The Lefse Connection

The school bus doors clattered shut behind me. “I wish it didn’t get dark so soon,” I muttered as the bus started backing out of the driveway.

Sunset arrived early on December afternoons, and even though it was only quarter after four, the sun was already hovering close to the horizon.

Too close.

If I wanted to make a few sled runs down the driveway before dark, I would have to hurry. The plaid skirt, white blouse and red knee socks I was wearing wouldn’t be any good for sledding, and before I could play outside in the snow, I would have to change my clothes.

The empty feeling in the pit of my stomach reminded me that I would also have to eat a quick snack. Maybe there were still some of those oatmeal cookies left that my big sister, Loretta, had baked last weekend.

I took a firmer grip on my books, and as the bus headed back out to the main road a half a mile away, I started toward the house. So far today, the milk truck was the only vehicle which had driven up and down our hill through the couple of inches of snow that had fallen last night.

If we got more than a few inches, Dad would use the tractor and bucket to clear the driveway. But after a big storm, when there were sometimes drifts almost as high as the third wire on the pasture fence, the milk truck driver would use a blade mounted on the front of the truck to plow his way up the hill. The two or three inches on the driveway now, though, wasn’t nearly enough for either Dad or the milk hauler to bother plowing.

Not that it made any difference whether the driveway was plowed. It had already snowed a few inches several times this winter, and underneath the layer of fresh snow was a surface packed smooth by the weight of cars and trucks driving up and down the hill. When I hopped on my sled and pushed off, it would travel from the top of the driveway all the way to road below, moving at a rate of speed that was fast as our dog, Needles, when one of the cows chased him. And if a cow thought Needles was too close to her calf, he could run awfully fast.

Needles was a Cocker Spaniel-Spitz mix, who, when he was a puppy, had nipped my sister’s ankles while she was hanging clothes outside to dry. Loretta had exclaimed, “Get those needles out of here!” And the name had stuck.

As I rounded the curve by the willow tree growing in the lawn, I saw my sled leaning against the porch railing. Dad had braided three pieces of twine string together so I could steer my sled when I went down the hill and so I could pull the sled behind me when I climbed back up the hill.

Twine string, I had discovered, was an extremely useful item. When it wasn’t holding bales of hay together, you could use it for all sorts of things. To make reins when you wanted to ride your favorite cow. As a toy you could twitch across the barn floor so the kitties would chase it. As a leash for your dog when you went to the feed mill with your dad. And as a rope for your sled.

When I reached the top of the hill, I turned toward the house. During the last few minutes, the sun had slipped closer to the horizon, and the slanting red rays threw a pink tint across the white snow and the house and the barn and the garage. It would be dark soon, but in just about five minutes, or maybe even less, I would be racing down the hill on my sled.

I climbed the porch steps, opened the door — and forgot all about playing in the snow.

I sniffed once. . .twice. . .then I hastily set down my books and removed my boots, shivering when my red socks touched the cold concrete porch floor.

Moments later when I opened the kitchen door, the mouth-watering aroma of potatoes and butter grew stronger. The kitchen counter was covered with flour, and there stood Mom, her face flushed from the heat of the lefse griddle. A spatula in one hand, her other hand gripped the edge of the stove. A snow-white dishtowel lay folded around the lefse she had already baked.

Every year, Mom made lefse for Christmas. In my opinion, the flat potato pastry (pronounced lef’-suh) that had been brought to this country by Norwegian immigrants, was better, even, than Christmas cookies. By itself, lefse didn’t really taste like much, but once it was spread with butter, sprinkled with sugar and rolled into a log, I would have happily eaten nothing but lefse for breakfast, dinner and supper.

Lefse also played a big part in the lunches served following our Sunday school Christmas program. The church was only a half mile from our farm, and Mom had told me once that her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles had been among those who had founded the little white country church.

After spending an hour during the Christmas program listening to us mumble our Bible verses and sing songs off key, such as Away in a Manger and O Little Town of Bethlehem and We Three Kings of Orient Are, the congregation went downstairs for lunch. Next to the Christmas cookies and the open-faced Cheese-Whiz-and-crushed-potato-chip-on-nutbread-sandwiches were plates of lefse and other Norwegian delicacies. Lunch would not have been lunch without lefse, sandbakelse (sun-buckles), krumkake (kroom-kaka or kroom-kaga) and fattigman (futty-mun).

Seeing as I felt the way I did about lefse, it was lucky for me that my mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants.

The farm where we lived had been homesteaded by my great-grandfather in the late 1800s. Although they spoke only Norwegian at home when Mom was growing up, she was familiar with the way English sounded because her father could speak it very well. Grandpa Nils came to this country when he was a little boy, so he possessed a good grasp of ‘American,’ Mom said, which was a funny way, I thought, of referring to English.

My mother had explained that her parents had called the language ‘American’ to distinguish it from ‘British English’ — two distinct languages as far as they were concerned.

My maternal grandmother, Inga, arrived here when she was an adult. She did not speak American very well. Or so she claimed. Mom said she suspected her mother understood English a whole lot better than she let on.

And like all good Norwegians, my mother had learned to make lefse.

But then, when she was twenty-six years old, Mom contracted polio. The disease left her completely paralyzed in her left leg and partially paralyzed in her right. She walked with crutches most of the time, but around the house, she used furniture and the kitchen counters to support herself.

My mother was forty-two when I was born. After the polio, the doctors told her she would never have any more children. And she didn’t — not until sixteen years later. My sister, Loretta, is nineteen years older than I am and my brother, Ingman, who was named for our grandmother, Inga, is twenty-one years older.

Two years after my sister, another boy who had been named Charles was born with a cleft palate. The local doctor planned to take him to a hospital in the Twin Cities for surgery. Before the baby left on his hundred-mile journey, Mom wanted him baptized.

The day the minister was coming to the house, my mother woke up in the morning and could not hear Charles’ raspy breathing. She knew — before she even got out of bed — that the baby had died during the night. Not long after that, she had been stricken with polio.

Because of the paralysis, my mother couldn’t drive, which meant if she wanted to go somewhere, she had to wait until my father or sister or brother could take her. She couldn’t run up and down the stairs, either, but instead, had to crawl on her hands and knees. And she most certainly could not walk down the hill of our driveway to get the mail.

To wash dishes, my mother leaned on her elbows or forearms and moved only her hands. For cooking, she hung onto the counter with her left hand and used her right hand to prepare the food. If there was a task that she could do sitting down (peeling potatoes, putting bread dough into pans, or frosting a cake), she would sit by the table to do her work.

And yet, in spite of her physical limitations, my mother recognized that her family liked lefse, and so she made it.

Lefse is a mixture of mashed or riced potatoes, flour, milk and melted butter rolled into large, thin pieces. The fragile pastry is placed on a 500-degree griddle where it is baked for a minute or so until it develops brown freckles; then it’s flipped over and baked on the other side.

Many times when I came home from school on a December afternoon, I would discover that my mother was making lefse.

And so it was today.

As I closed the porch door behind me, Mom placed another piece of lefse under the dishtowel and then glanced at the kitchen clock.

“Home already?” she asked.

I craned my neck to see the clock, too. The old butter-yellow Time-A-Trol that had been installed by the electric company before I was born read 4:20.

“Same as usual,” I said, setting my books on the table.

“I guess I’ve been so busy I didn’t realize it was getting late,” Mom said. “Want some lefse?”

By way of a reply, I lifted a corner of the dishtowel and reached for the butter dish.

My mother always kept a plentiful supply of butter. She ordered it from the milk hauler — who brought it with him on his rounds from the creamery in town six miles away — because butter was about half the price of store-bought that way and as economical as margarine. No one in our family could have been persuaded to eat margarine, though. I had only heard Mom and Dad mention the word ‘oleo’ a couple of times. ‘Oleo’ was uttered in such a way that I knew better than to ask any questions.

I took a piece of warm lefse off the pile and placed it on the cupboard. Then I slathered it with butter and sprinkled it liberally with sugar and cinnamon. Among lefse-eaters there is some disagreement about whether cinnamon is acceptable. My mother always ate her lefse with cinnamon. I had grown up eating my lefse with cinnamon. I liked it with cinnamon.

I rolled the flat piece of lefse into a log and carefully lifted it to my mouth so the sugar and cinnamon wouldn’t spill out the end.

I bit.

I chewed.

I swallowed.

And then I took another big bite.

Oh, this was good. Tender and sweet. It tasted as heavenly as any lefse I had ever eaten.

“Is it all right?” Mom asked, watching me out of the corner of her eye.


“Good,” she replied, moving another piece of raw lefse dough toward the griddle.

Suddenly my mother yanked her hand back and the pancake turner that had been sitting on the cupboard clattered to the floor. Mom used a pancake turner because she said the long, flat, wooden turners that were supposed to be used for turning lefse were too awkward for her to handle.

“Ouch!” she cried.

“Whas-sa-matter?” I mumbled around another mouthful of lefse.

My mother struggled to move the dough off the cupboard and onto the griddle. Then she turned her arm to look at an ugly red welt that was already beginning to blister.

“Burned myself,” she replied. “Again.”

She held up her arm so I could see the three big, red welts she had acquired that afternoon.

Every time Mom made lefse, she burned herself. Sometimes she burned the underside of her arm. Sometimes the top side. Sometimes her fingers. As she tried to keep her balance by holding onto the kitchen counter while at the same time moving the raw lefse dough to the griddle, she couldn’t seem to avoid getting burned.

“Oh, Mom,” I said, knowing that the blistered burns would take weeks to heal and fade away.

“Well,” she admitted, “it does hurt a little. I’ll put some of that pink salve on it after a while. It’ll be all right.”

The pink salve, which came in a small round tin container and smelled like wintergreen, was good for skinned elbows and knees, too. And I knew plenty about skinned elbows and knees. Even though playing jump rope with my friends at school was tremendous fun, it was also sometimes dangerous.

I finished my piece of lefse and reached for another.

Mom glanced at me and smiled.

“You must be hungry today,” she commented.

But when I reached for the third piece, my mother frowned.

“Don’t eat too much of that,” she cautioned.

“Why not?” I asked, applying butter in a thick layer.

“Because you won’t be hungry for supper — that’s why.”

So my third piece of lefse ended up being the last one. For now.

My mother always claimed she wasn’t any good at making lefse. That it was much thicker and smaller than it should have been. That the lefse the ladies served at church after our Christmas program every year, which was three times the size of my mother’s pancake-like pieces and nearly thin enough to see through, was the way lefse was supposed to look.

The way it was ‘supposed’ to look? Who cared about the way it was supposed to look? As far as I was concerned, Mom’s lefse was the best I had ever eaten.

I went upstairs to change out of my school clothes. From my bedroom window I saw that the sun had already set and it was starting to get dark.

No sledding for me today. But I didn’t mind. Mom was baking lefse! And that meant Christmas was almost here.

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