Lefse friend for life David Sumnicht said as we played a recent round of golf that he had picked up a lefse book that wasn’t mine. Of course I knew that authors other than me had been moved to write non-fiction books about lefse, but I was intrigued when David said this book was a novel. Well, well!
When I describe my novel, Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse, I call it my lefse novel if I am in a rush. But it is actually about grief. A 12-year-old girl’s grandfather dies. While she mourns his loss, she delights in the lefse-making memories they shared, especially one night of 26 inches of snow when they had little choice but to make 630 rounds of lefse and examine Papa’s eight rather goofy rules of life.
I have read and recommend The Invention of Lefse: A Christmas Story, by Larry Woiwode, Poet Laureate of North Dakota and writer in residence at Jamestown College. His work has been featured in the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic. He’s an honored and awarded writer, so I was thrilled that, like me, he also has found inspiration in this humble flatbread lefse.
The novel is only 63 pages, and I was driven to find out why lefse was invented. There is the suggestion of lefse half way through the book, but it is not until page 51 that the word lefse appears. It has been invented out of desperation and transforms the Christmas meal of a Norwegian family in the first decade of the twentieth century, two years after Norway gained independence.
When the kids came into my life, I was terrified. I explain my fears in this video I made at the request of my minister. She asked for my reflections, as a white grandfather of two grandchildren seen as black, on protests stemming from George Floyd’s killing. I gladly agreed to do the video because it helped me think and feel and not just fear. The video served as the intro to a song I sang for the service that streamed online last Sunday. The song is “Hold On”, a song about holding onto faith. I won’t take you into the service and the singing of the song, but please watch this two-minute video.
The takeaway is that my fears turned out to be the foundation of a blessing, one of the biggest blessings of my life. I learn about race daily because of the make-up of my family—and I got two great grandkids as part of the deal!
I write and speak and teach about lefse, primarily, with a little bit of lutefisk on the side. I do it because I want to preserve and pass on lefse and lutefisk traditions to my family and others. Some have asked that with such diversity in my family, am I concerned that the lefse-lutefisk tradition will die off in my family when I die? Sure, but I would worry the same if my family were all white. Passing on traditions is a concern, period, for all parents.
I go back to what I said in the video: Love wins. The love between my grandchildren and me has overridden my fears and has led to their love of lefse and the lefse-making tradition. My 12-year-old granddaughter Amaya rolls lefse and has helped with my lefse classes. My grandson, Zo? Let me tell you a lefse story about Zo.
A Lefse-Rolling Lesson
Last holiday season at the local farmers market where I do a lefse-making demo and sell my books and related products, Zo asked if he could roll a round. He and Amaya help with setting up and tearing down our table, and with selling. I pay them handsomely.
Ten-year-old Zo is a natural in the market, checking out other exhibits and chatting up and charming vendors—who reward him with free samples. When he asked to roll a round of lefse, he understood that all eyes are on lefse makers as they roll; it’s just too cool to ignore. But he was undaunted because he wanted to do this cool thing.
I have coached him, but mostly he learns by watching me and then trusting his own style. He started to roll just as two white customers came to the table and asked me lefse questions. As I answered, I realized they were not listening to me but were intent on watching Zo roll.
I feared they may say something about race, something about a black little boy making a Norwegian food. It is the same fear I have had since I put up my Black Lives Matter sign in my yard many years ago. Would it scare away those who take my lefse classes? No one has ever said anything about the sign. I imagine a few have had issues with it, but I also believe in the good in people. I believe most have come to support this movement toward justice and away from racism. I see more and more of these signs in my white neighborhood, so I do believe people want justice for blacks — and that black lives do matter, just as they do for me.
My other fear regarding Zo in the market that day was that
he was rolling a rag of a lefse round and that the customers were in horror as
this lefse-making train wreck was unfolding. I followed their eyes to the
pastry board … where Zo was rolling a perfectly round lefse round!
I smiled and turned back to the customers, who were aghast.
One of them finally said, “I can’t do
The customers smiled at Zo and congratulated him repeatedly
on his lefse round.
After the customers moved on, Zo the charmer started working
on his grandfather. “Papa,” he said, “you know what I’m doing here for you,
right?” Meaning, Zo was drawing paying customers to the table, not only because
he’s so dang cute but also because he rolls a pretty dang good lefse round. He
was angling for a tip.
“I’m way ahead of you, Zo,” I replied. I knew where he was going the minute he shrugged his shoulders in an “oh, by the way” fashion and said, “Papa …”
At the end of the day, I paid him handsomely … and gave him
a handsome tip.
In these troubled times, I find comfort and inspiration by starting my day with meditation and then saying two prayers, two Psalms and two Bible verses, Jeremiah 17 verses 7 and 8.
These Jeremiah verses, by the way, are the same verses Mrs. Taylor (above) recited loud and proud when she needed strength and courage as a young woman in a new town far, far from home. Mrs. Taylor is a pivotal character for 12-year-old Amaya, the main character in my novel, Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse.
Here are the beautiful verses:
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Jeremiah 17: 7-8
I offer this passage in the hopes you do the same. Do you have a favorite verse in the Bible or a favorite prayer or poem that carries you through the day? If so, I hope you will share it in the comments below or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
I went shopping for flour the other day, to make lefse. In one grocery store, shelves were empty of King Arthur Flour, my favorite, and all flours. So I went to another store. Empty. The coronavirus pandemic had sheltered us all, and folks were stocking up (for how long?) on flour, toilet paper, cereal, pasta and pasta sauce, disinfectant wipes, etc.
So here we are, in our homes swinging from fear to gratitude to grief to disbelief to prayer. What-if questions nudge us in the night, and virus and economic news is dire throughout the day.
When we need it most, we can’t hug. We have to shun each other and swerve away from approaching walkers — who, like us, are trying to find relief in movement and nature. When we need it most, we can’t meet to sing or worship or to simply share a piece of pie and sip our tea.
But we still have lefse. For those of us in Lefse Land, that’s no small thing. Making lefse calms our internal troubled waters and puts us in touch with other lefse makers who have lived through tough times.
Both Bitten and Torborn were from towns north of the Arctic Circle; she was from Narvik and Torbjorn from Andenes. They lived through the three-year German occupation in World War II.
Three years. As I made lefse and remembered Bitten’s fresh smile, I wondered how the today’s questions of “How long?” and “How bad?” were the same then for Bitten and Torbjorn. We’ve been pressing for answers about COVID-19 for weeks now, but how did these questions about the Nazis and the war change over the course of years under life-death conditions that were similar to ours today?
Occupation. Today, we are directed to stay in for our own safety and the safety of others. Back then, many Norwegians were told to get out. “Two days before Christmas my family was told we had twenty-four hours to get out of the house, or we’d be thrown out bodily,” said Torbjorn. His family moved to an apartment above a store; three rooms for traveling officers were also on the floor. His family’s house, which his family didn’t re-occupy until three months after the war ended, was converted to a hospital. Bitten said Norwegians were forced to turn out lights at night and read only German newspapers.
Thinking of the temporary shortage of flour and other foods today, I recalled what Bitten said in the chapter I wrote about the Norvolls. “During the occupation we could buy potatoes, and we knew so many ways of using potatoes. We couldn’t buy much milk or butter or margarine — or a decent flour. The flour we could buy was so heavy. You’d bake bread, and the outside was hard and crusty and the inside just a lump of dough.”
Bitten and so many others of that Greatest Generation made it through. They must have wondered how they would do it. But they did it, together, a day at a time. As we look ahead with hope and fear, we can gain strength in looking back at the Bittens in our lives.
Bitten was one of the lefse makers in my mind when I wrote the lyrics to “Keep On Rollin’: A Lefse Song for Voice and Piano” (copy of front page below). Erik Sherburne wrote the music with the idea of honoring the resilience of the old ones, those lefse makers in their 80s and 90s who keep on rolling through whatever life throws their way. I especially like the bridge of the song:
A lefse maker I once knew she said here’s what you do
Last February, I got an email from Penny Wells. Penny had signed up for one of my lefse classes last fall but had to drop out because her mother was ailing. The email said that her mother had passed away at the age of 90, and Penny was looking for lefse to be served at a visitation before the 3 p.m. memorial service on March 7.
I was honored to be asked … and I was a little nervous about the task of making 40 rounds of lefse for a funeral. It had to be perfect, I thought, and that thought is like kryptonite to a recovering perfectionist like me.
But I did it, and I was very glad I did. I felt good as I imagined how the lefse would add to the celebration of this life, much the same way it did in my novel, Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse. And when Penny picked up her lefse the morning of the memorial service, I was especially glad to learn a bit about Phyllis Harriet Schutz.
Penny said her mom, known as Nana, was spirited woman, and Penny impressed me as being like her mom. The obituary said: “In typical Nana fashion, her last days were full of smiles and laughs (and a few scowls), surrounded by family and friends.” Nice way to go out, I thought.
Nana was born in 1929 (like my mom, Darlene Schumacher) in North Dakota (like my mom) to Elvin and Aagot Iverson, “hardy Norwegian farmers,” said the obit. Nana moved to Fargo for work (like my mom) and met James Schutz on a blind date and soon married.
Penny pointed to the last few lines of the obit, which made me even more happy that I got to know Nana through lefse. It read: “Nana’s infectious spunk will live on in all who knew her. Nana loved people, cigarettes, and vodka gimlets, perhaps not in that order.”
Here’s to you, Nana!
“Let us make our glasses kiss; Let us quench the sorrow-cinders.”
Guess what? The interview actually went well, and I wasn’t half bad as Sue Ellen asked about my latest book and first novel, Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse. Even though the topic of the book, grief, is a tough one, I still managed to impart that, as Kahlil Gibran wrote, grief is “weeping for that which has been your delight.” Yes, we weep with the loss of a loved one, but there is much delight as we reflect on the love and joy that person gave us, and will always give us.
At the end of the interview, I inwardly groaned when Sue Ellen asked if there was anything more I wanted to say. I thought I had said plenty and was drained of any sort of meaningful sendoff regarding Final Rounds. And then this thought came:
“It’s a book that has a special place in my heart,” I said, “because it touches the heart. It’s my heart to your heart. It’s about a topic, grief and loss, that happen to all of us. … And Amaya [the 12-year-old girl who is the novel’s main character] goes at it—as young people do—with energy and creativity that I found inspiring.”
I am making lots of lefse right now. Tis the season, right? And one of my most favorite times in the process is when the potatoes are boiling and I get to sit. Sit and think. Sit and remember.
I remember Grandma Legwold, her quiet smile that she passed on to my dad, Conrad Legwold. I suppose I have it. I never saw her make lefse but tasted plenty of it.
I remember all the old lefse makers who were the stars of my 1992 book, The Last Word on Lefse. The Queen, Ida Sacquitne, who told me about powdered sugar in her lefse recipe. Eunice Stoen, who was the first to tell me she did not cool her dough but rolled it at room temperature, thus saving time. I have come around to doing just that— and love it. John Glesne, who paved the way for me as a man to be a lefse maker in a woman’s lefse world. Merlin Hoiness, the original Mr. Lefse, and Bitten Norvoll, who hated doing dishes and made extra mashed potatoes for dinner so her boys would exchange doing dishes for the fresh lefse Bitten would whip up. And of course, there’s the Boys of Starbuck, a group of old guys who came up with a goofy-then-great idea to create The World’s Largest Lefse that was 9 feet 8 inches in diameter.
Those are the lefse makers who come to mind just from one lefse book. The lefse maker list could go on and on. I interviewed 52 lefse makers for Keep On Rolling!, my second lefse book published in 2017. I cherish these memories when I listen to classical music and sit and think about them, especially Linda Bengtson, who I dedicated the book to and who passed on this year.
Many of these lefse makers have passed on, and I cry about that. Sure I miss them, but I think of those memories that brought joy, especially those lefse memories. Everybody has a lefse story, and with the writing of my books and All Things Lefse that have spun off from the books, I have heard so many of those stories. And I give thanks for them.
To sit and think and remember gives grief a good name. I feel better as I do this … have a good Christmas cry thinking back over the year and the years.
As I look at the mist that builds on the window from the boiling potatoes, I think of 12-year-old Timothy, a character in my new novel Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse. Timothy tells his girlfriend Amaya, the main character in the novel, that he sees ghosts. She’s shocked but believes Timothy, and she asks where he sees them. He says, “wherever water is … like … light…. You know … when water is floating, like fog or mist or—”
I don’t see ghosts, but I believe Timothy, that ghosts or something like them are where water is light, in fog or in mist or in falling snow. When I look at the falling snow behind the mist on my kitchen window as I boil potatoes, I think of the old lefse makers and part of a poem Amaya says at the funeral of her Papa, who taught her to make lefse:
See how far you’ve come to get where you are
See who was there with you, to lift up your star
And know they’re still with you, just right over here.
Turn around and tune in; they don’t disappear.
My potatoes are done, so it is time to make the lefse dough. But I look at the mist on the window and think of the old lefse makers who are “just right over here” … and I smile.
Last Saturday was one of those days that will forever make me grin. It was snowy and windy and therefore perfect for lefse, but the weather was not enough to stop 125 or so book lovers from coming to the launch of my new novel, Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse.
I signed books for old friends and new, while lefse-making friends made fresh lefse while music from an accordion player and hardanger fiddler filled the air. And then I said a few words about the the writing of Final Rounds, which was followed by a reading from the book by me and my 12-year-old granddaughter, Amaya McIntosh. Amaya is the inspiration for the book and the book’s main character.
It was a great day, but the frosting on the cake came the next morning. I opened my email and read these responses from people who had finished Final Rounds overnight. Karen wrote this:
I just finished reading Final Rounds, which I greatly enjoyed! Congratulations on this fine book … tender, humorous, and wise.
And then came this most moving email from Pam:
Many, many thanks for the gift you gave all of us with your beautiful book Final Rounds. Well done my Norwegian friend. You have a gift of being able to weave together humor and wit, poetry and prose, loss and the grief it causes. But the story doesn’t leave us to wallow in grief as we see how writing, working together, and finding comfort in God’s love ease our pain.
Similar to the theme in Final Rounds is the birthday letter that my oldest granddaughter wrote to my late husband on his birthday. She was five and half when he died six years ago this month, and is the only one of our six granddaughters who can remember him. She dated it 2/28/19, which would have been his 73rd birthday.
“Dear Baba, Happy Birthday! I’m 11 years old now! I miss you so much. … Love, Elsa”
Ah writing, how it can ease the pain. Keep on writing, Gary, and making and sharing your wonderful lefse. I helped myself to plenty of it yesterday. Many thanks for your open house and the chance to meet and greet. Best wishes, and as my dad often said, “Takk for alt.”
When I wrote Final Rounds, I didn’t really understand why. I just knew I loved the story more and more as I told it. Well, as these responses come in one by one, I better understand the why.
At the 2019 Potato Days in Barnesville, Minnesota, I rolled out my novel, Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse, about how a 12-year-old girl deals with the loss of her lefse-making grandfather. The novel was welcomed into the market very well, which was relieving.
The second day of the festival, two long-time friends were attracted to my street exhibit and to Final Rounds. Kathy Herr of Barnesville, Minnesota, and Susan McCarty, of Franklinville, New Jersey, (shown above) said they each had suffered the tragic loss of a son, and they were curious about why I wrote a novel about grief after years of writing non-fiction books about lefse and lutefisk.
I answered that Final Rounds is a fictional projection of what could happen when I die. How might my 12-year-old granddaughter handle it? I taught her to make lefse, among other things, and the novel reveals just how strong grief can be when that special loved one who taught you to make lefse passes on.
Time stopped on the street that day as I listened to Kathy and Susan talk about their loss. It was the kind of conversation I expected when the book came out late last month, and I was honored that they shared their stories. I was grateful that Final Rounds had brought Kathy, Susan, and me together, and I only hope the novel helps ease the pain.