SWEET MEMORIES of my father reading to me and my little sister warmly predispose me to any connection with the series known as the "Little House" books. For those who may not have had the pleasure of reading the books as children -- or to children -- their history is, briefly, as follows:
In 1932 when Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65, she wrote her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, a slightly fictionalized account of her early childhood spent in a frontier home in Wisconsin. During the next 10 years she wrote eight more books. One described her husband's upbringing on a dairy farm in New York; the others traced the migration of her family through Wisconsin, Kansas, Mnnesota and South Dakota.
The simplicity, the clarity with which daily events in a pioneer life are depicted make The Little House Cookbook an enduring experience for both parents and children. One acquires a bit of common-sense information in every chapter. Food figures prominently in the explanations of the mechanics of daily life -- hunting, growing, cooking, preserving, eating -- and Walker has much the same tone as Laura Ingalls Wilder when she discusses these subjects. As she notes, "Food also looms large in this pioneer chronicle because there was rarely enought of it."
Walker's own commentaries are presented along with filled-out and adapted versions of the original recipes -- ones that are true to the era, not modernized shortcuts -- which follow the originals as quoted in the story context. She has grouped the subjects in sensible chapters, such as "Staples from the Country Store," or "Foods from Tilled Fields," which stress basic concepts important for young readers. I would love to see the book used as the focus of a course on American history; with its symapthetic characters and historical accuracy -- as well as a good glossary and bibliography -- it is a natural for the classroom.
But I do wonder how else it will be used. Although the recipes are clear renditions of time-honored formulas, most are considerably too complex to be followed by unsupervised children. And while absolute simplicity can be delicious, many of the dishes would be considered too bland for modern palates, and would therefore be of little interest to adults who could follow the recipes.
Even though the techniques may be historically accurate, there are certainly better ways to make some of the foods: It is less risky to stir boiling milk into egg yolks than the other way 'round; poached eggs would hardly be covered by an inch of water, nor would they benefit from a boil, however brief; five tablespoons of unchilled lard mixed into 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour will not produce a tender, flaky crust; and although cornbread composed of drippings, water, salt, and meal is authentic, I doubt that many will enjoy its flavor or texture. Still, some of the perfectly simple recipes are appealing, as are some unfamiliar presentations, such as pancake men, ripe tomatoes with sugar and cream, and husk-tomato preserves.
If even the most practiced young cooks might have difficulty with the book, who will make use of it? For non-cooks it's a fine book to read just for the pleasure of learning. But to my mind the best audience will be the one proposed by Barbara Walker: parents and children working together. Walker writes that "cooking remains one of the few essential household activities that adults and children or older and younger children can share in modern urban life. This book is a gestrue of sharing."
As a professional cook, mother and noisy appreciator of such sentiments, I loudly second her aspirations. I welcome, as well, the author's explanation of her work:
Not all dishes included here will be greeted with enthusiasm at the table; some are admittedly historic . . . But all are revealing in one way or another. Taken together, they 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 in the field, and the cow in the pasture. . . . 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."