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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