Books / Food

What Laura Ingalls Wilder really ate

The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder is about family, frontier living, and the real-time impact of manifest destiny upon the American landscape. But mostly, it’s about food.

From fried cornmeal mush eaten on the wide-open prairie to improvised green pumpkin pie to bread baked from wheat seeds pulverized in a coffee grinder during a starving season, the nine books of Wilder’s beloved series overflow with descriptions of the food she and her family produced and consumed.

But the Little House books aren’t nonfiction. They’re a hybrid of fiction and memoir. What did Laura Ingalls Wilder really eat? Two books claim to have the answer. But the answer each one presents is very different from the other.

Little House Cookbook Laura Ingalls Wilder

Author Barbara M. Walker first became interested in the real food Wilder ate when she and her young daughter decided to make the pancake men described in Little House in the Big Woods. The two then moved on to greater challenges, like the sourdough starter from By the Shores of Silver Lake and the coarse brown bread from The Long Winter.

“Laura Ingalls Wilder’s way of describing her pioneer childhood seemed to compel participation,” writes Walker. “If the results were not always rewarding, the process was.” In 1979, after a period of in-depth research into 18th- and 19th-century American recipes that documented how the foods mentioned by Wilder were really prepared, Walker published The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories.

In it, she traces the Ingalls family’s changing diet as they moved from the sylvan bounty of Wisconsin across the less fruitful plains of Kansas to finally settle into a life of subsistence farming in chilly South Dakota. Throughout their pioneer period, the foods the Ingalls subsisted on were either grown themselves, acquired from the wild, or bought at a country store.

“It was their migrant life, as much as the seasons, that shaped the Ingalls’ diet,” writes Walker. “Food looms large in this pioneer chronicle because there was rarely enough of it … 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.”

The reconstructed Little House recipes, drawn from period sources like pioneer diaries, church and small-town recipe collections, and professionally published cookbooks, are backed up by quotations about the meals from Wilder’s Little House books. Among the five-page list of sources cited by Walker are Lydia M. Child’s 1832 The American Frugal Housewife, Eliza Leslie’s 1840 Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches, and The Kansas Home Cook-Book by C.H. Cushing and B. Gray.

The recipes in The Little House Cookbook feel like authentic Little House dishes because they’re intensely spartan, yet exotic to the modern palate, with their heavy reliance on molasses, salt pork, sourdough, cornmeal, wild game, and heritage fruits and vegetables.

To attempt to cook these recipes in the early half of the 21st century feels like the exercise of an unironic hipster; rather than the convenient daily fare of a family living in poverty, they’re labor-intensive feats that require the sort of time, equipment, and ingredients that only the affluent can access today.

But again, these recipes are based on a fictionalized narrative. They aren’t necessarily what Laura Ingalls Wilder really ate. In the search for bona fide Little House food, the most authentic cookbook is the one Wilder actually used herself.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook

“The question most often asked of me since this book first appeared in 1979 is ‘Why didn’t you include Laura’s gingerbread recipe?’” Walker notes early in The Little House Cookbook, offering a clue about a possible source of genuine Laura Ingalls Wilder recipes. “Only foods mentioned in Mrs. Wilder’s Little House books are included here, and her now-familiar gingerbread recipe belonged to her later life on Rocky Ridge Farm.”

Wilder’s “now-familiar” gingerbread recipe was not familiar to me, but I quickly became acquainted with it through the cookbook that does chronicle her later life on Rocky Ridge Farm, located in the mountainous Ozarks.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook, published 16 years after The Little House Cookbook, forgoes the multi-source research of Walker in favor of just a single source: the actual cookbook used by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Wilder’s cookbook was a handmade collection of recipes she assembled from ladies’ magazines, newspaper food columns, and her own memory, and it remained lost among her papers until the late 20th-century. As author William Anderson, who wrote commentary on Wilder’s post-Little-House life for each recipe in The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook, explains, “The cookbook she compiled was actually a scrapbook. Recipes were pasted over pages of a cardboard-covered invoice book used by Almanzo when he was a fuel oil deliveryman in the early 1900s. Internal evidence suggests that the bulk of the cookbook was assembled by Laura during the 1930s and 1940s.”

Among them was the gingerbread recipe, the significance of which is explained by Anderson: “Laura Ingalls Wilder, like other celebrities, was sometimes asked to share a favored recipe. To such requests, Laura invariably supplied her gingerbread recipe, a lifelong favorite. The gingerbread became widely known when it was published in a special Laura Ingalls Wilder issue of The Horn Book Magazine in 1953.” The gingerbread became a feature of events celebrating the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder not long after.

And according to Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, it represented another opportunity for her, at age 12, to engage in accidental arson.

“My mother often left me to watch the bread baking and it seems to me now that every time she did it I was lost in a book until my mother rushed into a house full of smoke and snatched cinders of loaves out of the oven,” Lane recalled.

More like this: “Little Arsonist on the Prairie

The recipes collected in The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook weren’t intended for public use; they were strictly for Wilder’s own reference. Wilder had no ambition to become a cookbook author or food writer. Though at one point in the 1920s she set out to write an article for The Ladies Home Journal about the frontier-era recipes of her grandmother’s generation, and went so far as to contact her mother’s elderly sister to collect the recipes in question, she never wrote the article. Instead, Anderson posits, the old recipes and the childhood memories they evoked became the inspiration for the Little House series. But they didn’t find their way into her personal cookbook.

The food she, Almanzo and daughter Rose really ate during the Rocky Ridge years are described by Anderson as “old-fashioned favorites of an experienced country cook.” That’s a generic description, and that’s how the recipes feel: generic, 20th-century fare that any competent home cook could prepare.

Meat loaf, pork chops, macaroni casserole, scalloped corn, succotash, banana fritters: to cook these recipes today feels like an exercise in Depression-era culinary cosplay, all dressed up in standards of the American palate. They’re familiar recipes that call upon the same limited set of ingredients found in classic diner cookery: sugar, salt, canned food, shortening, and white flour. Which isn’t to say they’re bad — they’re perfectly fine representations of America’s 20th-century culinary heritage.

They’re just not what lovers of Wilder’s tales would picture their sunbonnet-clad pioneer heroine chowing down on.

Of the two books, personally I prefer the fantasy of The Little House Cookbook. Walker knew that what Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fans really wanted was to learn how to churn butter, make cheese, cook a whole pumpkin, and grind that wheat in the coffee grinder to save the family from starving, no matter how impractical it might be today.

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