With Thanksgiving a few weeks away, I'm hauling out the tried-and-true recipes for stuffing, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, etc. To shake things up a bit, I've been combing through recipe books and magazines in search of inspiration. One book in particular deserves special attention: The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories. I can't remember how I heard about this unique cookbook by Barbara M. Walker, but I was really taken by her descriptions of pioneer cooking, and the authentic (and modern kitchen-tested) recipes based on specific passages from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series of children's books. I remember that Wilder's descriptions of food set my imagination going, and my feet headed towards the kitchen. Walker's book contains recipes for those mouth-watering biscuits, apple turnovers, pies, plum preserves, crackling cornbread, roasted wild turkey with cornbread stuffing, fried salt pork with gravy, savory potatoes prepared every which way, and even butter (no butter churn required).
Thirty years have passed since the publication of The Little House Cookbook in 1979, yet somehow, it feels more relevant than ever, especially in the context of our current efforts to obtain and eat food that is more wholesome, less processed, and made from scratch (preferably at home). Barbara Walker was way ahead of her time, as this passage from the book's preface reminds us:
Taken together, they [the authentic frontier dishes] turn out to be a wonderful way to rediscover basic connections, links that are often obscured in the complex modern world. By this I mean connections among the food on the table, the grain from the field, and the cow in the pasture. Between the food on the table and the sweat of someone's brow. Between the winter and dried apples, the summer and tomatoes, the autumn and fresh sausage, Between the labors of the pioneers and the abundance we enjoy today. Between children and their elders. Between the preparation of a meal and the experience of love.
Well before it was fashionable, Walker was out there conducting her own pioneering work on food and American gastronomic culture. Her project involved cross-disciplinary historical, anthropological and gastronomic research. But, don't let this fancy academic description obscure the fact that this book is pure delight. It is full of original passages from the Little House books and those tender drawings from the 1953 illustrated edition of the series by the late, great Garth Williams. Text and illustrations are paired with easy-to-follow recipes that are perfect to try out this holiday season. I plan on marshaling my nephews to help me test some of these recipes over the holidays. I can almost taste those biscuits.