American-Norwegian Traditions:

The Making of Lefse

 

       There felt like there was so much to write about that I could not include it all in the PowerPoint presentation.  So, I have included this paper to supplement what I have learned during my final project.  

 

       Even though I was not able to roll out any rounds of lefse, this project still provided me with a wonderful opportunity to learn more about another culture and the traditions associated with that culture.  In this way, it was a very fulfilling and interesting project--all the more inspiration for me to learn the wonderful art form of making lefse.

            Through my research I saw how traditions and customs can become misguided among people who are not a part of that given culture.  There are over 50 varieties of lefse!  Before this I thought the only way to make lefse was with potatoes.  Furthermore, I have also witnessed the diversity that can be found within a single culture.  As I stated in my PowerPoint presentation, the way lefse is made and served varies according to region and familial traditions.  Still, even people within a given culture may believe that their way is the “right” or “authentic” way of doing something.   

            This seemed to be the case as I was searching for an all-encompassing definition for lefse.  Everywhere I looked almost every definition of lefse stated that it was made with potatoes.  While this is a very popular way to make lefse in the United States, it is certainly not the only way.  However, because most Americans make lefse this way that is how it is defined in many books and websites. 

            Therefore, another trend I noticed as I was doing my research was the contradictions and exceptions surrounding lefse.  Below are stories that show not only some of the contradictions I encountered during my research, but also the rich diversity and uniqueness found within on culture.

A Fading Tradition in Norway

            It is said that today people in Norway no longer eat lefse or lutefisk.  When I asked Ms. Lee about this statement, she said the reason for this was Norwegians associate these two foods with peasants.  While lefse and lutefisk sustained people during difficult times, Norway is now more prosperous.  Therefore, they have more options concerning their diet. 

           Still even though many Norwegians do not eat lefse or lutefisk, Ms. Lee knows there are some people that who to carry on these traditions in Norway. However, in order to help break the stigma of lefse being peasant food, it seems that Norwegian may serve lefse in a non-traditional way.  For example, even though Ms. Lee’s cousin in Oslo enjoys making lefse, the way she serves it is anything but traditional.  “[My cousin] might fill it with a whipped cream and fruit filling…or crab meat salad.”  No matter which way it is served--sugar and butter, whipped cream and fruit, crabmeat salad… All I can say is, “Yum.”  

A Celebrated Tradition in the United States

            If people in Norway no longer eat as much lefse or lutefisk, why is it a tradition that Norwegian-Americans continue?  Ms. Lee said that when her relatives immigrated, Norway was still going through some difficult times.  Therefore, lefse and lutefisk were still staples in their diet.  So in order to celebrate their past during the holidays Norwegian-Americans would serve the foods that they associated with their homelands.  Even though things have changed since then, this is how past immigrants remember their homeland.

So, Lefse or Lutefisk?

            As I was speaking to Ms. Lee, she said that between lefse and lutefisk, lefse is more prevalent in Norway.  However, when I spoke to a member of the Sons of Norway, he claimed just the opposite was true.  He said hardly anyone in Norway at lefse anymore, but lutefisk still had its place in their diet.  It is difficult to know who to believe because they both still communicate with relatives in Norway, and they both have visited the country.  Perhaps, neither is right and neither is wrong, these two views just represent the complexity of Norway and its people.

Lefse--A Dessert or a Wrap?

            When speaking to the same gentleman as mentioned above, he told me that in Norway lefse was only served after the meal as a dessert.  He said that the practice of wrapping lutefisk in lefse was only a Norwegian-American tradition that many Norwegians felt was a taboo.  On the other hand, while reading excerpts from Keeping Christmas:  Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, the author, Kathleen Stokker, says even though she has heard this statement, she disputes its truthfulness.  On page 22 she writes, “Plates and forks did not arrive in rural Norway until the twentieth century.  Even after these urban amenities had spread to the countryside, the custom of placing lutefisk on the handheld flatbread persisted.”[i]   Therefore, this shows another reason why it is so hard, if not impossible, to try and classify a given culture from only one perspective.

A Family Tradition--A Personal Tradition

            As I mentioned in my PowerPoint, Ms. Lee felt quite strongly about lefse being a family tradition.  While her daughters are a bit reluctant to learn, Ms. Lee has enrolled her granddaughters to help her carry on the tradition.  Still in my readings for this project, I also read of some people who just enjoyed making lefse.  Whether they were alone or with a group of people, the act of making lefse was therapeutic for them.  These preferences to making lefse not only speak of one’s idea of cultural tradition, but also his or her personal preferences as well. 

            Nevertheless, one point many people did agree on was that lefse making was a lot of work.  In fact, it is part of the reason Mrs. Elvekrog has reduced her lefse making production.  (Although when people meet her it might be hard to tell.)  Since Mrs. Elvekrog’s husband passed away, she mentioned that making lefse is not the same.  So, while she enjoys making lefse and helping out at the Sons of Norway, part of enjoyment has been lessened since she lost her lefse making partner.  In this way, Mrs. Elvekrog seems to have strong ties to both the familial and personal traditions of lefse making.

Circles of Tradition

            As I spoke with people about lefse, I tried to determine where their lefse making fit into the circles of tradition.  For the most part, it appears as though Ms. Lee, Mrs. Elvekrog and those I spoke with at the Sons of Norway about lefse making fit into the Perceived Circle[ii] .  While all of these lefse makers have used lefse to connect with their communities, it is not out of necessity as it once was.  Mrs. Elvekrog spoke of her grandmother helping other women make lefse on a wood-burning stove because that was part of their everyday life.    However, that is no longer necessary in the Norway or the United States. 

            The tradition of lefse has, “been transformed in the context of the twentieth-century American life so that they bear diminished resemblance in form, technique, or function to the original practice.  While there are some who try to keep more of the original traditions of lefse making alive, the traditions are slowly fading away and being replaced by technological gadgets that have been designed to make lefse making easier.  There are also those who no longer even chose to make lefse.  Instead they order their lefse from a store that mass produces it.  In this way, lefse is still meaningful to many people but the reasons seem more sentimental rather than need or community- based.

Lefse Tricks

            Lefse making is an art form.  While talking to lefse makers, there definitely seems to be tricks of the trade.  There is the type of rolling pin, how a person rolls, pastry sock or no pastry sock, what to roll the lefse on, how to flip the lefse, how to cool and store it when it is done.  Still while people’s opinions can help, it seems to just come down to actually doing it.  Even though the goal of lefse is, of course, thin, round pieces with not too much flour, as Mr. Legwold[iii] talks about in his book there is no such thing as perfect lefse.  It comes down to personal preference-- whatever works for you is best and, oh yes, practice does help, too. 



[i] Keeping Christmas:  Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land  by Kathleen Stoker

[ii] “Circles of Tradition:  Folk Arts in Minnesota” by Willard B. Moore, Marion J. Nelson, Colleen J. Sheehy, Thomas Vennum, Jr., Johannes Riedel, and M. Catherine Daly

[iii] The Last Word on Lefse by Gary Legwold