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daily kaddish: making lefse the way my grumpy gramma did

I didn’t know Gramma all that well, because she died when I was only six, of Lou Gehrig’s disease.


Yesterday’s kaddish was for the family we never knew, in celebration of getting a chance later on to meet the actual family.

Today I was back in Iowa City, and we did have a run-through of our dance, but I didn’t get a chance to record Kogan’s “Kaddish” during warm-ups in the dressing room, so after I got back to Chaz’s place where I’ve been staying, I recited a quick Kaddish for the matriarch of this family, my grumpy gramma Gudrun, who was married to my grumpy grampa Henry.

I didn’t know Gramma all that well, because she died when I was only six, of Lou Gehrig’s disease. She’d had a rapid decline over the previous few years, and as a young child I found it confusing when she was using crutches, then a walker on our next visit, then a wheelchair on their next. One morning, Dad came in to my bedroom to wake me up and explain that we’d be driving to Minnesota (eight hundred miles from where we were living in Miles City, Montana) because she had died and we had to go to her funeral.

Here’s what I do remember about gramma: food. Most of it wasn’t good. Weird Norwegian sausages called pølse. Potato dumplings in yucky soup. Fried leftover potato dumplings with fried leftover ham for breakfast. Fruit soup. Stewed prunes. Strawberries from the garden canned with way too much sugar. Boiled bologna rings. Mashed potatoes. Lefse.

OK, so maybe I was an idiot. I would consider most of that stuff a treat nowadays—all except for the boiled bologna and pølse, which I can smell in my memory, and I still think they’re disgusting.

I did like the fruit soup, even at the time, and the strawberries. But best of all was the lefse. Homemade potato flatbread, a Norwegian staple that converts leftover mashed potatoes with a bit of flour, an overnight rest in the refrigerator, and a rolling-out and dry-frying the next day into something resembling a flour tortilla. You butter it and roll it up, and this peasant staple is a little taste of heaven.

I learned how to make lefse from Gramma Vang. I don’t have her recipe; Mom tried to get it from her, but it didn’t make any sense: a green bowl of potatoes, a yellow bowl of flour, a blue cup of butter, some salt… what kind of amounts are these?! But I learned the important step that is not written down in any lefse recipe I’ve ever been able to find, perhaps because all the ladies who wrote them down just knew this thing, because of course everybody knows this thing: you knead the dough.

Well, of course you do. It’s bread 101, right?

But it’s not in any recipe. And that’s why, I think, so many attempts to make lefse by those in my generation or later, and even a lot of our parents, fail miserably. The lefse won’t roll out, sticks to the rolling pin, tears on the way to the griddle, falls apart when flipped because the glutens haven’t been stretched to knit the fragile potato-based dough together.

Mine did that for several years, too, and then I remembered it: sneaking out of my bedroom and peaking around the corner when I was supposed to be napping, seeing Gramma at work with the pancake griddle, and wondering what she was up to. I’m sure she must have seen me, but she didn’t say anything, and neither did I. I guess we both figured that if I stayed quiet and didn’t bug her, that was the main thing. Anyway, I sat just around the corner, almost out of sight, watching her make lefse—watching her knead the leftover mashed potatoes with more flour before she rolled it out and fried it.

And when I remembered that she kneaded her lefse, decades later, my own lefse began to be pretty respectable stuff

By erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

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