Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Food in the Big Woods


“Now the potatoes and carrots, the beets and turnips and cabbages were gathered and stored in the cellar, for freezing nights had come.

“Onions were made into long ropes, braided together by their tops, and then were hung in the attic beside wreaths of red peppers strung on threads. The pumpkins and the squashes were piles in orange and yellow and green heaps in the attic’s corners.

“The barrels of salted fish were in the pantry, and yellow cheeses were stacked on the pantry shelves.”

I am amazed at how much of Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods is about food. Of course, it makes sense considering that the Ingalls family fed themselves. Fed themselves quite well, by the way. And food would have been a source of pleasure in a life full of hard work. It does make me wonder if that isn’t what first piqued my interest in the books in the first place, though.

The quote above is near the beginning of the book, during harvest time. The fish came from lake Pepin, netted and brought back in a wagonload in a single day. There was also venison preserved by salting and smoking, and their hog which had grown fat roaming through the woods is butchered once the weather turned cold enough to freeze the meat. Later, Pa shoots a bear, so there’s that meat as well. Ma renders lard to use throughout the winter, makes butter once a week, and bakes bread, cookies, etc. every week as well.

“Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and rye’n’Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon.

“One morning she boiled molasses and sugar together until they made a thick syrup, and Pa brought in two pans of clean, white snow from outdoors. Laura and Mary each had a pan and Pa and Ma showed them how to pour the dark syrup in little streams on to the snow.

“They made circles, and curlicues, and squiggledy things, and these hardened at once and were candy.”

That sounds like a pretty fun way to make toffee. Might have to give it a try next time it snows. Later, in the spring, they all go to Grandma and Grandpa’s when the sap is rising. As I read about how the maple sap is harvested and then boiled down to syrup and then even further to maple sugar, I realized that’s where I learned the trick of lifting spoonfuls of boiling liquid and pouring it back to quickly cool a pot that’s about to boil over.

Go figure.

Caroline&CharlesIngalls Caroline and Charles Ingalls

Grandma makes hasty pudding by sprinkling corn meal into boiling water and then stirring it until the mixture thickens. Around here we call that polenta, but whatever the name it sure sounds like it’d be good drizzled with dark maple syrup for dinner.


There is, of course, more than food: fiddle music and dancing, stories, making bullets, the wonder and appreciation of getting a stick of peppermint candy and new pair of red mittens for Christmas, a good bulldog, a black cat, bears and wolves, expert whittling, sewing and knitting and mending and a rag doll named Charlotte to name a few.

It’s perfect winter fare. Picking up Wilder for a few minutes affords an easy mini-vacation during the day. The small stories remind me to pay attention to basic things, and to appreciate them more then ever. And her straightforward prose reminds me to keep my writing simple as well.


  1. Oh, I remember reading about the girls making snow candy! I tried doing it way back when, but my syrup was too thin and soaked into the snow. (It wasn't homemade syrup, but something from a bottle, I'm sure.)

  2. Can you imagine making all that? Made me tired. But what wonderful detail in those passages. That's quite the picture. Makes a person wonder what people will think of our pics.

  3. I got to visit that cabin near Lake Pepin this past summer. Going through the museum, seeing the huge lake, and walking around the property was magical for me and my daughter.