My grandmother, a woman who was somehow able to maintain the clockwise flow of Norwegian delicacies and pester her family members all at once, would turn to me and ask if I had been wearing the yellow, red and green mittens she had knit for me. I assured her that I had received her thoughtful care package at school and that they were safe in my jacket pocket, right next to the orange hat she made for me the year before, adjacent to the red and white scarf that Aunt Linda made for me the year before that. Then, Linda would wink at me from a table across the crowded dining room.
I always sat at the kids table. I hated the kids table. It was crammed with all the leftover children of Christmases past, as if the adults really thought 17 kids could fit at a table made for six. "There's always room for more" didn't apply only to food, I guess. To me, a growing, eager young boy, there was never a greater example of injustice - - an unforgivable case of ageist, even classist, oppression. But, I never argued.
Growing up in a Norwegian household, there was one rule I learned quickly: Everyone older than I was, no matter who it was, was far more stubborn than I could ever be. Arguing was futile. When family arrived, I knew my place. I was supposed to look cute while wearing that giant, multi-colored sweater my great aunt whom I have never met knit for me, get my cheeks pinched by my gossipy aunts while carrying everyone's winter coats up to the guest bedroom for proper storage.
My tasks were simple, no matter how embarrassing they were. But a form of torture even greater than sore cheeks from loving pinches awaited me at dinner, the most serious responsibility a Scandinavian can face at the holidays: the requirement to eat the dreaded, despised lutefisk.
I never needed to actually prepare the lutefisk; I was only required to smell it. My grandfather waited for this single event every year as if it were his only source of happiness, ever. After he helped himself to the steaming, gelatinous, quivering mass of goo in a nice, china bowl, he did the most terrible thing: He passed it to the rest of us. At the kids table, we passed the lutefisk swiftly, staring in terror at the dish and then each other. Each cousin, looking paler than the last, would soak the fish in butter (surely that could make even shoe leather edible), and then quickly, under Grandpa's critical eye, force a forkful down our throats, chasing the aftertaste with milk, juice, water - - anything we could get our hands on, any source of palate relief ... until the glorious day we discovered lefse.
It had always been there, but the grownups had forgotten to pass it down to the card table where the kids were sitting. The question that plagued my kid table confinement had finally been answered. How could grown-ups, with complete free will, continue to eat lutefisk, year after year, and retain some semblance of sanity? Lefse. It connected the pieces. It all made sense. Lefse was the brilliant counterpart to lutefisk. A thin, tortilla-esque, potato-based godsend - - and it was my family's job to supply the rest of our clan with its greatness.
On Christmas Eve when I was 16, my older brother sat me down in the kitchen early in the morning. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked into my eyes, and told me that with a driver's license came great responsibility. I interrupted him, informing him that I knew where babies came from, assuming that, since he was home from college, it was time for a hand-me-down lesson in dating. But instead, he held up his hand to silence me and slowly walked into our pantry - - past the tub of peeled and mashed potatoes cooling on the shelf, past the tubs of flour, past the soon-to-be-used lefse griddles - - and took from our cupboard a long, thin, wooden, sword-like lefse-stick. I knelt. He solemnly knighted me. Now that I was old enough, it was time to learn the craft - - nay, the art - - of lefse-making.
I was suddenly admitted into the weird adult world of puffs of flour in the air, of the thump of the heavy lefse rolling pins (my mother's and sister's job), of urgent and staccato commands to get the thin pancakes onto a griddle, flip them, and shuffle them over to the counter to join the ever-growing pile of steaming lefse, awaiting butter and sugar.
By no means was I as excited about this new passage into manhood as I probably should have been. Spending Christmas Eve in a crowded kitchen with my family never seemed like a good idea for the first 16 years of my life, why would it now?
When I left for college, I thought I could escape the Norwegian responsibility to eat inedible fish and pretend it's good. No more standing around a kitchen table for six hours, cranking out lefses, one by one. But, unfortunately, at St. Olaf, I found myself in a community of lefse-loving, lutefisk-eating carbon copies of my entire family.
Still, there is something oddly reassuring about this seemingly-creepy reality. Everyone here is freshly graduated from the kids table in the corner. Maybe everyone wasn't cruelly forced to eat lutefisk during their childhood, but it's not a foreign smell to most Oles.
I'll admit it; those first years of pin rolling and potato peeling were not easy. Cuts, bruises, faces full of flour, my mother worrying that it was too tough, too dry, too underdone and surely not as good as Grandma's - - none of these things were exactly fun.
Today, I stand on the line between a slightly responsible young adult and a goofy kid with bad table manners. I have found a new source of Christmas fantasy stemming from the kids table connection. It's not the chance to torture the new kids in the family, but rather, it's the chance to instill a sense of tradition and family in their gift-obsessed minds. It may even extend the whole Santa thing a couple years longer.
I still sit at the kids table. But, now I like it.