I grew up near a town named Baltic, S.D. about 15 miles north of Sioux Falls. Baltic was first named St. Olaf, after the Norwegian king, of course, and after that it was Keyes and finally Baltic – after the ocean, of course. I have absolutely no idea why it was named Keyes.
When I lived there, particularly during my earliest years, Baltic was as Norwegian as the King of Norway or King Oscar Sardines – probably even more so. Until I was eight, you probably heard Norwegian spoken by the old bachelor farmers and maids more than English. Words like nayda and fie filled the summer atmosphere thicker than flies at a picnic or cats at a lutefisk cookoff.
As winter settled in and we started to virtually die of boredom, Dad would take Mom and me over to the Kirkebys, his cousins. For three or four hours, Dad and Sigfried and his sister Thora would regale one another over stories – some remembered, some fabricated, I suspect – of their youth. Every word was in Norwegian and Mom, who didn’t understand a word of it, was driven to insanity.
When it got really cold – I mean really cold – Fred Thompson would emerge like a hermit crab from his hermitage along the snow-caked Big Sioux River bottom. I always liked Fred. He could have lived during the Fur Trade era and done very well. That’s because that was how he lived when I knew him.
Fred hunted and trapped and sometimes wore the critters he’d skinned up to our farmhouse on the hill. Walking three, four miles well into his 60s, Fred would settle down into a kitchen chair, tug a can of Velvet and papers from his pocket, or sometimes even a “tailor-made”. Everyone smoked then. Mom, Dad and Fred who might sneak out a little bottle of peppermint schnapps from his beaver coat and mix it into his coffee or maybe take a short snort right out of the bottle. He let me try a sip once of the 100 proof stuff when I was seven, and when I said it tasted like candy, Mom got mad and made him put it away.
Whenever Christmastime approached, Mom baked like mad. She always baked too many cookies, too many bars, too much bread. But it was never enough. As though on cue, as soon as the bread was baked or the cookies cooled, the Kirkebys and Fred would descend on our house like wolverines after a wounded rabbit.
And if we were really lucky, Dad’s aunt Josie would come and help cook.
Aunt Josie was a legend. The Renner Corner just north of Sioux Falls still uses her spechema recipe (I probably murdered the spelling), a spiced meat that my brother-in-law and nephew sit and carve up with knives like cave men whenever they come for a visit.
Aunt Josie had mastered the art of cooking lutefisk in a wood range with oak. It emerged from the oven the consistency of roast beef and smelled heavenly (honest). Add the boiled potatoes, melted butter, Swedish meatballs, flatbrod, krumkake and lefse, and you had a feast fit for a Norwegian king.
When Aunt Josie entered the kitchen, everyone turned silent. This was her domain, her realm. No one dared lift a measuring spoon. She would drift quietly to the cupboard and take out of one of Mom’s aprons and turn, decades of knowledge emblazoned on her brow, and we would wait for her pronouncement as attentively as Oedipus would have listened to the Oracle at Delphi.
“Are we ready to make lefse?” Aunt Josie would ask.
Everyone would nod, as though ready to follow a gunnery sergeant into battle. Aunt Josie would get them through this, they knew. Because she was the best.
I’d like to say this is Aunt Josie’s lefse recipe, but it isn’t. I got it online.
Recipe for lefse
10 pounds potatoes, peeled
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon white sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1. Cover potatoes with water and cook until tender. Run hot potatoes through a potato ricer. Place into a large bowl. Beat butter, cream, salt, and sugar into the hot riced potatoes. Let cool to room temperature.
2. Stir flour into the potato mixture. Pull off pieces of the dough and form into walnut size balls. Lightly flour a pastry cloth and roll out lefse balls to 1/8 inch thickness.
3. Cook on a hot (400 degree F/200 C) griddle until bubbles form and each side has browned. Place on a damp towel to cool slightly and then cover with damp towel until ready to serve.
Christmas on the Farm
And oh, by the way. Lisa Hansen will be making lefse from noon to 4 p.m. today at Christmas on the Farm at the Peterson Point Historic Farmstead, just south of the Emmet County Nature Center.
You’ll also find sleigh rides, kids crafts and games and homebaked goodies (including some of Norwegian origin, no doubt).