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.
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.
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.
A must for getting though life and especially tough times is humor. Where to find humor in a pandemic? Not a problem for lutefisk lovers. Poor old lutefisk—which I love—can generate humor in any situation, and that humor often shows up on t-shirts.
My lefse/lutefisk friend Jeanne Sumnicht tipped me off to a Facebook page called I Love My Norwegian Heritage and it sells all sorts of apparel that would be fit to wear in these times and maybe even for the right Syttende Mai celebration, which is Sunday. Comments for the t-shirt above include:
No problem….if you have a plate of lutefisk, I will be standing WAY farther than 2 meters away!
One plate of lutefisk will kill the virus.
This t-shirt generated 94 comments, all variations of “Amen!!” Here are a couple:
The reason my son was happy to go to Norway with me – he knew that no one would try to talk to him.
Including marriage!! Remember the Norwegian who loved his wife so much, that he almost told her…
I’ve always said lefse is the antidote to lutefisk, so I end with the above sweatshirt that balances all the negative directed at lutefisk.
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.”
The toast has just the right mix of sentiment, wishful thinking, and humor: May you live as long as you want, and want lutefisk as long as you live.
The joke about two retired fishermen is kind of a groaner. Bjorn and Magnus had been buddies at sea for years and years, catching cod, eating lutefisk, and drinking aquavit. But now they are retired. They still eat lutefisk and still drink aquavit. But they don’t catch cod anymore and hardly ever see each other. Kinda sad. And when they do see each other, all they say is: “Long time, no sea.”
The tidbit is a bit of history. The gesture of clinking glasses began when early Christians wanted to produce a bell-like noise that would banish the devil, who was repelled by bells. Another explanation: Clinking glasses brings all five senses into play, so you taste, touch, see, smell, and—clink—hear the drink.
Well, not quite giving them away … but I’m giving them to the first 15 readers who send me a lefse or lutefisk joke. If the joke is good — and just about any lefse or lutefisk joke is good (except some lutefisk jokes) — and you are among the first 15 who send in a good joke, you’ll get a free lefse calendar full of photos, illustrations, lefse quotes, lefse-making tips, and humor.
Two Green Bay Packers fans we’re seated next to a Minnesota
Vikings fan at a lutefisk dinner. The Vikings fan must have had a problem
because he kept excusing himself to go to the bathroom.
The Packers fans, being the prankish sort, spit on the
Vikings fans lutefisk when he went to the bathroom. He returned, took a bite of
lutefisk, and did not seem to notice the spit.
The next time the Vikings fan left the table, the Packers
fans asked him to please return with two beers. Again, the Packers fans spit on
the Vikings fan’s lutefisk.
The Vikings fan returned with two foamy glasses of beer, which the Packers fans drank with great satisfaction. The Vikings fan sat down and took another bite of lutefisk. With a look of disgust, he said, ”How long must this go on? Why can’t we rivals live in peace? What causes Packers and Vikings fans to stoop to such lowliness that we spit on each other’s lutefisk and pee in each other’s beers?”
In summary, be among the first 15 to send your lefse or lutefisk jokes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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’.”
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?”
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!