Little House in the Big Woods Taught Me So Much About Food
We need to talk about that maple syrup party.
If you’ve gone to American public school at some point in the last few decades, it’s likely that you’ve read the wildly influential books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, The Long Winter—these dog-eared and heavily creased books lined the shelves of nearly every elementary school classroom I’d ever been in. The first-hand accounts of being a settler and pioneer in the 19th century aren’t without controversy—the depictions of Native Americans, and conversation around illegal expansion into Native American territory were themes I didn’t pick up on as a 7-year-old. But as a kid growing up in a world that was at the height of the late-90s/mid-2000s obsession with ultra-processed Go-Gurt and Fruit Roll Ups and Lunchables, the series was, unbeknownst to me, my first peek into food writing, and an unintentional education on the actual process behind supermarket staples.
Nowadays, white cane sugar is the standard sweetener we reach for, and honey feels like a flavorful indulgence. Considering how pricey real honey is, and how flooded the current market is with imitations and dupes, the idea of stumbling upon a huge bounty of honey in the wild sounds pretty magical. In Little House in the Big Woods, Wilder’s father happens upon a tree in the woods that was home to a huge colony of bees, scares off a black bear that was eating honey from the hive (casual), and comes home with a literal wagon full of wild honey. Wilder is pretty vague about how her father doesn’t get stung by the bees. (“Didn’t the bees sting you?” “No,” said Pa. “Bees never sting me.”) Regardless, as a child, it was fun to attribute an origin story to the cheerful plastic bear bottles that line the supermarket shelves.
Remember when everyone was freaking out when they discovered that cheese isn’t vegetarian? If you read Little House in The Big Woods, you probably weren’t too surprised. There’s a whole nine pages devoted to the intensive process it takes to make cheese from scratch, and right from the start, Wilder writes, “Somebody must kill a calf, for cheese could not be made without rennet, and rennet is the lining of a young calf’s stomach.” It’s a lovely peek into the complicated chemistry of cheesemaking—separating curds and whey, salting the cheese, pressing and draining the curds—and gave one wee second-grader a real appreciation for the labor-intensive process.
The whole hog-butchering section of the book was fascinating to me. Even as someone who, full-disclosure, doesn’t eat pork, the way that Wilder described her family getting so many necessities from one animal like lard and smoked and preserved meat to last through the winter for sustenance was objectively cool. It also helped me as a young child understand and respect that there’s an actual animal and a real process behind each of those plastic-lined trays in the meat section of the supermarket.
We all theoretically understand that butter comes from cream. You were maybe handed a jar of whipping cream at some point in elementary school, passing it around to take turns shaking it until it turned into grainy butter. But Wilder goes into beautiful detail in Little House in The Big Woods, explaining the process from fresh milk to butter. It’s the first time I learned how the cow’s diet impacts the quality and color of the butter you get. In the book, because the Ingalls family’s cows eat stored grain in the winter instead of grazing on green grass, Wilder explains how her mother would need to use carrots to add that appealing orange hue to winter butter.
Despite the surge in seasonal popularity of maple flavor, it’s not something we give too much of a thought. It’s not something that you’d, say, organize a whole party around, invite all of your family over, get dressed up, perform live music, and spend the whole day prepping for. But in Little House in the Big Woods, maple syrup (the real stuff, not the fake, high-fructose corn syrup one) is pretty big deal—there’s more than 30 pages devoted to the process of maple syrup, and the family dance and get-together that had all hands on deck to make everything from maple sugar to maple taffy for the kids. It was a great look at how an ingredient that’s become such an industrial process today used to be a true family affair.