Lefse is a traditional Norwegian flatbread, made with potatoes, flour, butter and milk or cream. There are all kinds of variations on the lefse theme – with cinnamon, a cake version, a yeast version, even a version with peanut butter, among others. In the United States, lefse is usually associated with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
But how was it originally created? Potatoes were introduced to Norway some 250 years ago, so the traditional version using leftover potatoes has a fairly recent origin (there may have been an earlier version using only flour and not potatoes).
You know how a question about a food’s creation is likely to play in a writer’s mind. Novelist and poet Larry Woiwode asked the question or had it asked of him, and he decided to answer it. He wrote a story, a children’s story, a children’s Christmas story.
His The Invention of Lefse: A Christmas Story is a delight, wrapped up in poverty, drought, family, and Christmas.
Mette Ivarsdatter is 13, the oldest of three girls in her family. It’s Christmas time, and times are hard. Norway’s farmers have all been affected by a bad year for crops, money is extremely tight, and Mette’s father would rather be working on carpentry projects anyway, like a porthole window for Mette’s room.
But it’s Christmas, and the family will be taking a long sleigh ride to the home of Mette’s grandparents. Mette knows there are tensions between her father and her grandfather, and she can hear her parents arguing in whispers. No money means no gifts for Christmas, so Mette’s family will take some flour and milk. It is much the same for the rest of the extended family, and someone has some potatoes.
Mette’s grandmother will take these small gifts and make – lefse. From each small gift comes a larger one.
Woiwode has been North Dakota’s poet laureate since 1995. He’s the author of five novels, two short stories, a biography, a memoir and a book of poetry, in addition to numerous articles, essays, and reviews. He’s also won numerous literary awards.
Even if you’re not of Norwegian ancestry, The Invention of Lefse has a timeless appeal for children – and adults.
Related: My review of Woiwide’s Words Made Fresh.
Photograph: Lefse on the griddle by Lance Fisher via Wikimedia Commons.