BEMIDJI, Minn. — Just as Bubba told Forrest Gump that shrimp was the fruit of the sea, I couldn’t help but consider lefse the fruit of Minnesota’s Norwegian sea when I arrived at Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club's much-anticipated Lefse Festival on Thursday night, Nov. 7.
The annual fundraising event — held in partnership with the Sons of Norway and the Beltrami County Historical Society — was in full swing at the Bemidji Eagles Club, where long but quick-moving lines greeted guests as did the aroma of creamed and buttered spud meeting hot sizzling griddle.
Tubs of various butters, sugars and jams abounded on tables throughout the room as cooks scrambled to keep up with hungry hands reaching for a sampling of their specialty lefse.
As I traversed the room, I saw each cook added their own flair to the traditional Norwegian flatbread. For instance, some chefs preferred the plant-based Country Crock spread to dress their samples while others stuck to the more traditional softened-stick-of-butter route.
But one thing was certain: Every maker made sure to appease each individual palate with a lefse assortment to which Bubba would give his seal of approval.
There was plain lefse, buttered lefse, lefse buttered with white sugar, lefse buttered with brown sugar, lefse buttered with cinnamon sugar, lefse sugared with lingonberry jam, warm lefse, cool lefse, thin lefse, thick lefse, gourmet lefse topped with whipped cream and bagged lefse for sale.
And did my tastebuds deceive me? I know I detected a mocha-flavored lefse.
There were also lefse kabobs, lefse burgers, lefse curry, lefse pot pies, lefse stew — just kidding, but surely you get the point.
My plan for the night was to start plain and then work my way up to the more dressed samples of lefse. This would allow me to first get a sense of each chef's base product and then their method of dressing them.
As I understand it, some Minnesotans remain purists when it comes to their lefse. Initially, I was a bit concerned about trying it plain because of a running joke that the holiday delicacy is “so tasteless that many mistakenly eat the paper doily under the stack and do not know the difference.”
It also didn't help that one individual in the newsroom (who shall remain unnamed) likens eating lefse to taking a bite out of a cardboard box.
Luckily, I found that no doilies were harmed in the making of the festival since some of the best lefse makers in the area were present and ready to give the community a taste — far from resembling cardboard — of a Norwegian culinary tradition.
Even the warm plain lefse was soft and delicious, and as I graduated my way into butter and sugar and jams and spices, my snacking couldn’t pinpoint a single disappointment.
But I just couldn’t resist the gourmet lefse from the Winger Dinger Lefse Slingers, which was filled with either lingonberry or raspberry jam and a sprinkling of sugar and then topped with a swirl of whipped cream on top. It reminded me of a tasty fruit dessert, and I went back for seconds.
In hindsight, I realize that — much like a mood — the way a person prefers the dressing of their lefse could have a tendency to change.
Last night, I was feeling more on the outgoing side and favored a taste explosion of fruity sweetness. But perhaps when I’m feeling a bit more reserved and in need of something to combat the cold, I could see myself reaching for a warm and savory buttered one.
But among lefse and those who love it, there’s just something comforting about its endless accoutrements and the lack of judgment directed toward how one dresses theirs.
After all, variety is the spice of life even when it comes to a potato flatbread.