This post was authored by Stephanie Marcus, Science Reference & Research Specialist, in the Science, Technology, and Business Division of the Library of Congress. She is also author of the blog post “Kebabs, Kabobs, Shish Kebabs, Shashlyk, and: Chislic.”
I considered writing my December blog post about leeches and bloodletting, but decided that wouldn’t be a very cheery topic for this holiday period. Instead I decided to reach into my Norwegian American heritage and write about lefse. If you’ve never heard of lefse, think of a crepe or a soft tortilla, and you’ll have the idea.
I grew up in Canton, a tiny town in southeastern South Dakota. Many of the locals were of Norwegian descent—I was surrounded by Johnsons, Andersons, Paulsons, Olafsons, Larsons, Ulricksons, Ericksons—everyone was somebody’s “son.” In the Lutheran church, we even sang Christmas carols in Norwegian. My maternal grandmother, who lived 60 miles away in Vermillion, was born a Nelson (married a Greek!), and when we gathered at her house for Christmas, she always had lefse for us. Although lefse was available year-round in Norway, it is more often a holiday food in the U.S., served especially around Christmas.
The ingredients of the lefse I’ve consumed are simple: russet potatoes, butter, milk or cream, and flour. After boiling the potatoes, they are riced or mashed and melted butter and cream are added. That mixture is refrigerated and the flour later mixed in. Balls of the dough are flattened into circles with a special grooved rolling pin. A lefse griddle (or a skillet) is used to brown the circles and a long wooden lefse stick is used to transfer them to the griddle and to flip them. The end product has brown speckles on it and is delicious spread with butter, sprinkled with white or brown sugar (maybe add a little cinnamon) and rolled up or folded into quarters. That’s the way we ate lefse, but you could put most anything on it. I’ve heard of peanut butter, jam, honey or lingonberries, but also meatballs and mashed potatoes. If you want to eat it with lutefisk (dried fish soaked in water and lye), don’t come near me! Also, if you’re worried about calories, a six inch diameter lefse is around 77 calories, and the rest is up to you.
The soft lefse isn’t the only type, either. Hardanger lefse is made just with flour, turns out more like a cracker, and can be stored for months and then softened for use by moistening with water and placing between damp towels or steaming between wet paper towels in the microwave. This is how lefse was made in Norway before potatoes were introduced there in the 18th century. A friend grew up eating this type of lefse. She said it was called Iowa lefse, while the potato lefse was called Minnesota lefse.
If you’re browsing our catalog for books, the subject heading is “Cooking, Norwegian.” Hunting in the Library’s stacks for Norwegian recipe books in English, I located eight. In the translation of Norway’s Delight: Dishes and Specialties, first written by Elise Sverdrup in 1957, you have to be a sleuth to find a recipe for lefse. There’s nothing under that term in the English index, but thumbing through the book, I found Hardanger Bannocks in the section on Norwegian specialties. This recipe calls for flour, cream and eggs, and when finished, she says to pile them up with sugar and butter between layers, then cut into wedge-shaped slices. In other books you can find lefse listed under snacks, desserts, pancakes, or breads. In the 1947 compilation Cook Book: Norwegian Recipes, Magny Landstad-Jensen lists recipes for lefse under pancakes and calls them potato pancakes, potato cakes and rolled pancakes. The recipe provided by Mrs. Astrid Erickson of Brooklyn, NY is for Hardanger-Lefse and includes syrup and sour cream (that would raise the calorie count!). One recipe in Authentic Norwegian Cooking by Astrid Karlsen Scott would give many cooks heart failure. She includes “quick potato lefse” which uses instant potatoes! Lucky for us in the Internet age, we just have to type lefse in a search and find hundreds of recipes. Better yet, at least for me—you can order it online!
If you’d like to get more of the flavor of Norway and the Norwegian American experience, the book Notably Norwegian: Recipes, Festivals, Folk Arts tells the whole story of Norway and of Norwegian Americans, beginning with the start of their emigration from Norway in 1825. You will find out about Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American Museum & Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa, which traces its beginnings to 1877 and was one of the first folk life museums in the U.S. The museum has over 33,000 artifacts and includes 12 historic buildings. And yes, there are lefse events wherever there are large populations of Scandinavian Americans.
Skol and Happy New Year to everyone!