Few things are as well-known in Minnesota history as Laura Ingalls Wilder and her dugout home in Walnut Grove. Last weekend our road trip through Southwest Minnesota brought us along Highway 14 to The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in downtown Walnut Grove. We were the only people wandering the grounds on a quiet Saturday morning. The perfect time for extra photos and lingering over the exhibits.
The kitchen partner and I have spent this spring re-reading the Little House series, reliving our childhood through titles like Little House in the Big Woods and On the Banks of Plum Creek. As a child I completely missed how food winds through the series, just like Plum Creek. Now it’s what I enjoy most about the stories. Laura describes bland, wintertime meals along with cheery memories of maple sugaring and a roasted Thanksgiving goose.
The First Minnesota Locavores
I think Laura and the pioneer families of her era were the original Minnesota Locavores. The family hunted and foraged the prairie, grew plants that would survive the harsh native landscape, and celebrated simple meals with simple ingredients. Truly the original locavore diet.
As a 21st Century locavore, reading the stories and visiting the museum made me grateful for how easy local eating is now. If I’m looking for local meat or dairy I send the kitchen partner to the co-op. Not out on the prairie with a gun or to the barn with a pail. Instead of growing and preserving every ounce of food we eat, I can sign up for a CSA or visit the farmers’ market for fruits and vegetables. I choose to can and freeze because I enjoy it, not because it’s the only way we would have enough to eat. Local eating has become a buzz word trend, but for the Ingalls family it was a means of survival.
I’m not sure where that leaves things for me now. Can we still claim the local food title if we’re not really living from the land? How can we honor to those who ate this way–not by choice but for necessity–especially if without the land to hunt, forage, and grow everything I eat? Is taking advantage of more convenient local food “cheating?” Is working towards a pioneer-style self-sufficiency the end goal of the locavore life? These are the questions that keep me up at night.
Cooking the Little House Way
While we were in the gift shop, I picked up a copy of The Little House Cookbook by Barbara Walker. It’s filled with food-related passages from the books and recipes to recreate the same meals Laura and her family ate. Some of the pioneer recipes like strawberry jam and hashed brown potatoes are the same family recipes I use now. Others like codfish balls, pot of roast ox, and home-churned butter take some more creativity to recreate.
I’m slowly cooking a few things from the book this week. I fell in love with Ma Ingalls’ dumpling recipe, but passed up making the famous
vanity cakes after reading some not-so-good online reviews. Then I made the simple heart-shaped cakes Mary and Laura open on Christmas morning in Little House in the Big Woods.
The palm-sized cakes have no eggs and only a touch of sugar, but they are perfect with maple syrup, honey or a drizzle of strawberry sauce. I replaced the lard with butter (a girl’s gotta have limits and lard is one!!) and made the cakes smaller than the original recipe called for. When they came out of the oven–warm and crumbly–I think the kitchen partner’s smile was as big as Laura and Mary’s on Christmas morning.
Maybe that’s the biggest lesson about local eating: if the local food you eat puts a smile on your face what difference does it make? The Little House series shows us that whether it’s 2013 or 1913, eating local is about celebrating simple ingredients, made into simple and delicious meals. And sharing those meals with the people you care about most.
Heart Shaped Cakes
Adapted from The Little House Cookbook
1 1/2 cups white flour, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of nutmeg or pumpkin pie spice
1/4 cup butter, cut into tablespoons and well-chilled
1/3 cup buttermilk
1. Preheat oven to 425°F and grease a baking sheet with non-stick spray.
2. Combine flour, sugar, baking soda and nutmeg in a large bowl. Using your fingers, mash in the tablespoons of butter in the flour mixture until it forms pea-sized pieces.
3. Form a hole in the middle of the bowl. Pour the buttermilk into the hole and gently fold into the flour. Combine until a dough forms that is flexible (but not too sticky) to roll out.
4. Roll out dough on a floured surface until 1/2″ thick. Cut dough into triangles. Gently push each triangle into a heart shape with your fingers (exaggerate the middle indentation a bit as the finished cakes will puff out after baking).
5. Place the triangles on the baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown. Place on a cooling rack and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve warm with sweet toppings.