All for the Love of Lefse

Many cultures believe that ethnicity in conferred through their women (I just learned that the word for this is matrilineality). For instance, Jewish tradition (and Israeli law) stipulates that a Jew is someone with a Jewish mother, or someone who has personally, intentionally, converted to Judaism. Of course there are allowances for unusual cases, but the “default setting” is matrilineal ethnicity, see? My people — the Midwestern American descendants of Northern European immigrants — don’t have any formal rule to dictate such dynamics; still, I observe that our women play a similar role in our family — particularly when it comes to celebrating our family’s ethnic connections through holidays, music, decorations, and food.

A recent example of this was my Mom’s push to make lefse together over the weekend, while my brother Alex was in town.

Lefse is one of the few obviously-ethnic foods that my family-of-origin still makes and consumes on a fairly regular basis. Always around the holidays. It’s a potato-based flatbread, kind of like a Scandinavian tortilla. Someone in our family typically slathers a piece of lefse with butter and then tops it with cinnamon and sugar before rolling it into a cylinder and eating it with a meal. Christmas Eve dinner, especially.

In my opinion, lefse is… fine. It’s pretty bland, so it mostly assumes the flavor of whatever is topping it. It’s usually served cold (though I don’t know why), and the texture is a bit chewy. It fills the same general function that other kinds of bread serve in their cultural contexts. Truthfully, though, I mostly eat lefse because it’s a tradition and a touchstone for our family’s Scandinavian roots.

When my Mom started hinting at the idea of making lefse, this year, I didn’t get too excited about it. Partly because of the cost / benefit analysis inferred in my previous description of the way lefse tastes… partly because of the fact that several family members’ dietary restrictions now require our lefse to be made gluten-free, which often makes dough harder to hold together… and partly because it makes a mess, with flour always ending up all over the counter, floor, griddle, hands, and clothing.

But thanks to my Mom’s perseverance, Marci’s general baking expertise, and Olivia’s eagerness to learn, we made it happen.

The men in our family made contributions to the process, as well. We all worked together to make lefse. And it was really, really fun.

My brother, parents, and I talked and caught up on life as we peeled the potatoes and made the dough. Marci and the kids joined us as we listened to Christmas music and rolled out the dough. We turned the blobs of rolled-out dough into a sort of Rorschach Test, imagining the raggedy-edged circles as elements of geography. We got a lot of fun pictures throughout the process. And it just ended up being a lovely way to connect as a family and as a part of the broader family of Upper-Midwestern Scandinavians. I’m really glad we went ahead and made lefse together as a family…

As long as I don’t have to eat it all myself.

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