Food gets a bad wrap this time of year. While we worry about how we’ll say no to or refrain from eating too much dessert and stuffing and duck and turkey and potatoes and everything else that’s put out, served, given, and offered us between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, it’s easy to forget the rich traditions engrained in many of the holiday foods we make and offer others. I’d hate to see us lose perspective.
Yes, food can be a head game, but food can also be a manifestation of love and tradition. It can bring stories to the table of, “I remember Grandma always making…” or “Tasting that reminds me of…”
For Christmas, my Grandma Signe always made Aunt Sally cookies (with an empty Spam can, just like this recipe link calls for) and Norwegian flatbread, which never came out flat. My mom made date nut squares and Russian teacakes. And Grandma Katinka made the goddess of all holiday food: lefse.
At holiday family dinners, lefse was the main course, or at least it was to me. Lefse is rolled out very thinly and put on a griddle to produce large rounds. My mother always cut the rounds in half before serving and we kids were only allowed to take a half and no more until everyone at the table got some. There was usually enough for seconds, but rarely ever thirds. I would spread a thin layer of butter and sprinkle a little sugar on it before rolling it into a tube. The small dark bubbles formed by the griddle opened up under my tongue, the sugar ground softly then dissolved between my teeth, and the taste of potatoes and butter and sugar brought me to what I can only describe as a food orgasm.
Lefse was our ambrosia, a family tradition brought here from Norway. The women in our church (which was known as the Norwegian Lutheran Church even though it wasn’t formally called that, but it made the distinction between us and the German Lutheran Church, which wasn’t really named that either) used to spend an entire day making hundreds of lefse to sell at the annual church bazaar. Like customers camping outside Best Buy to purchase the latest Wii, people lined up outside our church well before the bazaar started just to buy lefse. It always sold out within minutes.
While my mother never learned to make it, I never worried about having lefse at Thanksgiving and Christmas because Grandma always came through. But when grandma got too old to make lefse, we had to rely on the generosity of one of my aunts to provide our fix. We were often reduced to buying lefse at the store, which, no matter how “hand-rolled” it was, tasted only faintly of the potatoey goodness my grandma produced. It was never “Plenty good” as my great-uncle George would say.
This went on for years. After I moved to Pennsylvania in the early 90s, Dad would ship me lutefisk from from Minnesota and I’d order lefse from a bakery in Wisconsin. (Lutefisk is one food that didn’t take a back seat to lefse, but is one that, alas, I won’t be consuming this year due to my vegetarianism; for more info, read last year’s blog, “ The Lutefisk is Here! The Lutefisk is Here! ”) The lutefisk was good, but it would have been better with Grandma’s lefse. Then in 2004, Aunt Shirley came to the rescue. No, she didn’t give me lefse. She taught me how to make it.
Give a woman lefse and she eats for a day. Teach her how to make lefse, and she’s the most popular member of her immediate family.
I remember that day well, particularly since I use the photo of me making lefse as my representative “before” photo on my original website, Lynn’s Journey. I had to stand to roll out the dough and I remember my back hurting me so much that I had to take frequent breaks. I denied that it hurt because I was morbidly obese. I blamed it on heredity – Dad has a bad back so naturally I did, too.
Anyway, I can stand for what feels like forever now which is good because tomorrow, my daughters and granddaughter are coming to Clarion and we’re making 100 lefse which will be distributed to my four siblings, my parents and kids.
I make lefse with pride and love. I am happiest when I can give my family the gift of memories of our holiday dinners, and if its via food, so be it. While we’re all scattered across the country and often see things from varying points of view, lefse is one of our familial binders, that something we all have stories about, a common denominator, so to speak.
To me, lefse embodies love. Most foods don’t. But at this time of year, I hope you’ll think about how food and love intersect in your life. Yes, there’s a lot of food out there right now, but which ones mean more to you than empty calories and heartburn?