Tracey Birr is a woman who just can’t say “no.”
Not when it comes to lefse, that is.
“Do you have any lefse, Tracey?”
“When are you going to make another batch of lefse?”
“I’ve just got to have some lefse, Tracey. Can you make me some?”
It never fails. Birr always says “yes, yes” and “yes again.”
Birr’s friendly smiling face and her lefse packages are familiar sights at the St. Joseph Farmers’ Market, summer and winter.
“They keep asking for it, and I keep making it for them,” Birr said. “The demand is there, and I just can’t say no.”
What started as a cooking challenge for the St. Joseph woman has developed into a virtual part-time job. A few years ago, she tried to make one of her childhood favorites, the Scandinavian soft flatbread called lefse. Her efforts were not exactly something to write home about. Some co-workers came to the rescue. For the past 19 years, Birr has been office manager for the telecommunications department, jointly for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. One day, she and some of her colleagues held a kind of cook-in, making lefse, and it wasn’t long before Birr finally got the knack. She credits co-worker Pam Reding for guiding her first attempts into successes. That was two years ago. Since then, Birr and one of her twin daughters, 16-year-old Cassandra, make the delicious Norwegian soft potato flatbread. Tracey stirs up the mix (flour, cream, butter, sugar, pinch of salt), and Cassandra – usually – fries them on the griddle.
Lefse (pronounced leff-suh) resembles a flour tortilla, but its base is russet potatoes, and it sports the unmistakable medium-brown “scorch” marks on it from the hot griddle. Lefse without those brown marks is not worthy of its name. And, like tortillas, lefse is so versatile because it can become a “wrapper” for virtually any kind of filling: butter and cinnamon, jams or jellies (lingonberry jam is a favorite in Norway), cheeses (especially goat cheese), peanut butter, ham and scrambled eggs, beef slices and mustard, sugar and corn syrup and even (hold your nose!) lutefisk, the traditional pungent-smelling, lye-soaked, jelly-textured cod that is a national holiday obsession with some brave Scandinavians and Scandinavian-Americans alike.
Tracey and Cassandra make 200 to 250 lefse just about every week, and they all sell faster than hotcakes. Tracey’s co-workers practically clamor for them. She gets calls from people longing for lefse, and her wares are always hot sellers at farmers’ markets. Last Saturday, Birr attended the opening of the Sartell Winter Farmers’ Market, and she was surprised by how many people bought her lefse.
Many people have never heard of lefse and have no clue what it is, Birr said, but the treat is quickly catching on, even among the die-hard German descendents in central Minnesota. Birr’s husband, Jim, is as German as they come, and he is now a lefse fan. But he is perpetually astonished at what a fuss so many fans make out of what amounts to a plain old thin potato pancake.
“I guess you’ve got to have a little bit of Scandinavian blood to fully appreciate lefse,” Tracey said. “My husband just cannot understand how people get so enthusiastic about it. His German family was in the dark about lefse all their lives.”
She made a lefse convert of her husband in short order.
It’s a good thing he married this cute little Scandinavian lefse-maker,” she added, laughing.
Unlike her German hubby, Tracey is as Scandinavian as they come. With a maiden name like Anderson, go figure. In fact, she is both Norwegian AND Swedish. She was born in New Ulm and grew up on a farm at the edge of the heavily Scandinavian town of Hanska, near New Ulm.
“Lefse, for us Scandinavians, was a year-round treat, not just a holiday specialty,” Birr said. “My father’s second wife, Deanna, is a fabulous cook. She makes lefse, and it’s just fabulous. Grandma Anderson always made it when I was growing up, and it was so good.”
Birr’s father, Willard, and Deanna, who now live in Arkansas, were elated to learn Birr had mastered the art of lefse-making. They assured her “Grandma Anderson is now smiling down on you from heaven every time you and Cassandra make lefse.”
Lefse, said Birr, is a perfect example of a traditional comfort food that gets passed down from generation to generation. That is one reason she was determined to learn lefse-making – to keep a family tradition alive. She is hoping her children Scott, 22; and twins Courtney and Cassandra, 16, help continue the lefse tradition into the future. They all love to eat it, and their favorite filling is butter and cinnamon-sugar.
“It’s sad more people are not taking the time to carry on those traditions,” Birr said. “My biological mother (Sharron) is German, but she also loves lefse and has even helped me make it.”
Birr does not consider her lefse selling as a business, although she does have personal cards that read “Homemade Lefse by Tracey Birr.” People call her often to place orders.
Birr sometimes wonders if she will ever grow tired of making so much lefse, but she dreads the day may come when she has to start saying “no.”
“I enjoy doing it because I love to make it for people who want to relive their childhood,” she said. “Sometimes just the sight of it will remind people of old times, and they say to me things like, ‘Oh, I remember when my grandma used to make that’ or ‘I haven’t had lefse in at least 20 years so I can’t wait to eat it again.’ It’s a good feeling to make people happy.”
For those who would like to meet Birr and sample her lefse, she will be at the St. Joseph Farmers’ Market through the winter season from 3-6 p.m. at Resurrection Lutheran Church. The dates are Dec. 14 (which will be a Christmas-holiday market complete with music and festive surprises), Jan. 11 and 25, Feb. 8 and 22, March 8 and 22 and April 5 and 19.