Jean Eells, Mildred Crim, & Helen Bergman

Webster City & Ames Lefse Makers
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Jean Eells, her mother, Mildred Crim, and her aunt, Helen Bergman, carry on a multi-generation family lefse-making tradition in central Iowa. Eells, who remembers childhood Christmas lefse-making sessions at her paternal aunt Ruby’s, is deeply committed to passing this skill onto her cousins and their children.

Mildred Erickson Crim’s grandparents came to Iowa from Sweden in the 1880s. They purchased land near Stanhope near what used to be called Clear Lake and hired other Swedes to work for them. Mildred, who attended Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls (now UNI), taught school for seven years. Her sister-in-law to be, Helen, was also a teacher. Mildred and Charles Crim married in 1944 and moved to Stratford, where they lived with Charles’s parents on the family farm. The Crim family was of Norwegian and German background. They belonged to a local Methodist church, since there was no nearby Lutheran church.

According to Mildred and Helen, food traditions revealed the real differences between the two families’ Norwegian and Swedish cultures. Mildred remembered that her family made a great many Swedish dishes such as ostakaka (milk custard), lutefisk (which she never liked), and smorregrot (a cream and butter spread). She learned to make Norwegian foods to please her husband—and made lefse for the first time with Charles’s family. Since she and her husband had the family’s old range necessary for baking the flatbread, their home became the center for lefse production before the Christmas holidays. The old stove was fueled by wood, corn cobs, or coal, but corn cobs were the preferred fuel for baking the fragile flatbread.

Surprisingly, given the strength of this family tradition, Helen Crim did not learn to make lefse in her family but between she and Mildred, they figured out how to make them. In later years, a Mrs. Hove, a local Norwegian woman shared many of her recipes with Helen. Rolling the flour, shortening, milk, and salt dough (the recipe did not include potatoes, which are an ingredient common only to certain parts of Norway) to the proper degree of thinness took time to learn, as did baking the delicacy at the right temperature and for the right amount of time, especially on that old range. In 1945 or 1946, Mildred, Helen, and in later years Ruby (Charles’s and Helen’s oldest sister) started making lefse together, and they just kept on doing it, starting what has become a family tradition.

When Jean was a child, the lefse-making sessions took place at her Aunt Ruby’s because she had an electric griddle that was much easier to use than the range which had long been replaced by an electric stove. Eventually, the hand-made lefse rolling pin that did come through the family lines was replaced by a purchased one. (At our present day Lefse Day, we have several electric griddles and several lefse rolling pins in use at once!)

Regardless of how the lefse was baked, the basic ingredients stayed the same. Mildred, the instigator of this whole process, liked the challenge of learning to make lefse as well as what the family called potato cakes, which were what most Iowans of Norwegian descent know as lefse. Potato cakes were 10-12 inch rounds of baked and flexible flat bread made with mashed potatoes mixed with a small amount of flour and spread with butter, jelly, white or brown sugar and folded into quarters. The flour lefse recipe was used to make a 12-18 inch, paper thin, cracker-like flatbread that kept well and for as long as a year but needed to be moistened with damp dish towels before it was spread with butter, brown and white sugar, folded, and eaten. The size of both kinds of bread shifted, depending on the the range or griddle used.

Not only did the Crim women make lefse at Christmas time, they also made kringla for the occasion, as well as a large meal of turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, salad, vegetables, and pie. Jean, who was, as she notes, one of a tag end of cousins, has fond memories of those days, and by the time she was in junior high, she was allowed to help out with the lefse and potato cake rolling and baking. In 2006, over thirty Crim family members of all ages, some coming from as far as Ohio and Illinois, got together at Jean’s house in Webster City on a Saturday in early December to make batches of lefse, tell stories, and pass on the tradition to another generation.

Contact: Jean Eells, jceells@wmtel.net, 515/832-1771 or 4687.