Whose Lefse Reigns Supreme?

2 Comments

At this time of year, everyone has a craving for a food that they associate with the holidays, whichever holiday you celebrate.  Some people crave latkes, other people crave their grandmother’s peirogi.  What do I crave?  Lefse.  For the uninitiated, lefse is like the Norwegian version of a tortilla, though usually they are used in a sweet application, not a savory one.  Made out of riced potatoes (strong hands and wrists are required!) or mashed potato flakes, if you are lazy or in a place where you don’t have a ricer, they form the basis of one of my favorite treats during the Christmas season.  Some people take them with loads of butter, others with cinnamon and sugar, some with all three.  Me?  I like them served warm with a healthy dose of cinnamon and maybe a little light coating of sugar.  Or sometimes, for breakfast, dunked in maple syrup (that must be the American in me).  The sad part is that I don’t have the space, the money or the tools that I need to make them properly, so I am generally reduced to enjoying them only during a few wonderful weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.  But then, I suppose that that ensures that they remain special, right?

Now, I have been eating lefse for as long as I can remember and I have had it in a lot of different places; from here in the US to Norway, where it originated.  This brings up the question:  Where can you find the best lefse?  Was it found in Norway, land of its birth?  Or was it the potato-flake version that a friend in Malta made one year for a celebration, using only a banged up, scorched frying pan and a stove that couldn’t control heat?

The lefse made in Malta was, let’s just say, edible.  It served its purpose.  No one would write home to their mother to tell her how much better it was than hers, but it was serviceable.  Edible, like I said.  The accomplishment was not in the flavor, but rather in the fact that my friend was able to use store flaked potatoes, water and butter, along with the only tools available to her at the time:  a small frying pan, turned over to create a larger, flatter surface; a stove that had to be lit using a match and which rarely held a flame for long enough to heat soup, let alone make lefse; a spatula that was more like a rather large spoon and a mixing bowl that was clearly not large enough.  It must have taken her a long time to get even one that worked, but I remember watching her, listening to Maltese pop radio in the background, occasionally interrupted by her roommates coming in asking her what on earth she was doing, and smelling the faint whif of charred frying pan.  It was beautiful.  The steam between that and the tea that was boiling on the stove created was so great that it fogged up the glass doors to the flat, making it look very dubious what was going on in there.  Only when we emerged to the party with fresh lefse, covered in melted butter and cinnamon and sugar did people realize the alchemy that could elicit such delicious treats.

Now, I also had it in Norway, in Oslo in fact, while travelling there with my parents a few years ago.  We were at the outdoor museum, and they were making it fresh, from scratch, in one of the houses and then handing them out for chump change, given the quality of the product.  Warm, almost too warm, with perfect coloring (no scorch marks in sight, but a nice golden color all around) and rolled and filled with any of the previously mentioned fillings that you wanted, they were a joy.  The sun was shining, the air was clear, and you could see the beautiful forest in the distance.  We were already having a wonderful time there, and this was simply the icing on the cake.  You could tell that the quality was the highest possible; well, you would expect nothing less, since this was lefse meant to show off the abilities of the Norwegians to create great food – food for tourists.  It was grand, I admit.  But, you know what?  It wasn’t the best.

The best lefse that I have ever eaten, and which I still reminisce about every year, was made by my aunt, Judy, in her kitchen in North Dakota.  Did she have all of the equipment necessary to make them perfect; from the ricer to the pan?  You know what, I don’t even remember.  What I do remember is that it was the last Christmas that my entire father’s side of the family was able to gather together, my grandmother included, before she finally succumbed to dimentia and moved to a nursing home.  It was dark outside, multiple tables had been pushed together in their living room to accommodate everyone, and the tree was lit, with presents beneath it.  The house was warm from all of the cooking and baking going on, and everyone was drinking, talking and eating.  I by my grandmother and listened to her tell me stories about how Christmas used to be, back when my brother and I were too young to remember and he and I couldn’t wait to open our gifts, and wasn’t it nice that we were now old enough (both adults, by this point) to sit and enjoy dinner and not get distracted by the pretty wrapping and boxes on the floor?  The rest of the meal was typical for us; lasagna (it easily fed everyone and didn’t take too much time or effort to prepare) and garlic bread.  Then, my aunt brought out the lefse.  I don’t think that anyone else really cared very much about it.  It wasn’t as if it was something that had never eaten before, bu somehow, for me at least, it was magical.  My mother is German and I never grew up eating it except when we went up north to visit my relatives, and even then it wasn’t always there.  Lefse is tricky to make well and it takes dedication.  So the fact that my aunt made some that year was very special to me.  It was perfect.  It was warm, served folded, not rolled, and covered in just the faintest hint of cinnamon and sugar and butter.  Just enough to add flavor, but not so much that you couldn’t revel in the potato-y goodness underpinning it all.  My grandmother and I both ate our fair share, and although I don’t think that anyone noticed, I alter snuck back into the kitchen and took another few pieces, now less warm, but no less perfect.

Following that year, my family got together less and less often, and every time with fewer members.  That was many years ago, now that I think about it, but i can still remember it so well.  And the lovingly, perfectly made lefse was the cap to it all.  eating lefse now, even inferior lefse, never fails to bring back those treasured memories.  That’s why, above all others, that lefse was and will always be the best.

Merry Christmas!

How do you say Merry Christmas in German? Or, how I spent a lot of down-time in Germany

Leave a comment

I love my parents.  I really do.  They always mean well, even when things don’t go quite as I think that they plan.  Case in point, the time that I spend a Christmas (sort-of) with my older brother in Germany.

I wanted to spend some time in Italy over the holidays with my friends that I had met while in Ireland, and in order to do that, my parents said that perhaps I spend Christmas itself with my brother, while he was stationed in Germany in the military.  Again, I am sure that they had the best intentions.  I am sure that they thought that he and I would spend a of lot quality time together bonding and driving around the countryside and generally having a lovely holiday, and for the most part, they were right.  They did, however, not take into account a couple of key factors:

1.  They gave the money for the trip to my brother, the person who thinks that if he has check blanks then he has money.  By the time that he picked me up in the rental car, I saw where most of that money went – the backseat, in the form of a few CD’s that he had recently purchased. And,

2.  No self-respecting 20-something guy wants to spend a ton of time with their kid-sister.  Ever.  No matter what the circumstances.  But especially not when they have a reputation of coolness to protect in the military.  I mean, honestly, I get it, and I agree and can’t blame him a bit. But,

That means that, after we spend some really harrowing hours driving on the autobahn (and by we, I mean that he was driving and I was praying that I would survive the trip in Germany and make it to Italy alive – he likes to use the accelerator, that’s for sure) and visiting a few of the really great highlights of Bavaria (including Neuschwanstein Castle and the Nurnberg Christmas Market) he would drop me off at my teeny hotel in a teeny village that had only one hotel.  Usually by five in the evening.

This village, by the way, was so small that there was nothing to do, especially since it was the Christmas season and everything was closed.  Not to mention that I didn’t have my own transportation to travel around in the evening and didn’t speak enough German to really get along.  This means that I spend a *lot* of time in the hotel, and specifically my hotel room, itself.  What did I do for that time?  Well, not a lot, really.  You see, back when Kindles weren’t around and people actually read real books, I wanted to save space in my luggage for souvenirs, so I brought only one book.  And this was the start of my trip, so I didn’t want to read the whole thing in the first few days.  So, i tried to ration it out and instead watch TV.  Except that the television only got about four channels, all of them in German.  Including MTV.

Did you know that apparently, even in Europe, MTV only rotates about five videos all day and night?  Yup, that means that I saw the same five videos (including J-Lo’s “Jennie from the Block” and something repulsive from Brittany Spears) about a thousand times.  I finally got a break by watching Evita (yeah, that one.  The one with Madonna), only because since it was a musical, it wasn’t dubbed into German.

It’s truly amazing how long a few hours can seem when you are sitting in a tiny room, as the lone guest in a hotel in the middle of nowhere in southern Germany with nothing to read and nothing to listen to (I left my CD player in Ireland) and nothing to really watch on TV either.  But, if you really want to make sure that you get your vacation time’s worth, I suppose that the fact that it feels like forever means that your vacation might seem longer?  Sigh.  Well, not better, right?  Just longer.

Meanwhile, I know that my brother was back at the base having a lot of fun with his friends, while I was stuck in the hotel.  I was still in Germany, which in and of itself was great, and while I was with my brother, I had a great time.  Walking in the woods around the castle, eating great sausages in the local restaurant nearby and walking around Nurnberg in the evening light.  Simply amazing (more on those parts later, I am sure).  But still, it was a little lonely in that hotel room.  Just sayin’.