Calling All Bonnet-Heads: An Awesome Laura Ingalls Wilder Cookbook!

Now that I’ve been blogging with you guys for two and a half years, I think I’m comfortable enough to share my utterly geeky childhood obsession with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Sure, you loved the books, too, but did you make your mother scour the stores of Tucson, Arizona to find you a purple calico sunbonnet, a bonnet which you might have worn outside the house on more than one occasion (OMG)?  Did you pathetically attempt to recreate Laura and Mary’s maple “sugar snow” candy using crushed ice from your freezer (it was Tucson, remember)?  Did you long with every fiber of your being to know exactly what a “Vanity Cake” tasted like, or wonder how Ma made her delicious and thirst-quenching “Ginger-Water?”

Well, then, my fellow bonnet-heads, I have some good news for you.  As I mentioned on TLT’s Facebook page just before my summer vacation, I recently stumbled on two Laura Ingalls Wilder-related cookbooks, both of which have been out for a long time but which I’d never seen before, and maybe you haven’t either.

The first book, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook, contains seventy-three of Wilder’s own recipes from her years on her Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, MI.  While not written by Wilder herself, the book does contain biographical information and photographs of Wilder and her family.  But since the recipes all date from the 1930s and 40s, I haven’t ordered this book;  I’m much more interested in the foods mentioned in the Little House books themselves.

For those recipes, you simply must check out The Little House Cookbook:  Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories.  Written back in 1979, author Barbara Walker does a phenomenal job of weaving together all the food-related excerpts from the Little House books, their underlying historical context, and carefully researched, historically-accurate recipes.  You’ll find everything from the Green Pumpkin Pie that Ma passes off as apple pie in The Long Winter, to the Corn Dodgers Laura eats with molasses after playing with Mary on the banks of Plum Creek and, yes, even a recipe for those tantalizing Vanity Cakes.  Adding to the fun is the inclusion of the charming Garth Williams illustrations found in the original books.

As an adult who hasn’t revisited the books since childhood, Walker also gave me new insight into the numerous, lavish descriptions of food found in all of the Little House books but particularly in Farmer Boy, about Wilder’s husband’s upbringing on a prosperous New York dairy farm.  Writes Walker:

Food . . . looms large in this pioneer chronicle because there was rarely enough of it.  Though she tells of being listless and weak from near starvation in the Long Winter, the storybook Laura never complains of hunger.  Yet the real grownup Laura’s memory for daily fare and holiday feasts says more about her eagerness for meals, her longing for enough to eat, than it does about her interest in cooking.  Farmer Boy is not merely her husband’s story; it is her own fantasy of blissful youth, surrounded on all sides by food.

And when you look with a modern, adult eye on the daily fare of the Ingalls family, you do see how spartan their diet really was, with a heavy reliance on staples like beans, cornmeal, salt pork and pork drippings cooked in a variety of ways.

Walker brings serious commitment to her project, which means that recipes are included for dishes most modern cooks are unlikely to try, like Blackbird Pie and Pot Roast of Ox.  But even if you never whip up Rye’n’Injun or serve your tomatoes the old-fashioned way, with sugar and cream, it’s the detailed food history that I think you and your child will really enjoy.  Kids can read about the incredible labor that went into making foods we now casually pull off a grocery shelf, like butter and maple syrup, or learn of the eclectic array of items in a nineteenth century country store.  They can read about the intricacies of pickle-making, how eggs were preserved without refrigeration, and what it was like to cook on a stove with no buttons or dials.

As a Wilder fan and a foodie, I enjoyed this book so much that I read it cover-to-cover in one sitting.  Whether I was wearing my purple sunbonnet at the time is nobody’s business but my own.

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  1. says

    After I read your Facebook post, I found both books at my local library, checked them out, and read them cover-to-cover. I, too, loved the Little House books and TV show. I also had a bonnet…with a matching dress and pinafore…that my mom made for me. I grew up on a farm, and while my diet was not as sparse as the Ingalls’, it mostly consisted of foods that we grew at home and canned/froze for the winter. We butchered our own hogs in our backyard, and my grandma was quite handy with an ax and a chicken. I think maybe one reason I loved the books so much is because I could relate to her stories. And I could definitely relate her stories to the stories my grandma told me.

    I re-read all the Little House books (except Farmer Boy, because I never enjoyed it as much) last winter, and also a few other books about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I love them as much now as I did when I was a kid.

    Thanks for the tip about the cookbooks!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      OMG – bonnet, dress AND pinafore? I would have been so jealous as a kid! And it’s funny – I know a lot of people didn’t love Farmer Boy but I think I especially loved it precisely because it had so much discussion of food. Even then I was apparently destined to someday be a food blogger!

  2. Andrea says

    We have the Walker book. My daughter loves a couple of the recipes (the blueberry pudding especially), and I enjoy for the same reasons as you: being able to explain what some of the foods in the book were, and how creative people had to be with what was available.

  3. Lori says

    Bettina, I am right there with you! When my daughter and I read the books I was shocked by at how different they were from how I remembered them–pig slaughtering in chapter one? But my daughter loved reading them, especially The Long Winter (my kids pretended that the vacuum cleaner noise was the storm howling outside the door). And I am all about the food in Farmer Boy! I will definitely check out the Walker book, thanks for the recommendation!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Lori: One of my biggest parenting failures (just kidding) was my inability to get my kids interested in the books. I think I may have first tried when they were too young, and somehow they just didn’t share my enthusiasm for pages and pages on the art of churning and coloring butter. :-) Oh well, I guess I can hold out hope for the grandkids.

  4. says

    Dear Bettina

    I am from venezuela. We have a barge on a lake wich are overweight, almost all of them, and we want to use mess trays for them. I am looking for some repectfull literature that I can use a a support about the use and serving in a mess tray but I cant get nothing. Could you please help me?
    I just find your blog, and I think it is absolutely wonderfull, you are making a great job traying to help with this issue, congrats!!

    Thank You very much for your help



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