Roll the pale dough out slowly, without pushing too hard, or the dough will cling to the rolling pin and pull apart. When you are done rolling, take your long wooden turning stick and ease it under the dough’s thin edge with a gentle sawing motion. Once you slide the stick halfway, slip it back out and start again from the other side of the circle. After you’ve successfully loosened all the flattened dough from the board, gently lift the circle up with the stick and roll it onto the hissing heat of the silver griddle. It won’t take much more than a minute for the griddle to do its work, and you’ll need to flip the dough. Wait another minute to lift the circle up again, then whisk it to the growing pile swaddled in a soft white tea towel. Congratulations, you are making lefse!
Growing up in Minnesota, lefse was something I’d heard about, but as my heritage isn’t Scandinavian, it wasn’t part of my family’s culinary traditions. My father’s father emigrated from Italy as a teenager, so our starch of choice at holiday functions was pasta, pasta, and more pasta. In fact, I didn’t get my first taste of lefse until I arrived in South Dakota. Around here, there are women who still make it just like their grandmas did, so you can find it on the holiday tables of ranches all over this part of the country.
Let me briefly digress. For a time, the man of the ranch worked at a guest ranch that hosted mainly European visitors, so he had many brushes with Italian cuisine. In addition to the aforementioned pasta, there was a particular dish he kept hearing them lavish with praise — polenta.
“It is the best! The BEST” the Italian visitors would rave. “What, you’ve never had it?” they would exclaim, eyebrows wagging, hands waving, and then, “Well, you HAVE to try it!”
Polenta is a creamy porridge made with ground corn. Coarse and smooth at the same time, it has a soothing texture, but it is not particularly flavorful on its own. Suffice it to say, when the man of the ranch finally tasted polenta, he couldn’t help wondering: “This was what all the fuss was about?”
I’ll admit I felt the same way about lefse the first time I tried it. And the second. But, when I had the opportunity to get together with a group of women to make lefse I jumped at the chance because good food isn’t only about flavor.
See, the man of the ranch is not a polenta lover, but he has very fond memories of stuffing himself silly on his Grandma Myrtle’s lefse at Thanksgiving and Christmas. To an adult eater like me, lefse tastes just fine — but without a beloved grandma’s special technique, the warm twinkle of a Christmas tree as a backdrop, and the kinship of aunts and uncles and cousins gathered to share it with, it just doesn’t have the same magic. To me, lefse taste like what it is — thin bread that is vaguely reminiscent of potatoes; to my husband, it tastes like childhood holidays.
The cozy little ranch house we live in was where Grandma Myrtle was born and raised. I imagine there was quite a bit of lefse making when she was small, though it probably wasn’t reserved for holidays. In the old country, where Myrtle’s parents spent their respective youths, lefse was usually made in large quantities by craftswomen who traveled to different homesteads providing this service. The original lefse was much drier and a family might have a year’s worth made at a time. The bread would be stored in wooden boxes, and rehydrated before it was consumed. This early variety was made with whatever flour was handy and only sometimes contained potatoes.
The first few years Myrtle’s parents lived in South Dakota were rich. The weather was grand and crops were plentiful. That didn’t last. Severe droughts swept across the plains and drove nearly all the early homesteaders away.
Myrtle’s family stuck it out, though. During the lean years, the supper table might not have held much more than thin bread made with mealy potatoes. It wasn’t the food of celebration, but of salvation. By the time Myrtle was a grandma, those times were the distant past, and by all accounts, she wasn’t a woman who liked to dwell on what was over and done. Still, when Myrtle made lefse, she probably didn’t think of a Christmastime feast, but her mother’s sweet face, rosy from standing over the fire, flipping the brown-flecked rounds, then piling them on the family table. It was the food that kept them from starvation. It was literally the bread of life.
Which is why, when a neighbor offered to teach me how to make lefse, I accepted. In years to come, when the days get short and the boxes of sparkling ornaments are carried up the cellar stairs, there will also be one day set aside for lefse-making. As I roll out the dough, I will tell my children about their great-great-grandparents, and the long trip across the ocean. I will tell them about the hopes those distant relatives held for this new country, and the wonder they must have felt at grass, grass, grass, as far as the eye could see.
I will tell them about this house, built with all that hope and wonder, and the grit and determination that has kept it occupied every generation since. And when we are done, when there is a stack of lefse tall enough to feed our extended family all through the holidays, I will let them eat as much as they want — just like Grandma Myrtle let her beloved grandson so many years ago; letting them eat lefse until they can’t hold even one more bite.
Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in northwest South Dakota. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website.