Mexicans Did It First: Lefse, the Norwegian Tortilla

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Dave Lieberman
"¿Una tortilla de papa?" asked my neighbor, confused. "Like the Spanish pancake?"

"No, a thin tortilla, like for enchiladas."

"No, Dave, no se hacen tortillas de papa. Nomás maíz y harina."

Wrong, Lidia. Wrong. There are absolutely potato tortillas, and the Norwegians--who else?--have been making potato-based flatbreads for hundreds of years. It's become something of a holiday treat here in the United States, the winter holidays being the time of year when otherwise-assimilated Scandinavian Americans trot out the old traditions. (I'm Danish, but we only ate Danish food at Christmas and New Year's.)

Lefse is not made like Mexican tortillas, of course, and it's not made exclusively of potatoes. The usual recipe calls for potatoes, milk and wheat flour to be mixed into an incredibly finicky dough that is rolled out with a special grooved rolling pin and cooked on a flat- top griddle that looks a lot like a crêpe pan. It's flipped with a specially made, tapered, long stick called a lefse turner.

Norwegian-Americans, who have spent so long removed from the old country they've developed some truly strange habits, eat lefse wrapped around lutefisk (codfish preserved in lye, the only food I will refuse to eat even a bite of) and mushy peas. Norwegian-American children, who haven't yet had their brains addled by years of singing "Tryggare kan ingen vara," eat it with much-nicer butter and brown sugar.

Scandinavian speciality stores such as Olson's, Hemslöjd and Vanberia carry the tools required, and around this time of year, church basements across the American and Canadian Midwest hold holiday sales for which the old ladies of the town make bags of lefse.

Unfortunately, unless you've got a cooking bent, it's absolutely impossible to find here in Southern California; even my allotment of lefse was overnighted from South Dakota (thank you, Nichole!), and I ate it with homemade butter and crumbled piloncillo, a nod to lefse's Mexican ese.

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