* If you happen to be a family member and on my holiday gift list (for example, if you are my DAD,
ahem), kindly go away and come back after Christmas.
Mom and Leah, you can stay as long as you can keep a secret.
I’ve been thinking about my Norwegian grandmother for days. My dad’s mom, my Grandma Katie, raised her children in the same hills where I’m raising mine. I’ve thought about her a lot, actually, since we said goodbye when Sage was just a baby.
Of her nine grandchildren, I was the only one who lived close enough to swing by each week to help out with whatever needed doing as she grew older. To plant her fall bulbs, to vacuum the living room, and (lucky me!) to share an occasional Sunday supper of roasted chicken, fried potatoes, and lemon pie.
I am still grateful for this time that we shared. I got to know her more in adulthood than I did in childhood. It was a richer relationship, too. More real, more intimate. And most weeks until she died, I drove to Elroy to chat, to help out, or both.
But the visit we both looked forward to most of all was our annual lefse date.
Every year, sometime in November, I’d drive through these hills to my grandma’s house: first alone, then pregnant, and later with a baby Sage in tow. She would pour coffee and we would gather supplies as we talked, her cheerfully cluttered kitchen packed with colorful vintage dishes, shiny canisters, and worn metal tins filled with homemade donuts and cookies.
Despite the lack of donuts in my world, (and my pantry tins holding exotic ingredients like cassava flour and chia seeds), I see her in me more with each passing year. In my mismatched vintage dishes, my cluttered countertops, my shiny metal canisters of flour, sugar, and salt. And even, on occasion, in my own reflection.
There’s no disputing my genetics. I’m all her’s.
Sipping Folger’s (or whatever was on sale this week down at the IGA), we would get to work.
I’m not sure how many times I made lefse at her side–or even when we began this annual tradition–but we did it enough for her to teach my hands what my brain still can’t comprehend.
How small the fat should be when cut adequately into the flour; how slowly to pour in the boiling water; how thin to roll each ball of dough.
In my grandma’s kitchen we used her glittery formica counter as a rolling guide: roll them thin enough to see the flecks of glitter through the dough. Here at home it’s not as easy. Mostly because she’s gone, and isn’t here to check my work, but also because my staid countertops lack bling.
We pull out an old marble board. We improvise.
If you asked me as a child to name the more delicious food I knew–a food synonymous with family, love, and our own heritage–this would be it. Back then we made it from bleached white flour (“I don’t want dirty lefse!”), Crisco, and copious amounts of pale butter and white sugar.
Here at home, we modify.
We use a locally milled organic white flour (unbleached, because, obviously) and pastured pork lard from a friend’s homestead that she carefully rendered on her woods stove, then generously shared. Our sugar is organic and raw as well (“dirty” by grandma’s standards) and our butter a glorious golden-color that only comes with time on pasture. And we’re drinking locally roasted, fair-trade coffee from our friends over at Kickapoo instead of Folgers.
Would Grandma approve of our upgrades? I think so. I’m sure she’s just happy we’re making lefse again.
We pull out her lefse stick, her lefse cloths, and her rolling pin, and set to work. We long ago burned out her teflon-coated griddle with overuse, so we happily set our cast iron skillet on the stove.
I’m ashamed to say this is the first time we’ve made lefse in years.
Why did we stop making lefse? For so many reasons. Mostly because wheat fell off of our meal rotation for so very long. And unlike potato lefse, ours is all white flour. (We tried once to make it gluten-free and it was an unabashed disaster. Thick, gummy, and not at all lefse. So we quit until wheat could be on the menu once more.) And then there was GAPS. Then Paleo.
Show me the sugar-free, dairy-free, grain-free lefse. It’s just not happening. So we stopped trying.
But then last week Lupine asked me what lefse was and I’m certain I hear an audible “crack!” from my heart. What is lefse? From a child who is more Norwegian than anything else? It was some sort of colossal mothering failure.
This child who can make a batch of chai with her eyes closed, who is obsessed with tofu and miso soup, who once made croissants from scratch on her own, didn’t even know her own roots. How American of us: to fall in love with delights from around the world, yet grow unfamiliar with some of our own family traditions.
What is lefse. Uffda.
And so it was time.
Despite our overflowing Solstice calendar and a laundry basket full of unfinished gifts, lefse would dominate this weekend. Half would be earmarked as our Christmas gift to my dad (who misses his mom’s lefse so very much, but never learned to make it himself), and the remaining half would be all ours, for our Winter Solstice celebration. (Minus the package I’ll drop off at my uncles on our way out of town. I suspect he misses it, too.)
Without Grandma Katie to call on, I had to step up, to remember all she taught. And when we pulled out her old, yellowed recipe card last night, it was time for me to step into the role of teacher. With no backup. With no one more knowledgeable than myself to call upon with questions.
My grandma didn’t pull any punches when teaching me how to roll and cook lefse, and I attempt the same. She was quick to tell me me when I rolled them too thick or my edges were too lumpy, and I instinctively reached out to check thickness as the kids walk by on their way to the griddle. I’d call them back to roll again when theirs were too thick.
I’m not sure how I know what I know, just that I do. Rather: my hands know, though not my head.
That’s the way with traditions; with the things we hand down mother to daughter; grandmother to grandchild. It’s there, in our hands and our hearts, rather than our heads.
And what an honor it is to be the one to carry these traditions along.
Though we didn’t “eat ourselves sick” (what my grandma always proposed she and I should do after working ourselves to exhaustion rolling, cooking, and sugaring) we did indulge in some scraps and “mistakes” yesterday.
It wouldn’t be lefse-day without a bit of sugar on our tongues, now would it?
I’m certain these are messy, and many are a bit too thick. And the color? Well, they’re “dirty” by Grandma’s standards, on account of that unbleached flour. But that’s just how we roll (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Honestly, I’m sure my grandma would be delighted just the same, if only in the knowledge that never again will her great granddaughter ask what lefse is, and this most treasured of traditions lives on (however clumsy our efforts).
And this year at least, we’ll celebrate Christmas (and yes, Solstice) in a way that tastes just like it should.
That tastes like family, like tradition, like love.
That tastes like home.
Merry Christmas, Grandma. Thank you for the gift of lefse. I’ll take better care of it from now on. We all will.
We miss you so.