Lefse and lutefisk

It was a lefse emergency.

My cousin Missy was seeking lefse the day before Thanksgiving. She had checked with every store in Brookings, but could not locate any of the Norwegian potato flatbread that is a holiday mainstay for those of us with Viking heritage. I mean the Scandavian sea adventurers, not the football team still in search of a Super Bowl crown.

After all, Missy is a Bears fan. But she is also part Norwegian, like me, and craves the bland, somewhat salty, doughy taste.

I felt bad for my cousin, but wished her well in her search. I told her of stores in Sioux Falls where I had spotted lefse, including the one where I had bought two packages, but she had already called them and they were out. Was Missy willing to make a 100-mile round trip for lefse?

Of course she was. It’s tradition, a taste that brings you back to earlier holiday gatherings.

When I lived in western Nebraska in 2009, I sought lefse for Christmas. The stores I stopped at and called did not have it in stock, and most employees had never heard of lefse. What can you expect from people who put cabbage on their hamburgers?

My sister Mary came to my rescue and mailed me some lefse just in time for the holidays. As I buttered and rolled up each piece, I thanked her for that.

Note I said buttered. Some people apply sugar to lefse, which seems an abomination to me. According to online recipes, others add cinnamon, jelly, peanut butter and other toppings to lefse. This should not be encouraged.

Lefse must be eaten as Odin and Thor enjoyed theirs: lightly buttered, rolled and eaten.

I have even seen family members place sugar on their lefse, which caused me to shake my head sadly. What can you do when the misguided dishonor tradition and taste?

Norwegian-Americans, like most people, embrace their cultural roots, especially during the holidays. You only see lefse in stores at the end of the year, where it is joined by its dreadful cousin, lutefisk. Some eat them together, but then, people text and drive, smoke crack or balance precariously on icy rooftops.

None of these are sane activities.

Lutefisk is, improbably, dried whitefish soaked in lye. Yes, lye. Norwegian immigrants shipped whitefish to America more than a century ago and placed lye on it to prevent it from rotting. Somehow, they developed a taste for that. It’s not a proud moment for my people.

Lutefisk is soaked in water for several days and then placed in a mixture of water and lye. After a few days of this, it is covered in salt, which is scraped off and then the lutefisk is either boiled or steamed, cresting a jelly-like substance.

It looks as good as you might imagine. Oh, and the smell? It is enough to knock a a buzzard off a fence post near a rotting animal corpse.

And yet a sizable number of Norwegians flock to lutefisk feeds at churches, clubs or bars. My dad, 100 percent Norwegian, was among them. Of course, he had to go to such events, since Mom, half Irish, half Danish and all sensible, would not allow that foul substance anywhere near our house.

I took a small bite once for a story I did on lutefisk, with Dad along to help me understand why it was such a holiday ritual. It was a culinary experience I will never forget, try though I may. It was slimy, had a foul taste and the odor was truly gut-wrenching.

Dad said it wasn’t the highest quality, but he finished his plate. I was done after my one and only tiny taste.

In 2004, I covered a Norwegian-American event in Mankato, Minn. The Norwegian ambassador to the United States, an elegant man in a dark suit named Knut Vollebæk, stood out in the crowd of Americans in colorful costumes. He said he had never tried either lefse or lutefisk, and had no plans to do so that day or any day, for that matter.

They are popular among those who have never visited Norway, usually can’t speak a word of the language and know little of its history. But these holiday “treats” — if you can call lutefisk that — aren’t about a country or a culture.

They are links to our past, to holidays with family, which is why Missy wanted lefse last week for Thanksgiving. Thankfully, Margaret, a longtime family friend, was able to provide some for her and her family.

I had a piece of lefse with lunch today, and assuredly will eat more in the coming weeks. Lutefisk? No, there are some traditions that need to come to an end.

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