If you read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books as a child, or watched the tv show, and assumed it was all true, I’m here to shatter your illusions and tell you it wasn’t. It was, in fact, a “lightly fictionalized account” of her childhood, but many parts of it were true, and many parts of her account were glossed over, such as the near-starvation of the Ingalls family.
One of the things that I always loved about the books were the descriptions of food – of recipes and meal prep, how everything seemed so real. My mother gave me, one Christmas in my twenties, “The Little House Cookbook” by Barbara M. Walker, and I dove in to it.
Ms. Walker writes:
“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 during the Long Winter, the storybook Laura never complains of hunger. Yet the real grownup’s Laura 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.”
So all of those intricate descriptions of food, of family dinners and detailed preparation, all of it was told from the memory of near constant hunger. I wonder if, when her husband Almanzo told her about his childhood, she even believed him. If you’ve read all of the books you notice a different tone in Farmer Boy – there’s a sense of plenty – she writes of him being full after meals, a sensation she rarely had.
Nothing in this new understanding of her life takes away from my enjoyment of the books, rather it makes me appreciate her as a person more. Her childhood really wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but she found the good parts of it, and chose to dwell on those. I went back and re-read The Long Winter, which I’d always read with sympathy, and now read with sadness and at the end, with a true sense of relief.
Like the Little House books, The Little House Cookbook is a simplified view of American history. It’s the food settlers made, hunted, grew and cooked. It is quite literally the story of the western expansion told one recipe at a time. Check out the recipe for headcheese (for those who think that snout-to-tail is hipster-new, um, no it isn’t), sourdough starter, apple-core vinegar, and, I kid you not, blackbird pie (the author suggests using starlings, a European import that is a nuisance).
If your kids are reading the Little House books try a recipe so they can get a feel for what Laura and Mary really ate. If you have hipster friends invite them over for dinner and at the end pull out the cookbook and smirk.
And don’t forget the headcheese recipe.