My Norwegian Grandma, Javerne

Grandma JaVerneI was blessed with two wonderful grandmothers. Each was extra special to me in different ways. Today, I’m sharing about my Norwegian Grandma, Javerne Kalsem, who lived just down the road from where I grew up.

I learned to LOVE cooking and baking from her. She paid special attention to every detail while making meals, and you could just feel her joy in serving guests.

To honor Grandma, I decided to feature her in my “Cooking with Karen” column for the June/July 2015 issue of Our Iowa magazine. I’m sharing an excerpt from that column here, along with some details we didn’t have room to share in the magazine.

While growing up, I felt like a sponge trying to soak up Grandma’s every move. She followed recipes, but also went by “feel”. For instance, when she mixed together crushed crackers and melted butter to top her scalloped corn, she used her fingers to know when it was just right.

She took time to carefully spoon flour into her measuring cups and level them. I think I’m cut from the same cloth, because I am pretty precise, too. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy experimenting with recipes, but I especially like the science of baking.

I grew up on a farm just down the road from my grandparents, so it was easy to ride my bike over to their big white farm house for a visit after school. The men were usually outside getting ready to feed the livestock, and Grandma was working away inside.

Kalsem farm house

I vividly recall walking into her kitchen as the back door creaked open and then banged shut behind me. (Below is a photo of Grandma with my Grandpa Orville.) As soon as I stepped inside the back door I could smell what was baking in the kitchen. Grandma would often be standing near her wall oven peeking inside to keep an eye on her work.

Grandma and Grandpa on the farm

As soon as she spotted me her eyes would light up. She had the same twinkle in her eye as my Dad, and I loved that about her. Usually soft spoken and always humble, she downplayed her skills in the kitchen and brushed aside compliments with a shy smile.

When she was around her family, I saw her humor shine through. She loved to tease back and forth with my Dad, and I remember her swatting him playfully with her lefse stick (see below). She was eternally optimistic, and her strong faith was a cornerstone to her life.

Grandma and DadHere is a photo from the day Grandma taught me how to make Norwegian lefse. If you’re not familiar with lefse, it is sort of like the Norwegian version of a tortilla. I’ll write more about lefse in a future post, but here is a photo that shows some lefse.

Lefse making with GrandmaLefse platter


My favorite visits to Grandma’s kitchen were when she baked cookies. Over on her countertops, she would have tea towels laying out (you know, the ones with the hand embroidery sewn in the corner) as well as a few cooling racks. Her array of cookies would be cooling on the towels.

Grandma's towelsAs soon as Grandma realized she had a visitor, her focus immediately shifted from baking to hostessing. She would look up with a smile and ask “Would you like a cookie? How about a glass of Pepsi?” Then, she would pull out a chair and sit down to visit with me.

Before heading back outside at the end of my visit, I could always count on Grandma for a hug. Talk about having a cheerleader in life; both of my grandmothers were always cheering me on. I realize today what a special gift that was.

Years later Grandma moved with Grandpa from the farm into town. She continued to bake but would often apologize as she served a meal. She’d say, “Oh Karen, I’m out of practice.”  And, you know, now that I’m an adult, I understand better what she meant.

Grandma in Huxley

While on the farm, she was feeding big meals regularly. When you do something everyday it becomes second nature. When you entertain only occasionally, it is much more nerve wracking. With all of that said, I can still attest to the fact that every meal at my Grandma’s house was top notch, and her kind hospitality was second to none.

Today I keep my most treasured recipes from Grandma in her rosemaled lefse box. It was painted by my cousin, Shirley Snyder, and is such a special reminder of my family heritage.

lefse box

I love the hand written recipes — especially the ones from family members, including this bread recipe from my great grandma and our family recipe for Kringla. To see an enlarged copy of either recipe, simply click on the photo.

Great Grandma's bread recipeKringla recipe card


I’d love to hear who taught you how to cook. Was it a grandmother, mother, teacher, or 4-H leader? Or, maybe you taught yourself.