An American Christmas

Henri remembers a neighbor’s lessons in lefse making

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Mon père, Etiene Alain Bourride, left Provence in the late 1950s for a job teaching French film and literature at a small Midwestern college and for the next nearly 20 years tried, mostly in vain, to fit in among his Protestant Scandinavian colleagues and neighbors.

Christmas was an especially difficult time. He grew homesick then, missing his own holiday traditions, and though Mother would make a classic French Christmas dinner—terrine à l’Alsacienne, boeuf Bourguignon, gateau Basque—it just wasn’t the same. Besides, even though he loved good company and holiday cheer, he also was also a devoutly religious man—Catholic to the core—and cherished his peace and quiet, turning inward at Christmas.

And Ole Oleson’s wife would have none of it. “Dis is Minnesota,” she’d say, “not wherever it is you come from.”

Solveig was a large and ungainly woman who, I swore as a young boy, could have set an entire Christmas table atop her ample bosom. Every year, a couple of days before Christmas, she would clomp, fully aproned, up the steps to our front door brandishing a cast-iron skillet and rolling pin as if fending off a home invasion, Ole himself trudging small and apologetically behind her with a sack of potatoes and a bag of flour.

Once inside, Solveig would bluster across the front room to the kitchen, where she’d spend the next three or four hours making lefse, my father quietly slipping out the back door, my mother doing her best to act the gracious hostess. By the time Solveig was done, everything in the kitchen was covered with flour, and Ole had given himself over completely to the flask of aquavit in the back pocket of his overalls—becoming virtually lost in the large chair by the fireplace.

(One year, about two weeks before Christmas, Solveig came over to the house alone. Ole was gone when she woke up that morning, she said, and would be in big trouble when he got home. Three days later, no Ole. Turns out, he’d caught a late-night Greyhound for Seattle, where he planned to move in with his brother. Solveig figured out where he’d gone and bought a ticket for the first train west. The two of them were home in time for Solveig’s Christmas lefse.)

Lefse is a traditional Scandinavian flatbread made from potatoes and flour rolled around a variety of ingredients. Children traditionally fill it with butter, sugar, and jam, adults with meatballs and fish.

The following ingredients are approximate. Solveig did it all “by feel” and would be appalled at the idea of actual measurements.

8 large russet potatoes

1 cup flour

3 tablespoons butter, melted

3 tablespoons milk or half-and-half

Make a large bowl of mashed potatoes, mashing with butter and milk. Allow to chill. Add the flour, mixing by hand until the mixture no longer sticks to your fingers. Break off walnut-sized balls of the potato/flour mixture. On a floured surface, roll these very thin with a lefse rolling pin. (Lefse rolling pins are grooved to roll the mixture very thin; they’re available at kitchen specialty stores and at

Carefully transfer the lefse to a very hot ungreased skillet, preferably cast-iron for even heat distribution. Cook until golden brown (2-4 minutes), then turn over and cook the other side.

Remove from heat and put onto a plate with a paper towel between each piece to help keep them supple.

Fill, roll, and enjoy!

Finally, Christmas Eve would arrive. I’d put my little shoes out for Père Noël to fill with gifts. Then the three of us would drive, miles and miles through the night—little Henri bundled up in blankets in the back seat of the Citroën—to St. Paul’s Catholic church for midnight Mass. When we’d get home, we’d turn off all the lights except for the ones on the Christmas tree and sit on the sofa in the near dark munching on my father’s favorite snack: Solveig’s lefse, with French paté.

Joyeux Noël, mon père. Sleep in heavenly peace. And to you, too, Solveig. Gledelig Jul.