The Little House on the Prairie books were my Harry Potter, my Twilight, my Boxcar Children, my Babysitter Club, all wrapped into one.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was not only my JK Rowling, whom I respected as a storyteller, she was my Bella and my Nancy Drew, an evolving female lead whose life and trials I loved becoming immersed in.
Few youngsters nowadays seem as interested in historical nonfiction (I say nonfiction even though I know there was a fair bit of pioneer-washing that went on as Laura penned the books with her daughter, Rose, in the late 1930s and early 1940s), but I was *that* girl. The one who hung up a map of all the places that Laura’s family lived. The one who was brought to tears at the idea that there were no living descendants of her family. The one who ignored the existence of the television series for fear that it would taint the precious world she’d created in her own mind.
The one who dressed as her beloved tomboyish little Half-Pint for not one, but two Halloweens.
That Laura spent the majority of her life in the Ozarks, like me, certainly had something to do with my affection toward her, but it was her rebellious spunk, her quest for self-sufficiency and her vivid retelling of life as a young pioneer that brought me back to the books again and again.
Until recently, I hadn’t considered that Laura was one of my first feminist role models.
A few weeks ago, I reacquired the well-worn collection of books I received when I was about eight, and I set out to reread the series through the eyes of an adult to see what hints of 19th century feminism, especially as it relates to food and cooking, I could find.
Cooking on the back burner
The first book of the series, “Little House in the Big Woods,” might be the most well-known in terms of food. The butchering of the pig (and frying of the pig’s tail) in Laura’s childhood home in Wisconsin. The butter-making, the freshly sugared sap, the attic full of winter squash and pumpkins and other supplies to get them through the winter.
But as the Ingalls’ journey West continues through the next few books, food (and specifically, details of how Ma prepared it in their homes in the Indian Territory and Minnesota) doesn’t get near the attention as Pa’s hunting or how he builds the places they live in or tends the fields.
Without modern cooking equipment and availability, Ma must have spent the majority of the day getting those three meals on the table (not to mention cleaning up afterware), but Wilder spends few words describing how she roasted that Christmas turkey, baked the sourdough bread, planted the garden, preserved its harvest or made the precious white sugar and coffee last as long as she could. (One of my food-related lines from Ma was about the vanity cakes she made for that mean girl Nellie Oleson: “They were all puffed up, like vanity, with nothing solid inside.”)
Wilder clearly idolized her father and men’s work. By the detail she uses to describe the scenes, it’s clear she treasured the times when she got to help him mold bullets, build doors, skin rabbits or make hay.
As a teenager and a young woman in the last few books, meals (or the lack of them during “The Long Winter”) comes back into the foreground, but not its preparation.
Barbara M. Walker points out in the excellent “The Little House Cookbook,” which is as much analysis as cooking instruction and recipes (Why, yes, that’s my hand-written copy of the gingerbread recipe from that book that I probably used for a school project in fifth grade.):
“Laura’s memory for daily fare and holiday feasts says more about her eagerness for meals, her longing for enough to eat, than it does about her interest in cooking.”
Even though she didn’t seem to value or enjoy preparing food, she didn’t underestimate the power it ultimately gave women. Walker writes:
“On a visit to her daughter in San Francisco in her forty-eighth year, she wrote to Almanzo, ‘Aladdin with his wonderful lamp had no more power than a modern woman in her kitchen’.”
Homesteading now and then
Laura didn’t battle vampires or goblins (or whatever those Harry Potter kids are up against), but bears, wildcats, leeches, badgers, Indians and locusts in the early days and, as she grows into adulthood, blizzards, droughts, food shortages, debt, the death of her second child and a house fire.
She doesn’t write of the brother who died when he was nine months old nor of the birth not too long after that of her sister Grace. She only hints at her family’s real financial insecurity, the impact of her sister’s blindness and how close they actually came to starving when the trains stopped running to De Smet that winter. She’s much more open about hardship in “The First Four Years,” the posthumously published book about the early years of her marriage.
By the end of the series, Wilder has made it clear that to be a homesteader meant that you had to be a strong, determined women, an early feminist before there was such a word. Men who led the charge to unsettled parts of the country certainly couldn’t go at it alone. Each of them, regardless of gender, had to pitch in and carry on, despite the hardships, and make a life from what the resources they had.
(And as if persevering weren’t hard enough, women did so in corsets. Wilder writes: “This earthly life is a battle, said Ma. ‘If it isn’t one thing to contend with, it’s another. It always has been so, and it always will be. The sooner you make up your mind to that, the better off you are, and the more thankful for your pleasures. Now Mary, I’m ready to fit the bodice.”)
Pete Wells wrote this article for the New York Times magazine in April where he argues that Brooklyn is the new De Smet, S.D., where the Ingalls spent that seven-month winter in 1880 with little more to eat than a loaf of wheat bread a day. Try that, Brooklynites.
Like Mr. Wells, I’d like to think that there are certain food-related parallels between Wilder’s time and now, but those of us dabbling in canning or backyard gardening aren’t doing so out of necessity. If our seeds fail, the gophers eat up our corn crop or the rain fails to come, we’re not facing a serious food shortage in the coming winter.
But it feels good to take an active role in reviving some of the traditions of tending our kitchens and outdoor spaces. Composting, growing greens, putting up cucumbers, baking bread, curing meats, mending clothes are all part of modern-day homesteading.
Moving west and moving up
Food wasn’t the path through which Wilder found freedom, but I’m fascinated by the fact that the character she created based on herself was the rebel, the rule-breaker, the shit-stirrer, the brave young explorer who blazed her own trail.
She was always the first to sign up when Pa suggested they pick up and move again. She couldn’t go far enough west. She asked the questions she wasn’t supposed to ask. When it came time to marry Almanzo, she made it clear that she wouldn’t promise to obey him as part of their marriage vows. She strove for a life beyond that of being a farmer’s wife, and when Almanzo lost some of the use of his hands and legs to diphtheria, her duties expanded far beyond the typical woman’s work of cooking and caring for their young daughter, Rose.
As a young woman, I might not have needed to know how to thrash wheat, cook on a hearth stove, sew my own dresses or make blackbird pie from the birds eating this year’s corn crop, but Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books showed me the beauty in simple things that a girl who has never lived in a house without a microwave might not appreciate: the first lick of Christmas candy, a sourdough biscuit drizzled with molasses or the smell of a freshly peeled orange in the middle of winter.
These books are a feminist food lover’s treasure. If you haven’t read them or have only watched the TV series, I’d highly recommend picking up one or two of the books (“Little House in the Big Woods” and “Little Town on the Prairie” might be my favorites). They are a quick read and are fun to share with young readers (or nonreaders. Every night for three weeks, my 3-year-old son has looked forward to our nightly “Prairie” reading sessions.).
Within pages, you’ll discover how vast the sky appears when your sunbonnet is dangling behind you.