Friday Food History: The Little House Cookbook (1979)

Dear Readers,

You probably remember the Little House books from growing up (provided, of course, that you were born before 1932 when Little House In The Big Woods was first published). I always looked forward to coming down with a cold as a kid, 'cause it meant long days of lounging on our maroon velvet sofa, reading through the entire Little House series from start to finish, and doing my best to look pitiful and frail all the while (so Mom wouldn't start to suspect that I was recovering and return me to duty).

The Little House Cookbook enables you to recreate the mouthwatering recipes described in the series.  Laura Ingalls Wilder could be classified as a foodie, but more because she'd experienced terrible starvation during her childhood, I imagine, than a penchant towards haute cuisine.  I don't know what Mrs. Wilder would think of the abundance of food we enjoy today, with the enormous variety of ingredients available year-round at the grocery store. However, she did tell us what she thought of the modern kitchen, in a letter to Almanzo upon visiting their grown-up daughter in San Francisco:

Aladdin with his wonderful lamp had no more power than the modern woman in her kitchen...

So there you go.  No reason to protest "But I can't cook..." with all these new-fangled appliances in the kitchen that will practically do it for you.

Some of the recipes in this cookbook are easy to make, such as the bean soup recipes, cornbread (which bears a striking resemblance to Grandma's Texas Cornbread), and pumpkin pie (which, unlike many modern recipes, calls for just 2/3 cup brown sugar and a little maple syrup for sweetening).  

Others present a challenge, mainly because the ingredients are a little tricky to find these days (wild game on the frontier in the 1860s was plentiful, so of course people hunted and ate it).  Take the recipe for blackbird pie, for example, which you could of course still make (with those pesky starlings in your garden), but the neighbors (and the police) might take exception to all the gunfire in your backyard as you pick 'em off. Same goes for the recipe for stewed jack rabbit and dumplings, minus the gunfire (just use traps), a better suburban choice.  The problem with rabbits is that they tend to stare soulfully at you and invoke shades of Thumper.  Thanks, Disney.  If you can manage the butchering process of the aforementioned wild animals, at least you will have fewer garden pests, and dinner on the table at a bargain price.

On a less gory note, if you're planning to get married and want an old-fashioned wedding cake, you may enjoy this 100-year-old recipe for "Groom's Cake," which the cookbook author fortunately provides some simpler (yet still authentic) alternatives to: 

Fifty eggs, five pounds of sugar, five of flour, five of butter, fifteen of raisins, three of citron, ten of currants, pint brandy, fourth ounce cloves, ounce cinnamon, four of mace, four of nutmeg.  This makes forty-three and a half pounds and keeps twenty years.

I think this cake would outlast most modern marriages...people were clearly made of tougher stuff back in the day, pouring brandy by the pint on their wedding cakes.  Apparently, the idea was to send a slice of Groom's Cake home in a little box with each wedding guest.  The single guests were then supposed to place said boxes under their pillows and dream sweet dreams of their future soul mates.  Beats Tinder.

This cookbook is just such a gem, full of Garth Williams' darling black-and-white illustrations from the original Little House books. The recipes are mostly healthy and nutritious, and represent a bygone era when processed, packaged, and fast food had not yet corrupted America's diet (and waistline).  

I hope you enjoy The Little House Cookbook as much as I do!

Yours Truly,