The moment someone says certain words to me, like “back to school” or “football,” I start thinking about cooking. Summer is a great time for food, sure, but not so much for cooking. There’s just nothing like the fall and winter dishes that make the whole house smell delicious. Coincidentally, I’ve been rereading the Little House on the Prairie series with my son, and I’ve been startled to remember how many of the foods described in the books can still make me salivate—even the weird ones, like jack-rabbit stew or fried pig’s tail. The description of popcorn alone made me break out a bag of Pop Secret, which, let me tell you, was a poor substitute for Little House-style popped corn. This fall I’m adding “try out Little House recipes” to my list of activities with my boys. Below, the nine recipes I’m going to start with.
1. Vanity Cakes
Of all the dishes described in the Little House series, this is the one that has stayed with me since I first read about it 30-some years ago. First, because the cakes are sweet, and I have a memory for sweet things. And second, for the accompanying moral lesson that Ma imparts to her girls: They’re vanity cakes because “they puff up and are hollow inside.” I’m going to give this recipe a go.
I love dumplings—both my mother and grandmother made wonderful dumplings—but I confess I’ve never made them myself. Mrs. Ingalls made them for guests: “Ma had cooked an especially good supper because they had company. There was stewed jackrabbit with white-flour dumplings and plenty of gravy.” Check out this recipe for Little House buttermilk dumplings from Food.com.
3. Fried Chicken
Laura takes fried chicken in her lunch pail to school, and in These Happy Golden Years she talks about eating it with the peas and potatoes of July. I occasionally make fried chicken but have never tried this brining technique.
4. Fried Apples ‘n’ Onions
This dish, Almanzo’s favorite, is from Farmer Boy. Frankly, you had me at fried—I like any kind of hash. I’d serve this with bacon and some kind of sweet rolls.
5. Maple Taffy Candy
Grandma pours maple syrup over plates of snow that the girls collect from outside in Little House in the Big Woods. I myself would just drink the maple syrup, but my boys would like to try this snow version, I’m sure.
6. Vinegar Pie
This, after fried pig’s tail, is the recipe I’m most skeptical about, but I imagine it tastes a little like a poor-man’s lemon pie—a little tart, a little sweet. I’m going to try out this recipe, which adds a bit of maple.
7. Green Pumpkin Pie
Ma was always “making do,” and I imagine that the green pumpkin pie in The Long Winter was a way to get some nutrition out of the early stage of a pumpkin crop. This recipe includes apple for extra sweetness.
Farmer Boy, while not my favorite of the Little House books in terms of characters, makes up for that deficiency by providing many loving descriptions of food. The description that particularly sticks out in my memory is this one: “Almanzo took the biggest doughnut from the pan and bit off its crisp end. Mother was rolling out the golden dough, slashing it into long strips, rolling and twisting the strips. Her fingers flew, you could hardly see them. The strips seem to twist themselves under her hands, and to leap into the big copper kettle of swirling hot fat.” I’ve never seen a long, twisted shape for a doughnut that would turn itself over in the pan, but I believe The Little House Cookbook might have instructions on how to achieve a cruller-like shape. If you can’t wait, try this one.
9. Dried-Apple Sauce
In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Ingalls writes, “Then Laura gathered up all the paper wrappings, and she helped Ma set on the table the big platter of golden, fried mush, a plate of hot biscuits, a dish of fried potatoes, a bowl of codfish gravy and a glass dish full of dried-apple sauce.” Here’s a recipe that seems likely—basically reconstituting dried apples with hot water and sugar—or if you just want to swap in apple butter (yum, apple butter in the fall) check out this recipe.
So go ahead, say the words “back to school” or “football” or even “sweater.” I’ll be stocking up on apples and maple syrup and keeping my eye on the forecast. In the meantime, I’ll just read a little ahead of my kids in the Little House books….