato lefse. They bought 60 pounds of Skagit County potatoes. On Saturday night before the event, they peeled potatoes and cooked them. When the potatoes were cold, they were mashed. After adding a little butter to the mixture, they formed balls and put them in the refrigerator overnight. On Saturday morning, the family’s gathering took place.

In the group that met in Mount Vernon was one member who came all the way from Florida. The home place was not the only place the family met.

Granddaughter Dana Grange, Eugene and Marie’s granddaughter, who had always been a member of the group, now lives in Calgary, Alberta. Nancy, Eugene, and Marie’s daughter, flew to Calgary to make lefse with her daughter, and granddaughters ages four and two. All they had to do was skype. With the help of technology, all were together like one big happy family.

Yes, the love for Norway and that which is Norwegian lives on.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.