REVIEW by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson
The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories
by Barbara M. Walker
Paperback: 256 pages
For Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, The Little House Cookbook is a no-brainer, must-have, geek fest. As a Laurafan, I’ve been salivating over Ma’s vanity cakes and sourdough biscuits since 1972, pining for those heart-shaped cakes sprinkled in white sugar. The cookbook chapters often feature a quote and an original illustration by Garth Williams from the “Little House” series. Even the font and point size are the same as the books. Comfort and nostalgia abound.
An admitted “Bonnethead,” I read with the intention of holding a pioneer-themed dinner party. My first pass made me think that Ma Ingalls was not just being modest when she said, “Hunger is the best sauce.” Salt pork, cornmeal, and codfish aren’t exactly kitchen staples of the Barefoot Contessa. Laura Ingalls Wilder always had the knack of making lettuce with a sprinkle of vinegar and sugar sound like black truffle risotto, but her local supply store, The Loftus General Store of De Smet, South Dakota, wasn’t exactly Whole Foods. I wanted the fun of a pioneer meal and food that people would enjoy.
What I discovered, while looking for recipes that wouldn’t give my guests heart disease, was a fascinating read. The author, Barbara Walker, not only knows how to cook, she is a food historian—her bibliography is four and a half pages long. In each chapter, she locates recipes within their historical context and explains every ingredient. We all know that women cooked over an iron stove, but did you know that they didn’t have baking soda? I learned that tomatoes were not sweet until the turn of the century, and that Laura (who became a renowned poultry farmer) lived to see “poultry raising change from a gentlemen’s sport and farm wife’s pocket money to two separate industries, egg production and meat production.” Today, poultry farmers use different breeds for “layers” versus “fryers.”
Laurafans will love how Walker takes on recipes that demonstrate Ma’s resourcefulness during lean times. She recreates the Green Pumpkin Pie Ma baked when there were no apples to be found. Blackbirds decimating the corn crop? There’s Ma, rebounding with Blackbird Pie. (Now Blackbirds are endangered, so Walker recommends substituting the new aviary pest, Starlings). She explains how to bake “Long Winter” bread, which the Ingalls family subsisted on during eight months of prairie blizzards. I admit that while reading about these recipes I probably wasn’t going to make them, but I did enjoy thinking about making them.
The Little House Cookbook is fun to read, but America’s Test Kitchen taught me that the key to a useable cookbook, versus a pretty one, is that the recipes actually work. Walker gets giant kudos for writing up the recipes so that you can recreate them. For each dish, she first describes how a pioneer would have prepared the food, and then details how to adapt these recipes to the modern kitchen. One of my favorite quotes comes from the recipe for Stewed Jackrabbit with Dumplings, “If you can’t find a hunter to give you a skinned rabbit (he will want the pelt), look for a farm-raised rabbit at a German butcher shop. (Hasenpfeffer is a favorite German dish).” Thus, I learned a little more about pioneer life and German culinary culture.
As for my party, I had my fantasies. Roast Suckling Pig. Mincemeat Pie. Husk Tomato Preserves. In the end, I used only one of Walker’s recipes to the letter, the iconic Apples ‘n’ Onions. For everything else, I cheated. I used baking soda for my cornbread and biscuits. I put out a plate of fried bacon instead of subjecting my guests to Salt Pork (kind of gross). I tried to remain true to the pioneer spirit by shopping at the Farmer’s Market for jellies, butternut squash and berries. I opened a jar of homemade watermelon rind pickles given to me by a friend’s mother. After slaving over my brand new Whirlpool, self-cleaning gas oven all day, I had an appreciation for Ma and what she went through with her black iron cookstove. In the end, I like to think she would have approved of my ability to work with what I could find. I have no doubt that if Ma could have run down to Kroger for a ham instead raising, butchering, and curing the meat herself, she would have been all over it.November 21, 2011