“The potato, native to the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia, was introduced to Europe by the Spaniards in the 16th century, and to Norway in the mid-1700s.
“At first, some though potatoes to be poisonous. But by the early 1800s, Norwegians knew what to do with a potato. In fact, potatoes caught on so well that by 1835 potato crops were six times larger than they had been in 1809. Virtually every home had its own potato patch, even the homes in the Arctic Circle. Poor soil and a short growing season didn’t affect the highly nutritious potato, and the yield from potatoes was four or five time better than from wheat or rye.
“The potato became a family’s insurance policy against starvation where grains could not grow because of climate or bad weather. It was eaten as is and was a fine extender in soups, salads, and daily breads such as lefse.
“The acceptance and then dependence on the potato contributed to overpopulation in the 1800s, which eventually contributed to migration to America. [The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 also affected Norway, although not as greatly. Many Norwegians, dependant on potatoes, moved to America during this period.] From 1800 to 1865, the Norwegian population nearly doubled to more than 1.7 million. The economy was generally good, there was peace, there was the discovery of the smallpox vaccination and improvement in sanitary conditions, and potatoes and protein-rich herring became staple foods for poor people. Thus, people lived longer and the population boomed, pushing people out of crowded areas to northern Norway, where land was still available and fishing was good, and to America.
“Later, during German occupation of Norway in World War II, the potato again was important, according to Bitten and Torbjorn. In Norway, a potato cake-life lefse called lompe ‘kept us alive,’ said Bitten. ‘We very much lived on potatoes then. I tell you, there was not much food. What food there was, the Germans used for the troops. The Germans would take fresh fish, and the stores and restaurants would get the rotten fish.’
“‘But during the occupation we could buy potatoes,’ she continued, ‘and we knew so many ways of using potatoes. We couldn’t buy much milk or butter or margarine – or a decent flour. The flour we could buy was so heavy. You’d bake bread, and the outside was hard and crusty and the inside just a lump of dough.’”
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Lefse, a Norwegian flatbread typically made from potatoes, is a delicacy for many Norwegian-Americans today and is often baked during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays even though it was such a staple back in Norway. There are many different types of lefse. Some are hard and crispy, others are soft and pliable. Most lefse are fairly thin, but some thicker versions are served as cake. There are just as many ways to eat lefse. The most common way is to spread it with butter, sprinkle it with sugar (and maybe some cinnamon), roll it up, and eat it. It can also be rolled around fish or sausages, slathered with jam, turned into a breakfast burrito, or eaten plain. Most Norwegian-Americans love lefse and those who live in the upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest are lucky enough to be able to buy it in stores. Those of us who live in other parts of the United States either have to make it ourselves, buy it online (if possible), travel thousands of miles to find it, or go without.We went without lefse for many years in our family. Grandma didn't want to make it because she couldn't get it 'just right' the way her mom used to. But it's so hard, impossible actually, to find in stores around here. I think I may just teach myself how to make it.