Back in 2005 I took a roadtrip to the US Midwest — down to Iowa City, Iowa where I successfully defended my dissertation at the University of Iowa. It’s about a four-day drive from Kamloops if you stay fairly concentrated on just making the miles go by. On Day Three I stopped for a break in Chamberlain, South Dakota at a (then) new Cabela’s outdoor store. Mainly it was just an excuse to get out of the car for a while, but I ended up browsing the store’s extensive offering of books on outdoor, hunting, fishing and cooking topics. I picked up a book on sausage making that I’d been looking for, and spotted a fun-looking little book that reminded me of a friend of mine.
That book was Gary Legwold’s “The Last Word On Lefse” — simultaneously a celebration of the Norwegian flatbread and the men and women who still make it. As I continued my trip, I read that book and realized what I’d been doing wrong with my own efforts to make lefse. My lefse-making friends in Minnesota were surprised when I admitted I’d gotten it wrong. Leaving Iowa City as a newly-minted Ph.D., I started back north and then went over to Decorah, Iowa which is Ground Zero for the Norwegian-American presence in the United States. There I bought myself a lefse rolling pin and a Bethany Heritage Griddle, the gold standard for lefse makers.
Now you get two digressions: What’s Lefse? and Why I’m Not Norwegian.
Lefse is a flatbread unique to Norwegian heritage. In “The Old Country” — which modern Norwegians call “home” — flatbreads made with flour and/or other starchy additions were common foods that kept a lot of people from starving in hard times. If you think about it, the people who were most in danger of starving in hard times made the trip to America looking for a better life. Lefse and other simple foods became symbols that reminded them of home in many ways. Back home, however, things moved on. Modern Norwegians are usually at best quietly tolerant of the way Norwegian-Americans put lefse (and lutefisk and rommegrot) on a pedestal.
By the numbers, there are now more Norwegian-Americans than Norwegians, and Norwegian scholars travel to the US Midwest to study cultural practices and dialects that are not found in Norway any more. In general this is called “The Museum Effect.”
So, back to lefse! Probably the most popular form of the approximately 30 different kinds is potato lefse, made with mashed potatoes and wheat flour. There are soft lefse and hard lefse, with potato and without, griddled, par-cooked, baked…with toppings or without, thin lefse versus thick lefse — think of it like any other unleavened flatbread in other cultures. But most people seem to get excited over potato lefse.
Second digression: Why I’m Not Norwegian. Because my heritage is Scottish, that’s why! But you can’t be Scottish without, as they say, a little Viking in the mix back down the line somewhere. My parents had close Norwegian friends, and courtesy of being raised in North Dakota my mother probably felt more “Scandi” than Scottish. Whatever my heritage, I grew up around diverse cultural foods and discovered an ability to cook at an early age. One of my favourite things is making lefse.
From 2005 to 2018 I have been making lefse pretty regularly. It’s not a huge deal anymore; just get the stuff together and spend the time to make it. Look in the “Bake-up” section of this lonely little blog and you’ll find my recipe. I occasionally go back and re-read portions of Legwold’s book to get some extra inspiration. I’ve emailed a few times with Gary, thanking him for his book and later sending pictures of my lefse. (We grow a couple of blue potato varieties on our farm, which make excellent lefse. Lefse makers can be pretty traditional, so I sent him some pictures which he appreciated.) While making a batch last weekend I thought, “I wonder what Gary’s up to these days?” Hey, Google is your friend. Turns out he’s got a website, online store, and even a new book out!
Find him at http://lefseking.com .
Wonder of wonders, YouTube is full of lefse videos. Like everything else on “Teh Interwebz” I caution you that not all those people know what they’re talking about. Gary’s been my lefse guru because he put things in a way I could understand and “he knows his onions” as they used to say when I was a kid. So I bought his new book. It’s on the way and I’ll amend this post with a review once I have it.
As for the rest, Gary’s an excellent teacher. I sometimes wish I still lived not too far from him in Eastern South Dakota — I’d make a pilgrimage to one of his seminars, visit some lefse factories, etc. But I don’t wish that in the winter! If you’re not on the Northwest coast of Oregon and Washington or in the “Norwegian Heartland” of South/North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin you’ll have a hard time finding some of the tools. Gary’s got ’em all. My heart went pitty-pat over a couple of his rolling pins, and there’s an interesting new development in keeping lefse fresh (the lefse cozy) that I’ll have to think over for a while.
Even if you’re not the least curious about lefse, then I hope you’ll at least discover some new culinary styles. I cook in several Asian cuisine-spaces, various European and UK, Latin American styles…love it all! Let me know how you’re doing!