In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
My thrifty-housewife version of Ma’s “scrap bag” is this colorful mixture of sanding sugar left over from children’s parties. l used it to make sparkling cranberries for the top of a vinegar pie from the book Farmer Boy.
Everyone who grew up on the Little House books has their own particular treasured food memory from the books. How Pa butchered the pig, smoked the meat, and used every bit of it, down to inflating the empty bladder for the girls to play with as a balloon. The spring on Plum Creek when they ran out of food and ate only fried fish and “crisp, juicy” turnips. Ma frying “vanity cake” doughnuts, so named because they’re “all puffed up, like vanity, with nothing solid inside.” Almanzo stuffing himself from the following spread at the county fair: pumpkin pie, custard pie, vinegar pie, mince pie, berry pies, cream pies, raisin pies …
Reading these books—or rereading them as an adult, which is arguably an even better experience—makes me want to cook, eat, wear calico dresses, sleep on a straw-tick mattress, and plant seeds in the freshly tilled earth. With their lengthy descriptions of cooking and other homesteading processes, they’re the perfect inspiration for a from-scratch Thanksgiving meal; they’re all the more seasonally appropriate because the holiday’s roots lie in scarcity, the way the Ingallses’ lives did. Thanksgiving also presents an opportunity for reckoning with Wilder, whose work has been criticized in recent years for its cultural insensitivity toward Native Americans.
This biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder makes scorched earth of her mythology, but not in a bad way.
Such reckoning might feel unwelcome to anyone who treasures their Little House dreams the way I do, but reading Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s extraordinary Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Wilder, I found the truth behind the books to be even more rewarding than the fiction. We need to know that Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867–1957) grew up to own a Ford Model T and eventually left De Smet, Nebraska, in her last covered wagon, bound for the more forgiving Missouri Ozarks, because farming was a bust. She raised chickens and administered farm loans and—at the urging of her daughter, the writer Rose Wilder Lane—began writing for newspapers to make an extra buck.
The Little House books, which appeared between 1932 and 1943, were designated as fiction because while they are indeed based on Wilder’s pioneer childhood, they’re told out of chronological order and do not faithfully represent it. The books were, in many ways, an effort to rewrite a childhood of tragedy and desperate poverty, and they were further sanitized in the editing process. As Fraser says, there’s so much food in Farmer Boy because it was written in 1933 and “in its lingering, loving portrayal of the mouthwatering abundance of farmhouse fare, it gestures towards the Depression’s straitened circumstances.”
A chicken pie from Farmer Boy was served as a part of a spread that included “rye ’n’ injun” bread, baked beans, fat pork, and beet pickles. Almanzo followed it with a slice of pumpkin pie and a piece of apple pie with cheese—possibly implausibly, if you think about it.
The family’s straitened circumstances were not the only elision. It is well known that the supposedly empty landscapes of the American West were actually inhabited by Native Americans, and it’s worthwhile to read Fraser’s explanation of how the Homestead Act in 1862, and the later interpretations of the 1841 Preemption Act, moved them out so settler families like the Ingallses could move in. (Adult readers of Little House on the Prairie will notice that Pa arrived in Kansas before the land was open to settlement; he was illegally squatting on Osage territory.)
It’s less well known that the entire small-farming ethos was a fantasy as well. Pa could hunt and trap and build a house and dig a well, but as Fraser portrays it, he had no chance. When he was trying to farm the Great Plains and blithely wondering what the old-timers meant by “grasshopper weather,” the landscape was already suffering the beginnings of the environmental collapse that eventually created the droughts and dust storms of the thirties. “The larger issue [was] that within a decade of the civil war, virtually all the land best-suited to small-scale agriculture in the United States had been taken, and what was left was marginal,” Fraser writes. “On that leftover land homesteaders could not succeed, no matter how hard they worked. They were bound to fail.” Later in the book, she writes, “Wilder never came to terms with what FDR saw and explained so clearly: the land had limits, and no solitary, undercapitalized farmer could ever hope to overcome them.”
None of this makes me love the Little House books any less, but it bears mentioning. Much of my DIY kitchen ethos was formed by ideas of independence and living-off-the-land taken from Laura’s pioneer childhood. The girl who makes pancake men with her mother and begs for a sunbonnet and a butter churn (to her mother’s horror) becomes the woman who sews her own clothes and bakes her own pies and would never, if she were somehow still alive, order a meal kit off the internet. But as Fraser’s biography shows, the virtue and alleged simplicity of this lifestyle is both a fantasy and a privilege. The Ingalls family’s lifestyle was rooted in the massive appropriation of someone else’s resources, and it was not sustainable, even for them.
Barbara Walker, author of The Little House Cookbook, offers a recipe for making your own vinegar from apple cores, to use in vinegar pies. I used this funky, tasty, powerful store-bought kind and worried that the specified three tablespoons would be too intense. It was perfect.
Instead of a turkey-porn-shot Thanksgiving feast, then, I made a meal of relative scarcity while still trying to capture a feeling the books convey: that everything the characters eat is delicious. My first challenge was “hulled corn and milk,” an extremely simple dish that is one of Laura’s favorites in Little House in the Big Woods. My recipe benefits from Wilder’s intensely detailed, several-page description of the procedure (such passages were explicitly part of the books’ formula for success).
First Ma sweeps out the stove and burns some “clean, bright” hardwood for ashes. She then makes a cloth packet of the ashes and boils them with dried corn, until “the kernels of corn began to swell, and they swelled and swelled until their skins split open and began to peel off.” This was mysterious to me, but research showed that the wood ash, when boiled in water, creates a homemade lye solution, and that soaking corn in it is a time-honored indigenous process called nixtamalization, which increases the nutritional value of the grain. Doing something like this at home is just the kind of challenge a post-Laura home cook likes, though I had to make several concessions to modernity, including using popcorn instead of the proper large-grain dried corn, and first boiling and straining my ashes instead of making a cloth packet for them.
In the end, it sort of worked. I don’t know if I properly nixtamalized anything, but I did make a caustic solution that released eye-watering fumes, and I did boil the corn in it until the skins swelled and split, but no amount of rubbing caused the hulls to come off and float to the top of the water, as they do for Ma. The cleaned kernels in milk tasted mild and toothsome, with an intriguing finish of corn and cinnamon. If I could produce them in bulk, I would. The taste was special enough to have been worth the two days of effort.
After Pa and Laura set a fish trap in Plum Creek, they catch “buffalo fish and pickerel, and catfish and shiners, and bullheads with two black horns” and “some whose names they did not know.” Ma “rolled them in meal and fried them fat and they ate all those good fish for supper.”
My second dish is a revisitation of the spring of fish and turnips from On the Banks of Plum Creek. As a child, you barely notice details like “every day there was fish for breakfast and fish for dinner and fish for supper.” It just sounds fun. But as an, adult you realize, Wait a minute, they have no other food. Ever since rereading the series ten years ago, I’ve wanted to know if that meal would be as crispy and delicious as it sounded or if it would be more like my real-life experiences of those foods. I bought the best turnips and river fish available to me from vendors at the Union Square Greenmarket and had an unexpectedly lengthy and authentic pioneer experience in desliming and scaling the fish. However, my best pan-frying and honey-roasting did not make this a food I would recommend for breakfast.
Despite the scarcity theme, I couldn’t resist trying at least one over-the-top-sounding dish from Farmer Boy, a “chicken pie” that received the following description: “Father’s spoon cut deep into the chicken-pie; he scooped out big pieces of thick crust and turned up their fluffy yellow under-sides on the plate. He poured gravy over them … He added a mound of baked beans and topped it with a quivering slice of fat pork. At the edge of the plate he piled dark red beet pickles.” I made the pie and baked beans from recipes in The Little House Cookbook, by Barbara Walker, and did a quick pickle of the beets from my own repertoire, choosing golden instead of red in order to keep my hands clean. The dish was another revelation. I thought the technique would be too simple, but the result was spectacular. Apparently, nothing can go wrong with chicken, gravy, bacon, and piecrust. The additions of baked beans and beets summoned a weird Great Depression vibe I wasn’t expecting.
“And it was good to know that there were turnips enough in the cellar to last all winter long.” In On the Banks of Plum Creek, after two seasons of grasshopper-plague, only turnips stood between the Ingalls family and starvation.
For dessert, I chose the most humble-sounding of the spread from the Farmer Boy county fair: a vinegar pie, which the author of The Little House Cookbook says was called “poor man’s pie.” I didn’t prebake my crust, and the result looked so wonky, brown, and gelatinous when it came out of the oven that I added whipped cream and sugared cranberries at the last minute. It was the best pie I’ve ever made or tasted. While devouring this show-stopping end to my humble feast, I reflected that if books can’t quite be read at face value anymore, they ought to be taught, and they can certainly be cooked from.
Hulled Corn and Milk from The Big Woods
Try this at your own risk.
2 cups popcorn (or dried, untreated corn for hominy)
First, make a fire, and burn your wood down to ash. When it has cooled off, reserve about two cups of ash.
Boil the two cups of ash in two quarts of water for fifteen minutes, then allow them to sit overnight.
Pour off the water from the ash residue, then strain it through paper towels, creating a cloudy, grayish liquid. Be careful not to touch the liquid or any of the residue, as it is supposedly caustic; this is your homemade lye.
Boil corn in the strained lye liquid for four hours, or until the corn doubles in size and the skins split, adding more water as necessary.
Rinse the corn under running water, then in several changes of clean water in a bowl. Leave to soak for an hour.
Keep the corn in the water as you rub it between your palms. If you’re lucky, the skins will fall off and float to the top. Mine did not, but I was able to pinch them off with my fingers, very slowly.
Serve with milk.
Plum Creek Turnips and Trout
6 medium-size turnips, as young and sweet as possible, chopped in 1-inch cubes
4 tbs butter, melted
4 tbs honey
two small river trout
2 tbs flour
1 tbs butter
1 tbs oil
8–10 small sage leaves
salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 400.
Place the chopped turnips in a large baking dish, and toss with melted butter, honey, salt, and pepper. Roast for ninety minutes, removing the pan to toss the turnips every half hour. After ninety minutes, turn the heat off, and leave the turnips in the oven for another fifteen minutes to dry out and caramelize.
Clean the trout, and pat them dry. Dust them in flour, then season liberally with salt and pepper. Fry in the butter and oil on a skillet over medium heat until browned and cooked through, about five minutes per side. Remove the trout, add the sage leaves to the pan, and fry until crispy. Serve topped with sage.
Farmer Boy Chicken Pie with Baked Beans and Pickled Beets
Adapted from The Little House Cookbook, by Barbara Walker. You will need a nine-and-a-half-inch glass pie dish. It’s best if the piecrust chills overnight prior to the day you want to serve the dish. Making the bacon, gravy, and browned chicken the day before would also be convenient for baking and assembly. Note that this piecrust is larger than the usual recipe for pie.
For the piecrust:
3 cups flour
3 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
8 tbs vegetable shortening
2 sticks butter, diced and chilled
1 cup ice water
The trick to piecrust is keeping all the ingredients cold. I place the bowl in the refrigerator for a few minutes between steps.
Place flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl, and whisk to combine.
Add the vegetable shortening. Rub and pinch it into the flour with your fingers, until the mixture looks like coarse sand and there are no large lumps.
Add the cold cubed butter, and cut it in with a pastry cutter, until well blended, leaving some pea-size lumps.
Drizzle in about half a cup of the water, and stir. When the mixture has partially come together, crunch with your hands and see if it forms a mass. If yes, divide in two, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight. If not, add cold water a tablespoon at a time, crunching and checking, until the dough comes together. If the mixture starts to seem warm while you’re working on it, pop it in the refrigerator for a few minutes to rechill.
For the pie filling:
3 slices bacon
1 large roasting or stewing chicken, cut into pieces, reserving giblets and carcass
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbs flour
1 piecrust, chilled overnight
1 egg for glaze, beaten and mixed with 1 tbs warm water
First, make the liquid for the gravy. Bring two cups of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Place the giblets and carcass in the pan, and simmer, partially covered, for thirty minutes. Then discard the neck and carcass, reserving the liver and the liquid to make gravy.
In the meantime, fry the bacon in a large skillet until crispy. Remove, reserving both the bacon and the grease. Keep the grease sizzling on medium-high heat.
Season the chicken pieces generously with salt and pepper, and add to the bacon grease, skin down. Fry until brown, then remove the pieces from the grease, and reserve.
Pour out most of the grease from the skillet, leaving about three to four tablespoons. Return to a low heat, and sift the flour slowly over the fat, whisking to prevent lumps. When the flour has been incorporated, add the giblet liquid to the hot pan in a slow drizzle, whisking continually until the gravy thickens.
Take the cooked chicken liver and mash it into the gravy with a fork. Don’t worry if there are lumps; they’ll melt during the baking process. Let the gravy cool. All of this can be done the day before you plan to serve the pie.
About three hours before you plan to serve the pie, preheat the oven to 350.
Roll out the bottom piecrust, using plenty of flour to prevent sticking. Drape it over the pie plate and trim, leaving about a half-inch overhang of dough around the dish. Chill for ten minutes.
Assemble the chicken pieces in the dish as evenly as possible so that the top of the pie won’t be uneven. (Mother Wilder put white meat on one side and dark on the other and marked them with different-shaped evergreen trees.) Pour the gravy over the chicken pieces, crumble the bacon on top, and chill.
Roll out the top crust. Place it over the pie, trim, pinch the edges shut according to your method of choice, and cut a few decorative vents in the top. Freeze for ten minutes.
Paint the top crust with egg wash, place the pie on a baking tray (to catch the drippings), and bake for ninety minutes, putting tinfoil over the top halfway through baking to prevent excessive browning. Serve hot, with baked beans piled on top and pickled beets on the side.
For the Baked Beans:
Adapted from The Little House Cookbook, by Barbara Walker.
2 cups Rancho Gordo “Yellow Eye” beans, soaked overnight
4 strips bacon
1/4 cup molasses
Preheat the oven to 300.
Chop up the bacon in one-inch pieces, and fry in the bottom of a medium saucepan until crispy. Remove and reserve.
Pour out the extra bacon grease, then add the beans. Cover the beans with four cups of water, and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer, and cook until tender, checking after about twenty-five minutes. Rancho Gordo beans cook dramatically faster than other varieties of dried bean. If you’re substituting, Walker recommends navy, pea, or “little white.” In that case, start checking after forty-five minutes.
Drain, reserving the bean liquid.
Pour the beans into a shallow glass baking dish, add the bacon and molasses, then fill the dish just to the level of the beans, using the reserved bean liquid. Bake until brown and crispy on top and brothy beneath, about two hours. Add more liquid as necessary.
For the Pickled Beets:
4 medium beets
1/2 cup vinegar
1 cup water
a bay leaf
4 allspice berries
4 black peppercorns
a whole clove
1 tbs sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbs olive oil
Put the beets in a three-quart saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. Cook at a low boil until tender, about forty-five minutes to an hour.
While the beets are cooking, make the marinade. Combine vinegar, water, bay leaf, allspice, peppercorns, clove, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Once the mixture boils, remove from the heat, and let cool.
Drain the beets. When they are cool enough to handle, peel and cut into thin slices. In a glass jar or a bowl, combine the beets, the marinade, and olive oil. Cover and refrigerate for twenty-four hours.
Thanksgiving Vinegar Pie
Adapted from The Little House Cookbook, by Barbara Walker, and from the website 101 Cookbooks. Note: it’s best to make the sugared cranberries and the piecrust the night before.
For the sugared cranberries:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 cups fresh cranberries
1/4 cup large-grain sugar, for rolling
1/4 cup small-grain sugar, for rolling
Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Once it has boiled, remove from the heat, and let cool. Pour the liquid over the cranberries, and refrigerate overnight.
Drain the cranberries. Working quickly so they don’t totally dry out, roll them first in large-grain sugar and then in small-grain sugar. Spread out on a plate to dry.
1 cup flour
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbs vegetable shortening
6 tbs butter, diced and chilled
1/2 cup ice water
As stated earlier, the trick to piecrust is keeping all the ingredients cold. I place the bowl in the refrigerator for a few minutes between steps.
For the filling:
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
a pinch of nutmeg
3 tbs raw unfiltered apple cider vinegar “with the mother”
Roll out the piecrust, drape over the edges of an eight-inch metal pie plate (preferably one with air holes), and trim, leaving a half-inch overhang for crimping. Make a decorative edge using your method of choice. Chill.
In a large bowl, blend flour, nutmeg, and both sugars with your fingers until no lumps remain. Stir in vinegar, eggs, and a cup of water until well mixed.
Pour the filling into the prepared pie shell, and bake for thirty to forty minutes, until set. Remove and chill.
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 tbs (or more) sugar, to taste
Whip the cream until it holds soft peaks. Add the sugar, and stir.
Top the chilled pie with a liberal layer of whipped cream and a pretty mound of sugared cranberries.
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.
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