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A Moment to Remember Mary

Mary (Marit) Nyre’s story as a 12-year-immigrant girl is that of a novel.

When I sent the first edition of The Lefse & Lutefisk News to 66 recipients three years ago, I had the conviction that there is a strong community of lefse and lutefisk lovers out there eager to hear all the news that’s fit to print about their favorite food and their favorite love/hate food. Well, the community is indeed strong. There has been a ten-fold increase in the audience, mostly word of mouth, and I am rewarded with funny yarns, lovely notes, and heartwarming stories. Everyone, it seems, has a lefse tale — and a lutefisk joke — to tell.

For example, lefse maker Barbara (she didn’t want her last name used) wrote a nice thank you note after receiving my books Keep On Rolling! Life on the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round as well as my novel Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse. I wrote back, and the exchange led to this heartbreaking story about her grandmother Marit Nyre, who went by Mary. The story is well known in the family and is as follows:

Mary was from the hills and mountains of Norway, the story begins. Her father left for America, and Mary, her mother, and three siblings remained in Norway. The plan was for the father to cross the ocean, build a home, and send for the family. Weeks became months, and months became years. Then around 1880, the message came. Mary’s mother packed up the family so they all could be together again in America. They severed connections to relatives and friends and to Norway.

They boarded the sailing ship to America. Mary was 12 at the time, the oldest of the children. The ship was over-loaded, and the North Sea rough. Marit’s mother became sick and died. She was buried in Liverpool, England.

It was up to Marit, who could not speak English, to make the crossing with her three siblings. Her only possessions were a few bundles, a trunk, and a ticket to New York City.

Marit and the children made it to New York and indeed were re-united with her father. She went on to live in North Dakota and is buried in Carpio, ND. But this part of the crossing story ends with the following, which was published in Marit’s obituary: “The hardest part of the whole trip was when her father asked where Mary’s mother was when they reached New York!”

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The Lefse Mask Advantage

There are two advantages for wearing a lefse mask.

For lefse folks, there are advantages to wearing masks in this pandemic. Two come to mind:

  1. We are introverts. We proudly display this bumper sticker: I’M A SOCIAL VEGAN—I AVOID MEET! So a mask is a godsend. It helps limit transmission of the virus, and it helps us hide. It covers our flat affect and scowls, which is good. Who wants to be seen as a sourpuss? So with a mask, we can frown away to our heart’s content. The drawback, of course, it that a mask hides our gorgeous smiles … but we are very stingy with smiles anyway. In Keep On Rolling! Life of the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round, lefse maker Cordell Keith Haugen told me: “I think the only time I saw my grandmother Mari Haugen smile was when she offered lefse.”
  2. We can say something without actually saying something. Again, we are introverts, so feelings have to ricochet through a labyrinth of cultural no-nos before they escape to the frightful freedom of expression and vulnerability. But by wearing a lefse mask with KEEP ON ROLLING! front and center, we don’t have to utter a peep. People see a lefse mask and smile, which, heck, may even make us smile! And the mask can preach a succinct sermon at a time when we need resiliency and hope.

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Potato Praise!

Nothing but high praise for the lowly potato, especially home grown.

Normally, this is lefse festival season. If not for the pandemic, I would be itching to travel to the Norsk Hostfest in Minot, ND, in two weeks to greet old friends and sell new lefse and lutefisk products. But the Hostfest was cancelled, as was Potato Days in Barnesville, MN, where I have sold my stuff in August for years and have been a judge at the National Lefse Cook-off.

I am sad about losing a year of lefse festivals. But I am glad that this year I planted a few potato plants and yesterday passed a pleasant afternoon hour harvesting five pounds of what seems to me to be rather jovial spuds of not insignificant size, thrilled to be freed from the dark underground and at last basking in the warm sun. These potatoes will make the dough for what undoubtedly will be my best batch of lefse ever!!

The potato yield was small consolation to the loss of going to the lefse festivals, but consolation nevertheless. Plus the digging and excitement of discovering—you never know how many potatoes will be there and how plump or puny they will be—unearthed special memories of Potato Days and Barnesville.

I love it—and kids do as well—that Barnesville, MN, can creatively make so many fun events, like this spud-picking contest, out of the simple potato.

Of course, Potato Days in Barnesville is on the Lefse Trail, which I presented in Keep On Rolling! Life on the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round. Here is what I wrote to lead off the Barnesville chapter:

Pity the poor potato. It’s packed with flavor and nutrition, and yet typically people display pathetically little potato appreciation. They deem it to be lowly and grubby, and they disparage the dirty little tuber, using phrases like “small potatoes” and “couch potato.” The spud doesn’t see the light of day until it’s yanked from the muck, sliced, fried, mashed, riced, rolled, or whipped—and then greedily gobbled up.

Thankfully, there are people in our midst who find the potato to be most appealing. A. A. Milne, who wrote books about the thoughtful and steadfast Winnie-the-Pooh, praised the potato right proper when he wrote, “What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”

Pardon the promotional potato preamble (I lose perspective regarding potatoes), but it helps explain why we are in Barnesville. Lefse lovers are pretty decent folks who applaud the pomme de terre, holding it high because it is the fundamental ingredient in the most fantastic food this side of heaven. When it’s lefse time, it’s tater time—and it’s tater time all the time during one potato-packed weekend in this northern Minnesota town (pop. 2,570 in 2013). Barnesville’s annual Potato Days Festival in late August pulls in around 20,000 spud lovers who participate in events that embrace all things potato—including the National Lefse Cook-off. With good food, kooky contests, silly stuff you have to see to believe, and a gripping lefse competition, Barnesville’s food festival is a must stop on the Lefse Trail.

Let’s stay safe and hope that Potato Days and the Norsk Hostfest make a big comeback next year.

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HaikUff-Da Poetry Contest Winners

Being a poet of sorts and especially inspired by lefse and lutefisk, I wrote last month about the non-winners of Ingebretsen’s HaikUff-Da Poetry Contest. I was judge in the Christmas Foods and Traditions category. The non-winners I featured were good but they were non-winners because the poems had too many syllables in a line; haiku is strict about five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. Also, I was bound not to write about winners because Ingebretsen’s had not announced winners yet.

Well, the names of winners have been released, and the winners in the Christmas Foods and Traditions category are from New Mexico, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Who knew there were so many far-flung lefse and lutefisk haiku poets out there?

I must pat myself on the back because I am partial to lefse and lutefisk, and it was disciplined work not to favor haiku about my favorite foods. But I did it. The winner in my category, Doug Mattson from Albuquerque, NM, wrote about herring. So, good job Doug and good job Judge Gary!

Check out the second and third place winners in the Christmas Foods and Traditions category as well as winners in the other four categories: Midsommer, Ole and Lena, Nordics and Social Distancing, and Edvard Munch.

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Lefse Haiku, Woo-Hoo!

At long last, I can honestly say I have arrived! The honor of being asked to judge the Haikuff-Da Poetry Contest is … well, it’s the culmination of a career of writing four non-fiction books on lefse and lutefisk as well as my most recent book, a lefse novel called Final Rounds. How can I explain just what this honor means to me to judge the Christmas Traditions and Food Category, the highest of all categories, indeed? I have judged lefse contests at the top of the lefse world at the Norsk Hostfest in Minot, ND, and Potato Days in Barnesville, MN. I have sung my lefse song “Keep On Rollin’” on stage at the Norsk Hostfest and at scores of speaking engagements. I have had the privilege of teaching hundreds of people to make lefse in my classes. But these career triumphs are merely prologue to judging the Haikuff-Da Poetry Contest. Yes, tears are choking my words, so I lean on the lyrics of Cole Porter when I say it’s the top, it’s …
The Tow’r of Pisa
The smile on Mona Lisa
The most—it’s the max!

Winners will be announced July 31, but I can give you a sneak peek of the quality of each haiku. These are four haikus that did not win because, perhaps in their excitement at pulling off a haiku about lefse or lutefisk, they did not adhere to the strict rules about the first line must be five syllables, the second seven syllables, and the third five.

Lutefisk, a food?
You lye if you make it, and
You lie if you like it.

Naughty gnomes, nisses;
Fraudulent frolicsome friends,
Crunch Christmas Krumkakes!

Lutefisk or Glögg
Uff-da what a choice that is
Maybe I’ll just have both

Hot fire crackling
At the window a frost bead
My lefse sizzling

These are good and it is too bad there was a syllable miscount with each. Who knows, one of them might have won. Anyway, high marks to Ingebretsen’s for hosting the second annual Haikuff Da Poetry Contest. Check for the winners July 31.

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Another Lefse Novel?

We lefse novelists have to stick together.

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.

Final Rounds

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.

With humor, tender moments, quirky characters, and lefse, The Invention of Lefse: A Christmas Story is a winner.

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Sold! One $1,200 Lefse Rolling Pin

The King’s Rolling Pin.

Last month, I introduced two $1,200 lefse rolling pins created by Dan Larson of the Minnesota Woodturners Association. They are The King’s Rolling Pin and The Queen’s Rolling Pin.

I didn’t know what to expect. I knew people would appreciate fine art combined with a functional heirloom lefse rolling pin, but I didn’t know if anyone would appreciate these pins enough to pay $1,200.

Well, I now know. The King’s Rolling Pin has sold!

Rolling out new lefse products is exciting. It’s fun to create new products that improve lefse making and strengthen the lefse tradition in the process. These products draw out people in the marketplace who are searching for distinctive and useful lefse products. It’s satisfying to match the right product with the right customer. It was especially satisfying to match a customer with The King’s Rolling Pin. The customer was thrilled to find the perfect wedding present for a friend’s daughter.

The Queen’s Rolling Pin

The Queen’s Rolling Pin is all that remains of the three masterpieces Dan Larson made to match the contest-winning rolling pin that’s on the cover of Keep On Rolling! Life on the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round. Dan has said that’s it; he won’t make another. If you think it to be the perfect gift—even to yourself—please purchase. But I admit that it would not be a bad thing if The Queen’s Rolling Pin is not sold. Heck, I just might buy it to use and pass on in honor of Keep On Rolling!

"Keep On Rolling!" Cover Image
“Keep On Rolling!” Cover Image
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One-Potato Lefse—40 Minutes

One potato done in five minutes.

This is lefse for those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, as the old Nat Cole song says. Yep, it’s too darn hot (Cole Porter) to make a big batch of lefse, right? But where there’s a will there’s a way, so OK, we’re going to use one potato to make four rounds of lefse in 40 minutes.

I got this idea from my lefse friend Amy Marquard, who is featured in Keep On Rolling! Life on the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round. I modified her Two-Potato Frying-Pan Lefse in About an Hour recipe to this:

1 potato baker size (russet is standard but you can use any kind of potato)
2-3 tablespoons butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon powdered sugar
1/8 cup cream
½ cup flour, extra for rolling pin and rolling surface

Makes about four lefse.

Potatoes riced twice with cream, butter, salt, and sugar added.
  1. Cube and pressure cook the unpeeled potato for about 5 minutes. Microwaving a whole unpeeled potato poked with holes for 4 minutes and then 4 more minutes after turning is an option, but sometimes the potato dries out too much.
  2. Peel skins from cubes, mash, and rice twice to remove small lumps that could tear the rounds when rolling. Result is about 1 cup of riced potatoes, depending on the actual size of the baker potato you choose.
  3. Melt butter in saucepan and mix in salt and powdered sugar until dissolved, or nearly dissolved.
  4. Stir butter-salt-sugar mixture and cream into the riced potatoes, and stir until all ingredients are thoroughly mixed.
  5. Cover with towel or paper cloth and let stand while you set up rolling station and lefse grill.
  6. Knead in flour and let dough stand at least five minutes to allow the gluten in the flour to do its thing of holding the dough together when rolled thin.
  7. Roll 3-4 four rounds of lefse.
  8. Enjoy with iced tea.
  9. Stay cool.
This One-Potato Lefse dough is wet, which I like. So I go easy on the pin and turn the round when I am half way through and sometimes again to prevent sticking.
Finished round.
First side on the grill.
Second side on the grill.
A pretty second lefse round on the grill.

Notes: When I first tried this One-Potato Lefse, I stuck to my trusted recipe based on 3 cups of riced potatoes. But I found the lefse was dry and lacked flavor, so I slightly increased the amount of butter, sugar, salt, and cream. That made for more flavor but also a wet dough that some might call sticky.

Many lefse makers recoil at the idea of rolling sticky dough, especially when it has not had a chance to cool, which is the case here with lefse in 40 minutes. I am OK with this because I go light on the rolling pin and turn the rounds several times, which prevents sticking.

So be flexible and adventuresome. Trust your lefse-making skills this summer and give One-Potato Lefse a try.

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Change Is Gonna Come

I have two grandchildren who are seen as black but are Colombian and black. You met them in my books Keep On Rolling! Life on the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round and in fiction form in Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse.

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.

Fears turned out to be the foundation of a blessing.

Love Wins

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 that!!”

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.

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How to Make a Masterpiece

The Queen’s Rolling Pin.

It started three years ago when I wrote Keep on Rolling! Life on the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round. Dan Larson of the Minnesota Woodturners Association (MWA) had won $500 in an MWA contest for who could create the most beautiful lefse rolling pin. The pin was so beautiful that I had to put it on the cover, seen below.

"Keep On Rolling!" Cover Image
“Keep On Rolling!” Cover Image

Ever since publication of Keep On Rolling! a steady stream of customers at the farmers markets I do would ask if Dan would sell that cover pin or could re-create another. Sell it? Absolutely not, says Dan. That stays in his family, and they use it during the holiday season to make lefse.

Understandable that Dan would not sell that pin, but would he make another? Several customers have asked, I said. At first, he declined. Finding the right burl to create an eye-popping barrel was not easy, and the hours and hours of handwork that goes into those handles put him off.

I let it go until last Christmas, when yet another customer asked about having the cover pin re-created. Dan was still hesitant, but he threw out a price high enough that he figured it would put off customers who kept bugging him about making this pin. Turns out, price was not an issue; the customer wanted it for her mother who was in her 90s. She made a deposit, and Dan began his search for wood.

Woodturner Dan Larson

Oh, the Pressure

People who create masterpieces wince at these three words: “Do it again.” Dan explains: “I felt a lot of pressure with duplicating that first pin I did for the contest. I like doing new stuff, freelancing, following the wood to see where it leads. So I was resistant, thinking I had to come up with something as good as the original or better, making sure it was up to my standards of quality. It was a grind but a good exercise in testing my skills.”

His first challenge was coming up with a burl in winter. He had one in his stock, but that didn’t pan out. “I thought, ‘Holy buckets! What am I going to do now?” Dan says. He got help from fellow lefse rolling pin maker and MWA member Bob Puetz, who provided several cherry burls. Even with those burls, Dan had three “crashes” before he got one burl that was not “punky” wood (without big cracks and pits that characterize burls). From that one burl, Dan managed to turn three rolling pin barrels.

Example of roughly turned maple burls. The bottom burl became the rolling pin that appeared on the cover of Keep On Rolling!
Dan Larson making the cherry lefse pin grooves on his lathe.

Handles: Less Drama, More Diligence

Dan turned many more handles than he needed for the three rolling pins, just in case some handles didn’t turn out the way he wanted. The turning was less of an issue than the detail work. It took countless hours of carving and burning a black band that makes five evenly spaced turns from end to end. This detail work was inspired by the designs and techniques made famous by Avelino Samuel of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Between the solid burned band is a barber poling band of about a billion burned dashes that are the finishing touches to a fabulous piece of art. And then to show off the rolling pins, Dan made cherry stands shaped like a Viking ship.

Carving the handles.
Burning the handles.

Oh, by the way, this is a functional piece of art with a stainless steel rod and food-safe stainless steel bearings.

Never Say Never

Dan finished with three masterpieces. The customer had her pick and was thrilled with the result. The other two I sell as The Queen’s Rolling Pin

The Queen’s Rolling Pin.

… and The King’s Rolling Pin, below.

The King’s Rolling Pin.

Whatever I call these masterpieces, Dan calls it quits. “No more,” says Dan about making more lefse rolling pins with this design. “There was a lot of pressure. And the time, oh! Finding the right burls and then getting the details on the handles. I was in the middle of making one handle and said, ‘Damn, I forgot how long it took to carve and burn all these marks.’ No, this is it. I may make another one for love, but not for money.”

Fair enough, Dan. You can rest knowing you have made your mark of beauty on the lefse-rolling community.