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Making lefse with love

“Homemade Lefse…made with a whole lot of Norwegian love!” proclaims Tracey Birr’s card.  She has been making lefse for the farmers’ markets out of her home the last few years and occasionally teaches classes to those who want to learn to make the soft, round, traditional Norwegian flatbread.

As a young girl, Tracey learned to love lefse.  Growing up in the predominantly German town of New Ulm, Tracey knew she was unique.  Although most of her classmates enjoyed an after-school snack of cookies and milk, Tracey came home to the smells and tastes of freshly made lefse.  “How many kids can say that?” asks Tracey.

Tracey’s family was from Hanska, a small Norwegian Lutheran town not far from New Ulm.  Some of Tracey’s earliest memories are of eating lefse at her grandma Anderson’s house in Hanska.  But it was when she was a young teen that she really discovered her love of lefse.  After Tracey’s parents were divorced, Tracey’s father – of Norwegian descent himself – married a woman who came from a strong Norwegian background.  It was Tracey’s stepmother who made lefse quite often when Tracey was a girl, and from whom she learned to really love lefse.

As a young woman, Tracey tried to duplicate the taste of the lefse she had eaten at home but wasn’t happy with the results.  She purchased lefse in grocery stores but found that it didn’t compare.  Although she no longer lived in the area, she found herself driving all the way back to Hanska, just to get homemade lefse from family friends and former neighbors (her father and stepmother having moved to Arkansas in the meantime).  But it was a long drive, and she longed to be able to make lefse herself.  Finally, as an adult, she found a couple of people who knew how to make lefse, and they became her mentors.  Tracey credits Pam Redding and Deb Baloun with teaching her the rolling techniques that are “half the battle” to making good lefse.

Tracey and a group of friends had a blast learning how to make lefse.  Before long, Tracey was ready to start making her own.  She began planning times to get together with her good friend, Donna, and make batches of lefse just for fun.  Soon she was bringing lefse to work to treat her friends and coworkers.  It wasn’t long before she began to think about charging for the lefse she made.

A couple of years ago, Tracey advertised her homemade lefse in a local newspaper, and the phone started ringing.  It turned out that there were many people in the St. Cloud area who were longing for good, homemade lefse.  Tracey began delivering her lefse to customers in Waite Park, where she found elderly ladies who fondly remembered their own grandmothers’ lefse.

Tracey doesn’t charge for delivery to Waite Park, saying “I’m always in Waite Park anyway, so it’s not out of the way.”  And she realizes that she is actually giving something back to her customers, when she sees how excited they are when she comes to their doors.

“It’s just fun to be able to provide it,” says Tracey.  “It is really a labor of love.” Tracey is just happy to be able to cover her expenses as she brings happiness to others.  She considers this her part-time job and has no intentions of quitting her “day-job” at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict.

Anyone who has ever made lefse knows what a labor-intensive task it can be, as each piece of lefse has to be rolled and grilled separately.  Often families make lefse together, as a social event which spreads the work around while keeping the tradition alive.

When Tracey decided she wanted to give back to her church, she offered to teach a class on making lefse.  The class, taught at Resurrection Lutheran Church in St. Joseph, was well attended, and she was asked to teach another.

Soon, the St. Joseph Farmers Market asked if she would consider selling lefse there.  She agreed and now has a booth at the outdoor market in the summer.  When the market moves indoors in November, she will have a booth in their “Winter Market.”

Tracey has also, on occasion, agreed to teach a class in a customer’s home.  She just brings her special lefse gear (griddles, special grooved rolling pins, and long-handled turning sticks), along with her recipe and ingredients and comes ready to cook.  Sometimes people make the potatoes before she arrives, so they can get going on the first batch right away.

Lefse is a traditional Norwegian flatbread, similar in size and shape to a tortilla, but usually made with potatoes or potato flour and cooked on a special griddle.  It is a soft bread and is usually served spread with butter and sugar or cinnamon sugar and rolled up.  Scandinavian-American families that want to keep the old Norwegian traditions often serve lefse during the holidays, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In Norway, there are many different ways of making lefse.  The traditional thin lefse, generally made in central Norway, is what most Scandinavian Americans think of as lefse.  In the area of Valdres, an even thinner lefse is made, called Tynnlefse.  There is a thick lefse, called Tykklefse or Tjukklefse, which is more like what Americans would call coffee cake.  There is even a type of lefse made in Hardanger, Norway, which is dried and can be stored unrefrigerated for up to six months, then dampened with water to be reconstituted into bread-like soft lefse.  This Hardangerlefse is considered to be the type of bread that was likely taken with the Vikings on their seafaring voyages.

Since her lefse has become so popular, Tracey has also experimented with other Scandinavian delicacies.  She has begun making Swedish almond cakes; a Norwegian wedding cake called kransekake, which she plans to decorate for use at Christmas; the pretzel-shaped Norwegian cookies called kringla; and krumkake, the patterned and rolled cookies which look almost like an ice cream cone.  She also makes rosettes and spritz cookies, as well as other delicacies that have been passed down by family or are related to her Scandinavian heritage.

Tracey is a believer in passing on your heritage to your children.  “If we don’t pass it on, these wonderful traditions will die out,” she says.  Tracey’s family has learned to enjoy lefse, as well as the other Scandinavian treats she makes.  Her husband, whose background is German, likes lefse, “but he doesn’t understand the insanity of it,” says Tracey, referring to the depth of feeling she has encountered in her lefse-loving customers.

Her son, age 22, enjoys eating lefse sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar but hasn’t ventured into making lefse.  Tracey has tried to teach her twin daughters, age 17, how to make lefse and has had surprisingly different results.  One daughter, Cassondra, enjoys making it and has often helped with the grilling.  Tracey’s other daughter, Courtney, has declined to learn, saying it is too much work.

Tracey can understand Courtney’s opinion, as each batch is a time-consuming affair.  But she hopes that when her daughters grow up, they will want to come back and spend a day making lefse with her, for old time’s sake.  She hopes that making lefse will be a family tradition, something they will remember with love and want to pass on to their children someday, just as she did.

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