From Lefse to Lutefish to Matzo and Challah... and beyond: Iowa Culture

I'm getting anxious to go to Iowa for Christmas. While roaming around in my writing files late last night, I found this. "I come from a meat and potatoes family. Sunday dinners of fall-apart braised roast beef and mashed potatoes. Like my grandpa and my granddad, I ate my potatoes yellow with butter and heavily dotted with pepper. Mom's home canned green beans, frozen corn, and baked squash rounded out the dinner. Plus sliced, white, buttered bread.

In fact, I come from a meat and potatoes state. Over 20 years ago, while driving home from Luther College one Sunday morning in the fall, my ’68 Ford LTD broke down on the hills south of Decorah, Iowa. Through the rear-view window, I could see steam rolling out the back of the car. The car cost me $200; I had paid more for my first camera. Within minutes a young farmer pulled up behind me. He knew a mechanic that might be willing to come out on a Sunday to tow the car in and fix it for me. The mechanic came and loaded up my car; the farmer offered to take me to his house where I could wait with his wife while my car was fixed, so I hopped into his pick-up truck.

A whiff of Sunday dinner hit me when he opened the door to his house. His wife was pregnant with their first child. Dinner was ready and pleasant words to the effect of “you might as well eat with us” were spoken in the Iowan farmer way and were followed by grace. And fall-apart braised roast beef and mashed potatoes. How ironic that this couple had the same Sunday dinner as my family! Two hours later, the young farmer gave me a ride to the shop, and I was back on the road.

At Luther College, I was surrounded by blondes with blue eyes. The student population was largely Lutheran and of Scandinavian decent. I hopped in whole-heartedly and ate up this beautiful culture. During the holidays, I added a Norwegian tradition to our family’s Christmas. I boiled potatoes not for dinner but rather to mash with flour, sugar, a little salt and a splash of cream. Pulling enough dough off to roll into a pastry resembling a tortilla, I dry-fried it in a cast iron skillet. When it came out, I buttered it, sprinkled sugar and cinnamon on it, and shared this amazing culinary phenomenon with my family. Lefse.

I joined in with the Norwegians as they joked about lutefisk. Though I had never seen, smelled, or touched this gelatinous dried, then soaked “delicacy.” I wasn’t even sure if it was real. My most-worn earrings in college were traditional Norwegian Solje, made of silver with plated gold dangling spoons that were meant to reflect evil from the wearer. I didn’t wear it for protection, but it was the first combination of silver and gold I wore years before that was fashionable.

Studying Judaism my junior year of college introduced me to another wonderful but truly foreign culture. The books my professor assigned brought the Jewish culture to life. In particular, I remember First Encounter by Bella Chagall, who was born to a Hasidic family in White Russia and who was the wife of the painter Marc Chagall. Through a series of short stories from a child/youth's perspective, Chagall opened up a window to her life in the early 1900's. The book's theme of family was relatable, but the celebrations and traditions of her Jewish culture were eye opening -- and beautifully foreign.

In my senior year at Luther, I traveled to London, Paris, and Amsterdam during January, Luther's "J-term." That trip confirmed it: I was a culture junkie. Seeing people born like me from a womb but through language, food, and beliefs -- life -- they were so different from me, from one another. My infatuation with different cultures was intense. As I traveled, I naively wished I had my own culture. One as vibrant as the Norwegians and the Jews.

Then I hit a wall at the age of 43 that turned my perspective upside down. In June 2009, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I would go through a year of surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy. During that time, I made a choice not to travel – fearing germs when my immune system was weak. I wouldn’t be flying to Iowa during treatment. Not for Christmas. Not for Easter. Not until June 2010.

Through those 12 months away from Iowa, I realized that lefse and lutefisk nor matzo and challah would ever be at the core of who I was. Rather, the stoic, stubborn, practical nature of being an Iowan would give me the leverage to “do” that year. Finally, I found my cultural core, and it was well supported by Mom's braised beef and potato dinner. As my hair grew back in the spring, I realized my culture as an Iowan was one of the many across the globe, just as complex and rich."

I wish you love, peace, and joy as you celebrate this season with your family!  Many blessings to you as you enjoy your traditions and celebrate your culture!

(An aside: Mom, if you're reading... I'll be home just after Christmas; you can count on me.  Please have snow... you can skip the mistletoe, but perhaps have braised beef waiting for me!)