Lefsa: The Norwegian Tortilla
Growing up outside Washington, D.C. with a “mixed” personal background (New England, Southern, and Norwegian) produces an odd polyglot of people from an even odder multi-faceted gem of basal stone. In our family though the Norwegian women, while diminutive in stature, stood tall on the shoulders of their collective ancestors. In fact these tiny women, barely over 5 feet in height, produced some monumentally large personalities that all, in their own ways, individualized their Scandinavian roots and continued to carry them forward, if not with actual children then certainly with a reverberating Viking heart that beats through the generations and forges their personal mettle like the steel of their forbearer’s swords.
Yet while we as a culture revel in tales of Viking derring-do and wonder with idle (some not so) curiosity if they will eventually be recognized as the true founders of these Untied States and let Senor Columbus rest an uneasy peace elsewhere, there is the not so small matter of cuisine to be factored into the stew-pot of our collective taste buds.
Norwegians, it can be said with some confidence, have a rather primitive; some might say non-existent, culinary development. Pickled Herring, Lutefisk, and Gjetost (look it up) are some rather dubious highlights that feature in all Norwegian gatherings. I learned early to be bold and rather like the strong, pungent, dare-I-say tongue curdling effects of these out of the ordinary delights.
But one thing that few know and all who have the good fortune to experience come to love is the Tortilla of the North; Lefsa. Its simplicity is awe inspiring, at least from the ingredient vantage point. Leftover mashed potatoes and flour. Period. End stop.
This is where the simplicity of form and function come into direct conflict; think actual Viking warfare if you will. Timing, temperature, handling, rolling, forming, griddling….the steps to the perfect lefsa are deceptively simple when listed out but magnificently mangled when trying to be duplicated by the uninitiated and the inexperienced (or the non-Norwegian as our mothers would like to have us believe).
I was long on my own, well into my thirties, living in California and far from anything resembling roots save for that “Only in California” experience of Solvang, a made for Disneyesque town of imaginary Scandinavian tchotchkeness. I had traveled back home for a summer holiday and was bemoaning to my mother that she had never imparted the techniques of lefsa making to me. Left over taters in the fridge had set my mind to thinking. I was, after all, the cook in the family; at that moment actually manning the stove at a restaurant in downtown San Francisco.
Off we went into the kitchen for my first Lefa Lesson. Being late in the afternoon (well it could have been morning but, whatever) a bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay was corked and the ingredients, all two of them, were gathered.
We must here pause to elaborate on Miriam, Mim, and my mother. She was a formidable creature; the principal of my elementary school (an entire other tale), iron-willed would be too kind a description. Too tough for the playground would be my personal assessment. So the thought, the mere suggestion, of her trying to impart a process of such a delicate nature no less of a Heritage Hallmark to her only son should have been a tip-off to tipple more and talk less. But I was young and….well, not drunk enough…yet.
She began by plopping potatoes in a bowl, tossing around some white flour, dousing the cutting board and rolling pin with it, and then ever-so-carefully broadcasting a dusting over the “dough” in the bowl. With her hands she mixed the two ingredients a bit, adjusted in a few more sprinkles of flour, mixed again, etc.
At this point I made my first mistake. I simple asked her to let me have a feel of the mixture so that, should I ever have the opportunity to try this on my own, I would have a sense memory of what “just the right mixture” should feel like. Cooking is as much about feel as taste. As I sidled over to take a glob in my hand she smacked it away and with a strident “Don’t” whacked it into submission.
My second mistake followed closely on the heels of my first.
I insisted that I MUST feel what it was like. Now either I had not had enough wine or she had had too much or possibly vice-versa or maybe some combination thereof but the conversation and the lesson degenerated from there into a snarling grudge match between two equally talented and well-fortified opponents. Voices were raised, egos were bruised, feelings were hurt, more wine than was optimal was consumed and, well, as was always the case “someone is going to end up in tears” although in our house, it was more like “someone is going to slam a door and not be looked at or talked to for days”.
But hark! Unto this end I was born; (just to throw a bit of LDS trivia into this Nordic Stewpot) and who should appear at the door after dinner that summer evening for “pie and coffee” (the other thing that all good Norwegians practice, daily) but my very favorite aunt and uncle, Clarice and Bob, from down the lane. Savior She.
I had continued on with wine, or had I switched to Jack Daniels? (Yes, I do believe so). Much to my mother’s consternation, she was huffing and grunting like a cow with her cud, I relayed the disastrous school-marm melee to my aunt and she, to the rescue born, had a great idea! If I made a batch of mashed potatoes that night, chilled them well overnight, and brought them to her house tomorrow, she would do HER best to impart long-gone Granny Fillner’s lefsa largesse to her erstwhile grandson.
This should probably be construed as mistake number three but….what the hell, I had lost count and was already in for penny, as the saying goes, so I might as well go for the pound; in this case the pound of flesh which is what my mother now had in mind from me and her sister as sibling rivalry and competition were a well-honed art form long before I ever same into this family. I was simply traitorous. End of story. I was also cold-shouldered out of her world for the next few days.
And so I prepared my pot of spuds, chilled them well (keeping track so that Miriam did not sabotage them in some way during the night), and the next afternoon headed to Aunt Clarice’s kitchen for another stab at The Fine Art of Lefsa.
The resemblance of these two diminutive dynamos of sisterhood was uncanny but the resemblance stooped there. Aside from their enduring love of cats and all things mammalian and their intense Norwegian obligatory pride they were temperamentally as opposite as our polar regions, my mother being the frigid south and my aunt hailing from something akin to Iceland, the friendliest country on earth.
Bowls were gathered, flour was produced, iron skillets heated, potatoes were plopped and just a HINT of milk was on hand if moisture was called for. Aunt Clarice ran all the way through one small batch from mix to mouth, tossing some dough at me to “play” with while she dusted, rolled and griddled up the individual cakes, flipping them perfectly until they looked like liver-spotted, loosely-light tortillas; warm, every so slightly puffy, SOFT, melt-in-your-mouth greatness! Spread them with lingonberry jam or my personal very favorite, butter and salt, roll them into a tube and feed them into the mouth chute!
And then it was my turn.
Now here is where the family management of alcohol comes into critical play. As small children we could always tell when the sisters (there was another one at holidays as well but I digress) had begun the serious consumption of wine in the kitchen. While the men were out in the living room stoking the fire and swilling their bourbon waiting on the womenfolk to serve up the supper, the gals were stirring and swirling and cooking up a storm while imbibing in just a bit of holiday cheer to keep the meal wheels lubricated. But the sure sign the bar had been crossed (or breached) was the volume level of the laughter that would steadily increase, morphing into occasional exclamations of “OOOOPS!!!” and “Oh Shit!” followed with gales of hilarity. If questioned by the menfolk or us they would steadfastly, to a woman, deny any such libidinous lassitude but their Norske Rudolph cheeks would inevitably give their secret full exposure.
But back to Lefsa 201. Aunt Clarice, after doing her duty with batch one, sat down at the kitchen table, poured herself the first glass of Kendall J, handed me the implements and the reigns and said “Go to town”. By the end of the afternoon, I had flour from one end of her kitchen to the tip of the cat’s tale, we were laughing our heads off and there, in front of the now nearly empty wine bottle, was a platter filled with my first attempts at lefsa; rolled, spiced, and happily being consumed with our afternoon happy hour libations.
We ate them all as the prospect of my bring ANY home to my mother for show and tell scared the shit out of both of us.