As a child I would gleefully look forward to what, at the time, approached a national holiday here in the Midwest, the deer hunting season opener. It was on this weekend that friends and family would descend on our house and for my grandparents in southern Minnesota to embark on gathering game for the coming year. I would sit around the table and listen to the elders talk about one that got away, the turkeys they saw or some such thing. The conversations, while often revolving around the hunts of years past, took on many topics, twists, and turns, yet always held my attention.
While the hunt provided meat for our family for months, the weekend was also about brotherhood and kinship. This same weekend, all of my aunts and many female cousins would gather at my grandmother Ella’s house and make lefse. Yup, the guys did their thing and the ladies did theirs. The women, under the strict guidance of Ella, made enough lefse to give each her kids (five) and each of her grandchildren’s (18) families enough lefse to make it through the holidays.
At age nine I was old enough, I was allowed to participate in this most hallowed weekend. Not as a mere table mate, but as a fellow hunter. In my young mind, this was the gateway. I was becoming a man. While just a glimpse into the backstory, and knowing that there are several tales I could tell of this time, I am going to fast forward almost 20 years. Since that is where this story starts. . .
Somewhere along the line while I was in college, I stopped hunting deer with a firearm. I was still very avid outdoorsman but enjoyed big game hunting by archery rather than a firearm. So as the annual big weekend approached, I found myself wondering how to spend time with family. I had always wanted to learn how to make what all the people in the river bottom called “Ella’s Lefse”. I was a little nervous (or perhaps intimidated) at the thought of spending a weekend immersed with this group of women, but I just had a gut feeling I needed to learn.
One morning I called up Grandma and asked. “Grandma, I know this is the ladies weekend, but would you be willing to take a guy into the group and teach me how to make lefse?” My grandmother was elated. Now, Dear Reader, you need to understand, she was a reserved and proper (read: “stoic”) Norwegian woman. I think I saw her get excited only a few times in my life. Sure, she always had a warm smile, but to see real excitement was rare. She was excited.
Early one Saturday morning in November, while the rest of the guys went out on the annual hunt, I arrived at my grandmother’s house, ready to learn to make lefse. The house had been converted to a mini-factory, with the implicit intent to make as much lefse as possible in a few days. My aunts and cousins greeted me at the door with hugs and the warmest welcome a guy could ask for. My grandmother, about 84 at the time, also greeted me with open arms.
She whispered in my ear as she hugged me “Oh, Aaron, I am so glad you came. You are the first of the boys to learn how.” She then proceeded to pat me on the cheek and put me straight to work (I later learned that I was the only male in the entire family to learn my grandmother’s art of making lefse). She told me “Aaron, you’re going to start by learning how to cook a batch. Tomorrow, I will move you to rolling, and the next day, you will learn to fry.” I simply said, “Yes ma’am, where do I start?”
I may have gotten ahead of myself. For those of you that do not know what lefse is, it is a traditional Norwegian soft flatbread. It is now most commonly made with potatoes, flour, and milk which we referred to as “potato lefse”. However, the recipe from my grandmother’s family used lard, milk and flour. She contrasted it with potato lefse by calling it “milk lefse”. In my humble opinion milk lefse is better in that it can be made thinner and holds its moisture better, but then again, I am biased. The earliest lefse in Norway did not contain potatoes. This “traditional” method was carried back here to America by her parents.
Anyway, Grandma instructed me to place the milk in a large pot on the stove and turn the burner on a low-medium setting. She then showed me a large spoon. Another important note, my grandmother didn’t measure anything! At this point in her life she was legally blind. Simply said, she did not see well. So she did everything, including baking by “feel”. She placed the spoon in my hand and instructed me to fill it full, rounded, heaping, “but not too much”. . . Yeah, I know.
So, I dipped the spoon in the lard and pulled out a big spoonful. Just as I was about to put the lard in the pot, she stopped me. She stood alongside me and ran her hand down my arm. I looked down at her hand, her skin showed her age and the years of farm labor. Yet, there was an insurmountable strength there in that small and fragile looking hand. When her hand reached mine, she cupped it firmly in hers and made a gentle up and down motion.
She was weighing the lard!
She told me I did not have enough. So I dipped the spoon again, bringing out more. The pattern repeated. This time, my hand holding the spoon, her hand holding mine, she weighed the lard. “Too much!” she said. And so it went until I was able to draw out the “precise” amount. I added it to the pot. I slowly stirred, waiting for the mixture to come to a light boil, as the lard melted into the milk.
I was then instructed to take a two-cup sifter and fill it heaping full of flour. I sifted the flour into a large brown pottery bowl. Three times I filled the sifter and emptied it into the bowl. Each time Grandma would take my hand and “weigh” the flour. I would guess it was about 8 cups, but again, it was all by feel. We used my eyes and her hand to guide my brain and muscles to the proper proportion. The boiling milk and lard mixture was added to the bowl and then we mixed it together. The hot mixture was then pressed down into the bowl to push out the air, covered with saran wrap and a towel, and placed outside to cool.
I spent the day in the kitchen, my only job was making the batch on the stove and mixing it with the flour. I think I made 20 batches that day. Each time, grandma would hold my hand and weigh the lard and flour. True to her word, the next day I spent splitting the batch of dough into four “logs”, then portioning each log into 12 pieces and rolling one of those out to about 18-20” in diameter.
Grandma Ella would stop by and “feel” how thick my rounds were after rolling them out. She liked them thin, and thankfully I had a knack for rolling them nearly thin enough to read a newspaper through. I had passed day two. The last day, I learned the art of frying the lefse. I burned a few, but quickly got the hang of it. I had passed. My grandmother, satisfied with my progress left me alone the next year, only pulling a round off the griddle to taste-test a few times a day.
A few years later, in 2008, two days after mother’s day, my grandmother passed away. On the day of her funeral at an old country church in southern Minnesota, an old apple tree back on the farm bloomed for the first time in my life. I have a hard time not believing that was my grandmother sending us her farewell. The early Norse believed the apple blossom symbolized rebirth. I cannot imagine a more appropriate symbolism.
Later that year, the whole family gathered again for Christmas in Grandma’s house. It was still joyous, yet we all felt a hint of sorrow. We all missed her. After all, she was the matriarch for so many years. My aunts approached me with a present. I found this odd, as we did not regularly exchange gifts. This gathering was always about bringing the family together to celebrate Christmas and our family. Nevertheless, I opened the gift and inside found my Grandmothers brown pottery lefse bowl. It was the bowl my grandmother had mixed thousands of batches in and the one I had mixed my first. I was overcome with tears as I held that bowl in my hands.
I know many of us have lost friends and family this year. I’ve written about a few of them. During a conversation with my friend Jason Versey a few weeks ago, we talked about the spirit of others living within and among us. I told him this story and I know in my heart that while we may have lost their presence on this earth, their spirit stays with us.
I still make lefse around the holidays, mixed in an old brown pottery bowl. Each time I do, I feel the physical presence of my grandmother at my side. Her hand cupping mine, helping me weigh the ingredients.
Our deceased loved ones remain present in our life in many ways; in what we learned, our traditions, and the way they made us feel.
Sometimes, when we need them most, they still hold our hand.
“On Lefse and her Spirit” is Dedicated to my grandmother, Ella Loretta Skogen (1913-2008). Thanks for being my teacher Grandma, I love you.
Previously published on LinkedIn
Photo: Getty Images