I return to my South Dakota roots for a look at some of the peculiar foods from my youth.
I haven’t seen any halva since I left my hometown well over sixty years ago. Halva was an odd confection that my father sold in his grocery store. It arrived from somewhere, wrapped in wax paper and refrigerated, a block of chocolate or vanilla granular stuff that we sold from the meat counter, cutting off slices to be weighed. The block, as I recall, was about two feet long, maybe eight inches square. After purchasing your slice, about an inch thick, you bit off a corner and it sort of dissolved in the mouth. I think a Snickers bar would be better. I thought halva probably derived from Germany or Norway or Sweden, the three most prominent nationalities that live in and around Mobridge, but when I looked it up on the Net, I found that it was a Middle Eastern delight.
Another treat still made and sold in Mobridge is kuchen, a German pastry sort of like a pie, with a thick pie crust filled with sweet custard and some sort of fruit, mainly apples or cherries, but as I remember it, also prunes. Maybe this last was made specifically for our older population. The best kuchen maker in town was Pearl Scott, whom my father commissioned to make kuchens for him to sell in his grocery store.
As I recall, I ate lefse only once when I was in my early twenties. Lefse is a Norwegian flatbread usually made from potatoes, milk or cream, and flour, rolled out in thin sheets and scored by a special rolling pin, then baked. One ate it with butter or any number of other ingredients rolled up in it. I guess it would be like a soft Norwegian tortilla shell, served mainly around the holidays. I remember it as being quite good, but then, I think I can get along without ever eating it again.
And finally, a food peculiar to our region, but one I’ve never eaten, maybe because I used to have to sell it in my father’s grocery store and it looked and smelled so disgusting. Lutefisk, or lutfisk, depending on whether you were Norwegian or Swedish, is a whitefish, mostly cod, soaked in water and then in a lye solution for days and days until it was juuuust right. Then dried and sold to people who wanted a special treat for the holidays. Yum yum. Garrison Keillor, in Lake Wobegone Days, said, “Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I'd be told, ‘Just have a little.’ Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.” And finally, sticking to the Scandinavian theme, the punch line from an Ole and Lena joke, so very popular in my old hometown: “Well, we tried the lutefisk trick and the raccoons went away, but now we've got a family of Norwegians living under our house!”