Laura Ingalls Wilder Knew How to Write About Food
State fairs don’t shy away from striking scenes. They’re one of the few places where you can eat a funnel cake while signing up to enter a skillet-tossing contest (a very real thing), and then check out giant prize-winning produce. None of these, however, are quite as captivating as a butter sculpture. And while I’m all for giant butter blocks carved into cows or buildings, when I heard that this summer one of the Iowa State Fair's famous butter sculptures would be of my favorite author, I got seriously excited. Laura Ingalls Wilder fans celebrated the author’s 150th birthday this year, and Iowa State Fair folks are participating in the best way they know how: carving her likeness in butter.
Wilder spent a few years of her childhood in Burr Oak, Iowa, where her father Charles Ingalls (you may know him better as "Pa") helped manage a hotel in the town. The hotel has since been converted into The Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum, featuring guided tours describing what life was like during 1876 when Wilder’s family lived there.
If you’ve ever read a Little House book, you know that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a truly gifted food writer. I know that it was reading her descriptions of meals during my own childhood that got me so hooked on taking about food. She was especially gifted as describing breakfast. Here are just a few of the many that appear in her novels:
In the first novel in the series, Little House In the Big Woods, Laura’s Ma boiled maple syrup until it was dark and thick while Pa packed clean snow into pans. They poured the syrup over the snow, where it hardened into firm maple syrup taffy. At another time in the book, Ma made johnny-cake sweetened with molasses, something between a cornbread and a corn griddle cake, which young Laura correctly observes is not actually cake. Although Big Woods takes place before Laura’s family set out to settle the prairie, the nearest place to buy sugar and other dry goods was miles away, so Ma had to make do with whatever she had on hand, which was more often molasses than sugar. I bet her johnny-cake still tasted good though.
In Little House on the Prairie, Ma made fried cornmeal mush in a cast iron bake oven (similar to a Dutch oven) rubbed with pork fat. The family ate their cornmeal mush with fried salt pork and coffee in their covered wagon.
The Long Winter is a book that shows how wimpy we all are now when it comes to being chilly—I’m fairly certain this is the novel in which Laura wakes up to find Pa shoveling snow off of her bed. Yikes. Good thing Ma made a giant pans of baked beans drizzled with molasses to warm up the family.
Farmer Boy tells the story of Laura’s future husband Almanzo’s childhood as a farmer in upstate New York. Almanzo, like myself, spends much of his time either eating or thinking about food (he did however spend his entire day doing physical labor around a farm; I cannot say the same). He waxes poetic about popcorn and milk while just hanging out in his house. At one meal he eats oatmeal with cream and maple sugar, fried potatoes, buckwheat cakes, sausages and gravy, and 2 wedges of apple pie in one sitting. He also enjoys eating doughnuts and apple turnovers for lunch. Almanzo is all of us.