Sunday, May 11, 2014

My Mother Dolores Allen

This Mothers’ Day I think about my mother, who was different from any other mother I knew. When I was growing up, other mothers spent a lot of time at home as housewives. Not my mother. She filled her life with creativity and activity. She married the right man (my father) and the two shared creativity and innovation for many years. Mother and Father didn’t compete; they collaborated and encouraged each other and their children (us). Yes, they nurtured three children also.

 My father started two radio stations, and my mother helped him. She was a writer of fiction and radio drama, and they acted in her dramas. She created and published a long lasting guidebook for tourists visiting Door County, of which she was the principal owner and which continues today in altered form; he sold advertising for it and distributed it. She created the well-known House and Garden Walk fundraiser for the Hospital Auxiliary in Sturgeon Bay, which still exists as an annual event and for which she was given two life memberships in the auxiliary.  Mother had what was said to be the longest running recipe program in the history of Wisconsin radio, lasting from 1951 until shortly before she died in 2005.  She wrote a cookbook, Door County Recipes and a Little Local Lore, in 1989, which sold well in the Door County area. It contained many recipes that were given on her recipe show on radio. Her interest in local history was in the cookbook in the form of little vignettes about Door County places. Mother also played golf and was in a bridge club for many years. Father was president of the Door County Chamber of Commerce; that was fine with her. He was chairman of the Door County Republican Party; she supported him in that. The Governor of Wisconsin came to dinner; she was there making it happen.

One thing deserves special recognition. It is nothing much in the eyes of the world, but I see it as a sacrifice on her part. Mother had become a successful writer of short stories, and had sold some, when the plan to build a radio station in Door County solidified. She gave up fiction to give her heart and her time to getting that radio station going. She had various office duties, including scheduling and monthly billing, which involved us kids. Our job was to put those bills into envelopes and get them ready for mailing. Father was the manager and the on air person. He also did everything else that no one else there did.

That’s pretty good accomplishment for a child of a single mother who grew up in Minnesota. Mother was born in 1913 and graduated from high school in 1929 at age 16. She was chosen Miss Winona sometime after her graduation. She attended the College of St. Teresa in Winona and received a degree with a double major in English and French. I have no idea how she financed that college education. Her mother worked but never had extra money for education. Mother was a teacher in small town schools and then moved to Chicago and was a model for a while. During that time she wrote stories. She also met my father in Chicago. He was a radio announcer who worked at several stations until landing at the NBC affiliate there, WMAQ. Three children and a bunch of years later, in 1951 we all moved to Sturgeon Bay, where creativity and opportunity joined together as described above.

My brothers and I were part of their ongoing enterprises. Both brothers became radio announcers in Sturgeon Bay as teenagers and it was just something our parents expected of us. I worked in the office during several summers until I got married. I was doing radio commercials in fifth grade for Scofield’s Hardware Store. I illustrated Mother’s tourist guidebook when she wasn’t using clip art.

At home my mother, who was famous for her recipe show, had little time to cook old fashioned meals for us. I have repeatedly said she bought the first of many conveniences that are taken for granted today. She came home with the first convenience food called the TV dinner. She bought the first automatic washer and dryer. She owned a car when many women didn’t drive. She always had a cleaning lady. Father supported these decisions, and said that she was more interesting when she did the things she liked to do. She tried to instill in me an interest in wearing fashionable clothes, but I wasn’t interested, except when prom time came.

I would say that parenting was not Mother’s primary interest. She was a very modern woman and had many interests while loving us. Her attitude that we can succeed as she did was a gift she gave us. She lived ninety-two years and I think she loved most of her time on this earth. Happy Mothers’ Day to my mother, Dolores Allen.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Lefse - Making and Disputing

Everyone in our family likes lefse. We also seem to like to disagree about it. You may ask how anyone can disagree about something so good, bland and Norwegian. The disagreements have been about what to put on it.

I think every ethnic group has its breads. The Norwegian Americans have lefse. It’s a soft flat bread made from mashed potatoes and flour. In my experience, which is limited to Wisconsin, people spread butter on it, or butter and sugar, and roll it up. I have been told that people fill it with other things, especially in a legendary restaurant in Osseo, Wisconsin. I also learned that commercially produced lefse has been marketed as something to eat like a tortilla. Well, other than its shape, it’s nothing like a tortilla. I have never seen tortillas marketed as lefse.

The argument started right after our wedding. I had always eaten lefse with butter spread on it and rolled up. Rick was amazed that anyone would eat it that way. He insisted that it had to have sugar sprinkled over the butter. That’s the way his mother served it. And so the argument began and remained in the family for about half a century. As life went on, Rick was louder than I was, so the kids voted for sugar along with him.  And I continued to protest that butter without sugar was best. It remained a friendly argument.

Sometime early in the marriage, I learned to make lefse. It was one of those foods that one didn’t find in most grocery stores, so if we wanted to eat it, I had to make it. Cookbooks don’t often dwell on it, although some country church cookbooks tell how to make it. I didn’t have country cookbooks then. So I decided that lefse would be easy to make.

To begin with, I didn’t have the equipment, namely a lefse rolling pin, which is die cut and a requirement. I substituted a quart fruit jar. Big mistake. Instead of lefse, I had created crackers. As it happens, the first try at lefse making is likely to make crackers even with the correct rolling pin. Lefse is all about technique. In my favor, I had a ten-inch cast iron frying pan, and it worked. Originally, I was told, the cook needed the top of an old fashioned wood stove. My mother-in-law used her wood stove. It made big pieces of lefse that would not begin to fit into my frying pan.

I bought the first lefse rolling pin that I could find, and the rest is history. With a few modifications, including size of the pieces, I learned to make tolerable lefse. It seemed to please the family and gave us all something to argue about. Eventually two of my daughters tried to make lefse when they were teenagers, and they had the same crackers result that I had had. They hid the disaster and didn’t tell me about it until much later.  Then when Rick’s aunt died, I inherited her electric lefse griddle. I didn’t know they existed, and I still prefer the frying pan. Now my daughters help me and sometimes we make it together when they visit me.

Recipes for lefse are hard to find because the manufacture of it is hard to describe. Exact measurements don’t seem to work well. Some people, including commercial lefse makers, make it with dehydrated potatoes. I think lefse tastes much better and less like cardboard when we make it with natural unprocessed potatoes. I also think that it is easier to make a batch with about two potatoes in order to figure out the technique.

One of my recipes from a church cookbook says to begin with forty pounds of potatoes and twenty pounds of flour. That would make a lot of lefse for a smorgasbord, but would send me right out of the kitchen promising never to try to make lefse again. Another book says to use six cups of mashed potatoes and two cups of flour. The proportions of potatoes and flour seem to be the same. It’s all a question of how much of the stuff you want to make. Flexibility is needed.

Here is a general idea for how to make lefse for a few people. You will need a lefse rolling pin, a cast iron pan or griddle, and a spatula to turn the pieces.


Cook a few potatoes and mash them as you would for dinner, with milk, butter and salt. Go easy with the butter and the shaker because lefse is not supposed to taste salty. Like much Norwegian food, it is bland. Mash them or use the electric mixer to get out the lumps.

Mix the potatoes with all-purpose flour, about half as much as potato. You will need enough to make the resulting dough not sticky, but holding together. Use as little flour as possible, and handle the dough quickly and lightly. Shape the dough into little balls, and then roll them into flat circles with a lefse rolling pin. The circles must be as thin as possible, and more flour may be needed for rolling. The size of the circles will be determined by the pan you use. My ten-inch cast iron pan holds circles of dough that are six to eight inches in diameter. My (unused) lefse griddle makes circles that are twice that size.  An old fashioned wood stove top makes even bigger ones.

Heat the pan or griddle until it is hot. The temperature should be about hot enough to cook pancakes. You may need to adjust the heat as you go along, if the pieces burn quickly or take too long to cook. This is the intuitive part. This is where you will end with lefse or crackers. Do not grease the pan; the pieces are baking, not frying. Place circles of dough on the griddle, one at a time. Turn them with your spatula when they barely begin to brown, a couple of minutes into the process, and cook on the other side a short time until the dough is cooked but not crisp. My mother-in-law used a long thin stick from a window shade as a turning spatula, as did Rick’s aunt. I use long pancake turners.

Stack the pieces on a plate to cool. Large pieces are cut into quarters. My smaller ones are eaten without being cut. When you are ready to eat, spread the pieces with butter. If you are so inclined, sprinkle them with sugar. Then roll them up. As I said above, I am in the no-sugar faction.

I have tried commercially made lefse and think it is inferior to the home made kind. One brand was critiqued by my daughter Mary several years ago, when she changed (in her mind) the brand name from Aunt Julia’s to Aunt Julio’s. It isn’t very good. I found another brand, called something like Jolly Troll that rises a little above mediocrity. It really is worth it to make lefse yourself.