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Largest Lefse Crowd Ever!?

Not only was this the largest crowd to ever watch lefse being made, but also the folks were smiling — smiling Scandinavians!? — as they watched Norsk Hostfest celebrities try to make lefse.

I write my 2018 Norsk Hostfest report from Paris, France, where I am vacationing. Writer friend Tim Brady asked if I was hanging out on the Lefse Bank. His wit is unparalleled, but so far I have not found lefse. However, I can hold on until the end of the week when I head to Norway.

Finding lefse was not a problem last week when I sold books and lefse-lutefisk stuff at the Norsk Hostfest in Minot, North Dakota. Gotta say that of all the attractions — the scads of excellent comedy and musical acts (mostly free) as well as the endless shopping — the most attractive thing to see was the sea of Scandinavians who were actually smiling! I swear — and some were laughing! They’d come to my table looking grumpy, but then they’d brighten when they saw my lefse and lutefisk books. That made me feel good.

Lefse Masters Competition

This smiling stuff got out of hand during the Lefse Masters Celebrity Competition, featuring Daniel O’Donnell, Williams & Ree, and The Texas Tenors. I was to serve as a judge. The competition started at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday on the stage of Stockholm Hall. I was a bit late getting there, and as I walked into Stockholm Hall, the room was charged and laughter was directed at the stage, which I could not see. I was confused why so many people were spilling from the stage area into the vendor aisles and up the stairs to what is the Lefse Mezzanine, where the Lefse Masters is held throughout the week for the non-celebs. But as I wove my way through the crowd, it became clear folks were there to watch the celebs roll and grill lefse. I was to sit at the judges’ table front and center and observe the skills and techniques of the contestants.

I was among the three lefse judges front and center as the celebrities — Daniel O’Donnell, Williams & Ree, and The Texas Tenors — fumbled and yukked their way through the lefse-making competition. The Texas Tenors on the right were the winners. Judges were from left Miss Norsk Hostfest 2018 Lily Bonebrake, me, and Jane Grunseth, who was too shocked by the antics onstage to turn for the photo.

Don’t Let That Smoke Bother You

The only problem was it was difficult to discern dexterity with the rolling pin or turning stick with all the smoke rising from the grills. Daniel O’Donnell, poor lad, was the chief culprit. His grill was smoking like a chimney, and lefse was burning so badly that he finally just chucked a charred lefse offstage. But he atoned for himself by rushing to the microphone and singing a lovely “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” — subbing new lyrics that included “my lefse is a burnin’.”

Daniel O’Donnell was very intent on making a winning round of lefse, but he often became distracted by smoke rising from his grill. Once he threw his burned lefse offstage, and then broke out into his beautiful tenor voice singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”.

Round? What Is Round, Exactly?

It seemed that the lefse’s shape was of secondary concern to the contestants. The irrepressible Terry Ree had to point out that the lefse rolled by The Texas Tenors was looking like the shape of the state Texas and — whoops — “they just lost the panhandle, folks.” His partner, Bruce Williams, was largely silent but slipped into some sexual rolling when Ree demanded that he roll “faster” and “not so hard.” Which caused a confused Daniel O’Donnell to ask, “What kind of show are we doing here?”

Bruce Williams, half of the comedy team of Williams & Ree, rolled lefse in spite of the wacky comments from his partner Terry Ree. For my book Keep On Rolling!, I interviewed Williams about using lefse in his act.

Judge This

The judging was difficult between Daniel O’Donnell and The Texas Tenors, with TTT coming out on top with a pretty nice lefse. Williams & Ree? They submitted a lefse that looked like it had been used to clean a cannon.

All good fun, good enough to make the Scandies smile.

Yes, Lutefisk Lip Balm!

My last day at the Hostfest I was relieved to discover the lutefisk lip balm. Cost was $2 on sale at a store outside the Great Hall, where all the big-name acts appear. I was disappointed that the lutefisk lip balm did not smell or taste like lutefisk. I mean, I like lutefisk and would have considerd it a bold move had the makers of this balm gone for the real deal rather than a vanilla bean flavor. The label said of this lip balm: “It will put the fear of cod in you.” Vanilla bean does instill any fear. We can do better than this!

That’s right, lutefisk lip balm. Only at the Norse Hostfest!

Hand-Painted Lefse Rolling Pins

The lefse makers who were judged to have made lefse so good that they placed first, second, or third in Hostfest’s Lefse Masters lefse-making competition earned a cash prize of $200, $100, and $50 plus lefse rolling pins that are adorned by a rose medallion painter. Very cool awards that will undoubtedly be passed down for generations to come.

The winners of the Lefse Masters lefse-making competition earned as a prize these hand-painted rolling pins.

Here’s to Ron Garcia!

Ron Garcia jokes that during the Norsk Hostfest he is “Norwegian for a week.” Works for me. He is the hall crier, the man who without aid of a microphone or megaphone bellows to those in Helsinki Hall, where the Author’s Corner is, that the hall will open or close in 10 minutes or that the hall is now open or closed for business. Then he sets the tone as the day begins with, “Have a great day, everyone!”

Ron is a Hostfest original and one of the most endearing men you’ll meet in Minot. Frankly, he is one of the reasons I return year after year. See you in 2019, Ron!

Ron Garcia and I before the opening of the last day of the 2018 Norsk Hostfest.
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Lutefisk Led to Spring Lawn Repairs

Rosalie and Marvin “Super Pete” Pederson, who owned Pederson’s Super Market in Starbuck, Minnesota. Marvin, who was very proud to be of Norwegian heritage, was born on May 17, Syttende Mai.

My parents were Rosalie and Marvin “Super Pete” Pederson (pictured). Dad owned and operated a family grocery store in Starbuck, Minnesota, from 1954 to 1994 and was known in this part of the state for his lutefisk sales. He made lutefisk by soaking dry cod first in the garage at our home in Starbuck and later in the backroom of our store. He learned the craft from Clayton Anderson, a grocer in North Branch, Minnesota, where Dad met Mom after the war. Clayton was emphatic that making fish took a lot of labor, in part because the lutefisk maker sold something that had soaked up about 10 times its weight in water.

One of Dad’s “tails” was from 1954, the first year he made fish. There was no plumbing available, so he drained the soaking water into the back alley. But in the spring, he had to pay to repair lawns that were damaged by the runoff.  Yes, those were the days.

Cleaning Lutefisk Tanks

As I became older, I participated in that annual smelly event in our store by adding the lye and moving the fish from tank to tank during soaking. I also cleaned all debris at the bottom of the tank when the lye water had been drained.

With lutefisk, of course, there is the smell. Dad tried storing his many bales of dried fish in sheds of farmers, but they wanted no part of that. At our store, the smell was so bad in the backroom during fish season that dad put an exhaust fan in the wall. This annoyed neighbors, so he constructed a special room made from cement blocks to contain the smell. And he built a plywood ventilation chute to the roof where a fan blew the smell higher and away from the building.

Above, the stock tank used to display lutefisk in the store. Below is the bill for the store’s first delivery of lutefisk in the fall of 1954.

Dad placed a stock tank in the store’s meat department to display the soaking fish to customers before they made their purchase. Dad would fill that with fresh water and ice blocks every day during the selling season. We used a baling hook to handle the fish. After purchase, it was wrapped in a wax-coated locker paper; in the later years we switched to plastic bags so it would not drip on the floor as much. Uffda!

Lutefisk for 19 cents per pound. Those were the days!

I am thankful for the memories and opportunities that were presented to me by life in a small town grocery store. Recently I visit residents at our local retirement home, and another visitor, Bob Kyyvig, reminisced about standing in line to buy fish.

Recalling such lutefisk moments brighten my day.

 

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‘Sewer Trout’ and Lefse

A 1956 photo of Verna Spencer with her son, Nolan Spencer, who was in Bagley High School at the time.

I’ve been reading The Last Word On Lutefisk, which brought back memories.

In 1947 my parents, Ed and Verna Spencer, built a small store open seven days a week. They called it the Hi-Way Store, which was located 1 mile west of Bagley, Minnesota, on U.S. Highway 2. This was just after Dad returned from serving in the U.S. Army in the Philippines. He used his GI bill to build the store.

Dad traded guns, rented outboard motors, and sold fishing tackle and minnows (that’s a minnow tank in the picture). He and Mom also ran the grocery. What saved the store was they were able to obtain a 3.2 beer license — the only one in Clearwater County — that allowed beer sales after noon on Sundays.

Mom and Dad sold sill all year and had lutefisk delivered around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Like the sill, the lutefisk came from the Hogstad Fish Co. in Duluth. The fish arrived in short, wooden tubs about the size of a small washtub. My after-school job, at age 9, was to change the water for the skin-on fish.

‘Sewer Trout’

Francis “Fritz” LaRoque, half French and half Ojibwa, and his full-Norske wife Harriet would come in to buy what he called “sewer trout.” I’ve never heard that title used anywhere else.

Dad established a trailer court, as he knew a pipeline was being built from Saskatchewan to Duluth beginning in 1954. The pipeline workers filled the court with 54 trailers. At the end of the pipe-laying season in November, maintenance personnel stayed to “lay up” the equipment (change oil, drain radiators, etc.) before the “drag-up dust” (snow) arrived.

One woman came into our store and saw the tubs of lutefisk. She asked what it was. Mom explained it was a seasonal, cured codfish that Norwegians and Swedes enjoyed during the holidays. “Oh, we like fish,” said the woman, who sounded as if she hailed from in a southern state. “I’d like two pounds.”

When the woman came back the next day, Mom asked how she liked the lutefisk. “Oh, it was great, but it kinda stuck to the fryin’ pan.”

Can you imagine the smell of fried lutefisk in an 8 x 32-foot trailer house?

My First Lefse

My first taste of lefse came in 1948 when Violet and Einar Jallen, Dad’s sister and brother-in-law, lived with us for a winter. Einar had to have lefse! The lefse was baked on the covers of the wood- or coal-burning side of the combination range my folk owned. The wood/coal burner flanked four gas burners.

My job was to split up wooden apple/orange/pear/peach crates to provide fuel for lefse baking. Violet rolled the lefse, and Mom baked it using the sharpened window shade bottom “slat” for a lefse stick. I was hooked on lefse from that point on.

That’s Mom and me in the above picture during the summer of l956. I had one more year at Bagley High School, and then I attended Bemidji State Teachers College. I obtained degrees in biology and chemistry education. I taught one year in Beloit, Wisconsin, and then 35 years in Crosby-Ironton, Minnesota, before I retired in 1997.

I married Sharon Gilbertson, who I miss as she has passed on. We were too poor to buy a lefse grill, so I had a friend cut an 18-inch disc out of ½-inch steel for baking lefse. It went over one of the burners on our gas range and worked just fine.

Combining a bit of lefse and lutefisk, I leave you with this cheer that was a rouser when our high school teams opposed the Greyhounds from Fosston, a town 17 miles west of Bagley. It goes:

Lutefisk and lefse
Gammelost and sill
We can beat those Greyhounds
You doggone right we will!