This winter, after a lapse of several years, I rejoined with my habit of re-reading the Little House books once a year. It is so interesting how my perception of them has changed over time. When I first read them in 1988, they were the first long chapter books that I puzzled my way through, and that got me really comfortable with reading. In the 90s they taught me how to do all kinds of interesting things, at least in theory. In the early 00s, I heard that some scenes were censored in new editions (though I haven’t checked to be sure–anyone with a new copy of Little House on the Prairie, is there still an incident in which Indians wearing fresh skunk skins come into the house and steal all the cornmeal and tobacco?). The last time I read them, I began to understand, especially in the light of The First Four Years, that the books were a highly sanitized and idealized telling of Laura’s life, and that she in fact felt poor, trapped, and repressed much of the time.
This reading was completely different. This time around, the books horrified me. I understood, for the first time, that these people were stuck on the prairie with no reading material, no friends, and nothing but corn meal and salt pork to eat. For months at a time. The misery of their everyday experience is bad enough–The Long Winter is almost unimaginable. No wonder Laura emphasizes, in that book, that she passed most of it in a sleepy stupor. There would simply have been no way for an awake brain to deal with what was happening.
I particularly noticed the mentions of what food they were eating, this time around, and I got inspired to try some of the recipes myself. Here is what I found out about them.
Salt pork is another name for salted pork belly. I was able to buy a slab of it at my local supermarket. It is like bacon, but nearly entirely fat. I cut slices off of it and fried them up. They gave off copious amounts of grease. The little bit of each slice that was real meat was tasty to nibble, but the rest was just crispy fat.
The cornmeal cakes were made, as the book says, with just cornmeal and water. This mixture does not hold together on its own; rather, you have to throw handfuls of it –splat– into the skillet of pork drippings, and as they cook, they cohere. I covered them with sorghum molasses, which seemed like a historically reasonable thing to do. They were much as you’d expect–dry cornbread, fried in pork fat, with syrup on top. Sort of tasty, but not something I would ever want to make again.
A note: I am aware that, when one reads “cornmeal and water”, one starts to think about the concoction variously known as hasty pudding, cornmeal mush, and polenta. I made the cornmeal cakes the way I did here because the book makes no mention of them having a kettle in which to boil water for polenta, only a spider skillet to fry things in.
Experiment #2: vinegar pie
Vinegar pie seems to be an evolution of chess pie, but instead of using lemon juice as the souring agent, the lemon-less pioneers substituted vinegar. There are many recipes for this, all of them somewhat different, but all boiling down to a base of eggs, sugar, and vinegar. I tried a recipe that included raisins, spices, and brown sugar (that is, sugar with molasses content. Watch the molasses theme in these experiments). The taste was strong, both sweet and sour, redolent of the spices and, yes, the vinegar. I didn’t find the pie disagreeable, but it isn’t something I would take a second piece of. Sparks ate one piece and couldn’t stomach another.
Experiment #3: baked beans and rye ‘n injun bread
Both of these recipes are mentioned often in both Laura’s stories and in Farmer Boy. This is a classic New England Sunday supper. At the time the books took place, work on Sunday was still verboten. These dishes were mixed up and put into the oven on Saturday evening, so there would be a hearty dinner on Sunday. They also both center around molasses as a flavoring, as it was cheap and abundant everywhere at the time.
The baked beans are flavored with onion, mustard powder, molasses, and salt pork (I got good use out of that chunk of pork belly). They are baked to within an inch of their lives–though you can see a few bean shapes in the picture, in the eating they disintegrated into mush. The rye ‘n injun bread, so named because it is made with both rye flour and cornmeal (Indian meal), is more commonly known nowadays as Boston brown bread. It is flavored with molasses and raisins, and tastes substantially similar to the vinegar pie. It has a coarse texture. Both dishes are sweet, bland, and sit in your stomach like bricks. Sparks and I couldn’t finish them.
My conclusions from this experiment are pretty much what I had guessed from the books–I am profoundly grateful that I live in the age of supermarkets and hot spices, rather than the age of molasses and stodge. With little else to eat for months on end, I can’t decide if these recipes began to taste better or worse. I come away from this with, as I said, an enormous awe, respect, and–yes–horror of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life. The past is interesting but oh, I’m so glad I don’t have to live there.