Want Traditional Food? Read “Little House” Books

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image Little House on the Prairie gets all the fame, but if you want to read a great story about eating locally, seasonally, and ecologically, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder is a must-read.

My son and I have been enjoying reading this series (his first chapter books!) together, and I have to tell you: even though I taught Little House in the Big Woods to third graders for two years, I am discovering some parts strike me in a totally new way. Now I understand exactly what Ma is doing when she renders lard, for example.

As we worked through “Big Woods” I was having conversations in my head with all of you each time a traditional food or way of preparation came up. It was such fun to read about how it was really done 150 years ago! Just for kicks, I thought I’d share with you all the food gems you’ll find:

  • An entire year’s worth of life, including lots of detailed descriptions of completely seasonal food.
  • Seasonal vegetables galore, including preserving the harvest for the winter, an absolute necessity!
  • Deer and pig meat in the fall, then “no fresh meat” for the spring and summer (to let the animals fatten up).
  • Using the WHOLE pig: rendering lard, head cheese with the brain, making sausage from the scraps, roasting and eating the tail, making a balloon from the bladder.
  • Making lots of butter from the cow’s cream…and I just LOVED the way they talked about the yellow cream from the good grass in the summer and how Ma colored the butter with carrot juice in the winter, so it would be pretty. No artificial colorings there! :)
  • Maple syrup and maple sugar in the spring. They ate their fill, then saved it for later to be used sparingly, and as nearly the only sweetener. Pa also found a bee’s nest tree and brought home lots of raw honey! The “store sugar” was the white stuff, and it was very expensive and just for company, as was white flour in Little House on the Prairie.
  • Cheese-making in the summer when the milk was plentiful. They skimmed the cream to make butter, but not all of it. Pa told a story about Old Man Grimes, whose wife skimmed all the cream, and he was so thin drinking her whey that he blew away in a strong storm. They understood the value of good fats!
  • Their “food to go” when they took their one excursion to town included: bread and butter, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and cookies. I wish we in our culture had some concept of such simple meals. We have no tolerance to eat for subsistence, but it seems every meal must have some extravagance, spice, or tantalizing sweetness.
  • Always fried food in a bit of lard, never butter.
  • When they harvested the grain in the fall, they had to make very sure that the oats didn’t get wet at all. I couldn’t help but take note of that after this discussion on biblically prepared grains.
  • I wish there would have been more talk of the bread baking. I couldn’t tell if they used yeast or sourdough, but Laura often described the bread in a meal as “salt-rising bread.”  Anyone know what that was? They also often made corn cakes with cornmeal, water and salt (only?). I have no idea if the corn was treated for that, but…
  • The process by which Ma made “hulled corn” at harvest time is one of the more complicated in the entire book:
    1. Burnt hardwood and saved the ashes.
    2. Shelled the corn off its cobs.
    3. Put corn and ashes into a big kettle of water and boiled it for a long time,until the corn began to swell and the skins split open.
    4. Dipped the corn into cold water, rubbing and scrubbing until the hulls came off and floated on top of the water.
    5. Changed the water and repeated, over and over, until all the hulls were washed away.
    6. Stored the “soft, white kernels in a big jar in the pantry.”  They ate hulled corn with maple syrup for breakfast, fried in pork drippings or with milk. AND Ma never got a drop of water on her dress. (I would never fit in, thank you very much.)
    7. What is hulled corn? Did they dry the corn then, or can it? Was it served warm with milk, or was this like the precedent to boxed cereal? I’m fascinated!

I find myself nostalgic for a simplicity I never knew, a time when a pair of homemade mittens and one candy stick were an exciting, filled stocking at Christmas, and getting a new doll was really something extra special, beyond expectation, even for that holiday.

imageI wish Laura and Mary’s mother and father had written a book called “How we Trained our Children to be so Loving Even Though they had no Other Children to Learn from” and I think daily of a meal the girls are served on the prairie as they take a covered wagon out west:  a piece of leftover cornbread with molasses. My kids would say, “That’s IT?! One thing?”  And then they would say, “This is yucky,” about the molasses. Laura said there “was nothing more she could want,” she was so happy.

How life has changed in the last 150 years!

And in the Present…

With those X thousand processed food items on the grocery store shelves and all the conflicting research and opinions surrounding food, eating has become more complicated than ever, from farm to table.

We have such gadgetry.

For example: Verizon let me test out their Droid, one of those incredibly cool phones that lets you do everything with the touch of a finger on a screen.

While my children have enjoyed “Poke-a-Mole”, a “Whack-a-Mole” game in miniature, I searched the apps for kitchen and food shortcuts. I could organize my recipes in countless different ways, download and sort coupons, and count everything from fat to calories and beyond. However. I find over and over that as a Real Food practitioner, much of what the world offers in the field of food and nutrition just isn’t a good fit for me. (Side note: I had a conversation about fat with the nutritionist for the Grand Rapids Public Schools last night. I felt totally inadequate, but at least she’s recently gotten rid of the margarine!)

I found one really fitting app called “What Additives?” that could coach me right in the store how to decipher the long words on the sides of packaged foods. I brainstormed a few other helpful “real food” apps for food shopping that don’t exist yet. We’re an untapped niche!

  • The Dirty Dozen – find which produce you should buy organic
  • Safe fish list – I have a pocket guide in my purse, but it failed me today when ocean perch and Norwegian haddock weren’t on any list
  • Farmer’s Market Organizer – compare prices per pound at various farmers’ stands; use GPS to remember where your favorites are and the best deals. Compare with grocery store choices.
  • Fermented foods calendar – what do you need to feed when?

What “Real Food” apps do you think the Droid or iPhone should develop to support real shopping and eating?

SAVE: Use the code CWAA5 to save 15% on CleanWell products, including CleanWell’s Natural Hand Sanitizer, until 12/31/2012.

And a fun note: one of the first carnivals I remember writing a specific post for that fit perfectly was Heavenly Homemakers Little Green Project. I shared how I save green buying green with reduced produce section tips. Laura is running it again – link up anything about saving green, eating greens, going green, your green thumb, or green crafts. This year I chose to highlight an old, old post, but one of the pillars of Kitchen Stewardship: God’s call to us to take care of the environment. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Photo credits from kawaface and Krista76.

Disclosure: I was not expected to write about the Droid, even though Verizon let me test drive it for a while. They had no strings attached; I am just fascinated by it!

Find more Real Food stories at Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

Click here for my disclaimer and advertising disclosure - affiliate links in this post will earn commission based on sales, but it doesn't change your price.

107 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. says

    I like to hear stories like that. Our grand-parents knew what eating well meant. It saddens me so much that my grandmother passed away before I could ask her all the questions I have now. Sadly I had no interest in nutrition when I was in high school.
    .-= kanmuri´s last blog ..Tedious Work =-.

  2. Kate says

    love this blog entry :) I too sometimes long for a simpler time when we didn’t have so many choices and didn’t do so much thinking about what we eat. I will have to pick up some of these books now.

  3. says

    Lol, I just got those books out of storage and reread them. Will be reading to my daughter soon. I recall Ma saying either in the Long Winter or the Shores of Silver Lake that she was thankful to have yeast again as they were getting tired of sourdough. She also turned around and exlaimed about the sponge being ready so soon and it lifting the lid of the crock it was in. This mentioned separately from the salt rising bread. I do love those books. Interesting also how the Wilder family, who lived in a larger populated and established area, had the special drawers with white sugar in the pantry and did things like the taffy pulls and ice cream.
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..Cleaning out the recipe box: shortbread two ways =-.

  4. Jo says

    Sourdough is mentioned in the “Merry Christmas” chapter of By the Shores of Silver Lake. Laura shows Mrs Boast how she uses sour-dough to make biscuits when there isn’t enough milk to have sour milk. She feeds the sour dough with the scraps of biscuit dough, adds more warm water, and covers it (“she put the clean cloth and plate on the jar”) and sets it in its designated place on the shelf by the stove.
    I don’t understand why they used a cloth AND a plate. Wouldn’t the plate make the cloth redundant?

  5. says

    Mind, I have no idea how it’s made, but we had Salt-rising bread in Western NY growing up. It is delicious. Not sour like sourdough and not soft like white. It’s got great texture to it and makes wonderful toast. =)
    .-= Mary Teresa´s last blog ..The Big Leagues. =-.

  6. says

    I’ve been reading one of my great-grandmother’s cookbooks (published in 1892) and feel the same way. I also remember the days of eating bread and molasses for lunch (and I am only in my early 30s). Our food patterns have changed so much in such a short time.
    .-= Andi´s last blog ..Juliet Apron =-.

  7. says

    I LOVED the litte house books growing up! I think I read each one 2 or 3 times and have them packed away right now to start reading to my littles as soon as I think they’re old enough. :-)

    I picked one up just a couple years ago and just loved how I knew what they were talking about. Opened up a whole new understanding of how they really lived.

  8. Betsy says

    The iPhone has a ton of foodie apps:

    Don’t Eat That – additives
    What’s On My Food? – pesticides
    Non-GMO Shopping Guide
    Seafood Watch
    Dirty Produce (as listed by Diaper Diaries :))

    I loved the Little House books as a kid, and recently found them in ebook form and read them all on my iPhone, lol. Saw them through different eyes now.

  9. Erin says

    Laura Ingalls wrote a letter to a little girl that described how they used sourdough and baking soda to rise their biscuits. She preferred “sour milk” and baking soda, but they used sourdough when that wasn’t available.

    Here’s the link to the letter, if you’re interested.

    Another Laura fan from way back, and re-reading the books as a real food girl has brought me a whole new appreciation!

  10. says

    kristen, there is a Little House Cookbook….so you might be interested to check it out…a great resource for the history of the dishes served through all the series, even the Wilder family favorites…I bought mine from Amazon…
    .-= Sabrena´s last blog ..Valentine’s Card for Hubby! =-.

    • says

      We have the Little House Cookbook as well. I’m not as excited about it as I thought I would be, but we certainly do love it for the historical information. I just keep having to modify the recipes *back* to what they originally were (there are a lot of statements in there about “this is how they did it, but we don’t have this product available now” which aren’t entirely true….

  11. Clair says

    The hulled corn sounds like hominy to me – I think this is how it is made. I love hominy, but my husband doesn’t like it much.

    • Cecilia Burress says

      My mother-in-law still makes hominy and will give a quart jar as a shower gift to new brides with the directions on how to make attached. What a treasure!

  12. Maureen says

    I was such a fan of the TV series and the book while growing up.
    We even went to the location where they filmed.

  13. Suzanne says

    I’m not really sure why I got all teary eyed reading this post, but I think it’s because those books touched my heart so much as a child! Thank you for weaving these stories into our adventure to find real natural foods in an overprocessed world!

    A quick google search revealed lots about salt-rising bread!

    Here’s one for example:

    With this disclaimer at the beginning of the recipe, I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to even attempt it….but I’m sure you are!
    “”THIS IS NOT AN EASY BREAD TO MAKE! It is tricky, but worth the effort for one who loves that very different, pungent smell of salt-rising bread. The cornmeal used for the starter must contain the inner germ of the corn and a constant warm temperature must be maintained.”

  14. Angela says

    The prep for the corn sounds like it was being made into Hominy.

    My girls and I loved these books. Read them all outloud multiple times and went to visit Laura’s house in Mansfield, MO. My girls all had what they called “Little House on the Prairie dresses” complete with sunbonnet….

  15. says

    I felt the exact.same.way. when I was reading those books! We read them as a family last year and I remember thinking “I wish I had been brought up knowing how to do this stuff!”

    I was going to mention too that there is a Little House cookbook. I bet it would be fun to try some of those recipes!

  16. says

    The corn scene sounds like they lyed the corn-that was the ashes part, so they were making corn tortillas I am betting with just ground, lyed corn (masa), salt and water. The corn itself when eaten, then, would be hominy, which is delicious!

    • Carol Cripps says

      Actually, it would more likely have been hoecakes, made from the limed corn. I agree, the corn was what we know as hominy, and a good way to store corn for later use. I’m just glad that now I can go to the store and buy cornmeal. I don’t (and am guessing that most of us don’t) have a source of wood ash!

  17. says

    Your post brought back fond memories of the Little House series! I remember puzzling over a lot of the food descriptions. They certainly created vivid impressions, especially the pig tail. As a child I never made the connection between “salt pork” and bacon (which I loved). Also, I was fascinated by the notion of pouring maple syrup on the snow to make candy. It never worked for me — just dripped on through to the ground!
    .-= Ellen´s last blog ..Run Like the Wind, Then Walk: Interval Training and the Heart =-.

  18. says

    We are reading through the Little House books again here. In later books Laura, frequently talks about sour dough, so I bet that is what they used for the most part. There was never a mention of yeast in any of the books, I don’t think.

    As the years go by I find myself creating simpler meals. Last summer we would frequently have fresh bread and a plate of veggies for lunch. Delicious and good for you. We eat a lot of boiled eggs too as our protein source. So good.
    .-= Jennifer´s last blog ..Starting seeds indoors – part 1 =-.

  19. says

    We’re reading our way through them and are on The Long Winter now. Maybe that’s why last night I(for the first time)carefully poured the liquid fat from my cooked beef into a small teacup and set it neatly in the refrigerator. I’m not sure why. I have no idea WHAT to do with it.
    Maybe Sally F will tell me if I flip through my new copy of Nourishing Traditions…
    .-= Holly´s last blog ..Starting seeds =-.

    • Leslea says

      My mother saved fat from everything and made brown lye soap. Only her’s was not brown because she rendered and strained the fat multiple times. She also saved bacon grease for frying and strained it multiple times so it looked nearly as white as store bought shortening. She was a child of the Depression and grew up in Texas where things were REALLY tough so I was taught how to “use, re-use, make do, or do without” by her. When I read the Little House books as a child, a lot of what Caroline did to feed and clothe her family seemed very familiar to me!

  20. says

    Still on beef fat…..is it tallow, btw? Would I use it like bacon grease? ‘Cause I’ve been saving that forever, for baking cornbread or cooking with beans. Tallow makes me think of soap/candles, though, not something edible.
    .-= Holly´s last blog ..Starting seeds =-.

    • Katie says

      You can absolutely use tallow (beef fat) for frying; a lot of people love eggs in bacon grease, and I just made Shepherd’s Pie tonight with more bacon grease than bacon b/c I was low. 😉

      Tallow is great for french fries, but obviously you need a lot of it!
      :) Katie

    • says

      I always use beef drippings to saute onions in. They turn out better than with any other fat. Then I throw them in spaghetti, shepherd’s pie, or omelettes — yum!

  21. Kristi says

    Use bacon grease for frying potatoes. DELISH! ALso great to fry your grassfed ground beef for tacos. Gives it a whole other dimension of YUMMINESS!
    There is also a Little House Cookbook that we bought. You will notice some of the instructions and ingredients have been updated, but if you are cooking traditionally already, you know how to make adjustments to the recipes for that.

  22. Heather says

    I second the vote for The Little House Cookbook. I have a copy, & have cooked a number of recipes from it over the years. Farmer Boy is also a smorgasbord of yummy food.

  23. Whitney says

    I think you read my mind. I just picked up a copy of the Little House Cookbook that I had as a child, and it explains so much of this in detail – it’s great!

  24. Susan says

    About the corn bread made with only corn meal, water, and salt:
    My dad grew up eating it that way. His nanny, Patty,(called a nurse back then) made it that way and called it “slave cornbread.” It’s mixed up and poured thinly into a cast iron skillet and fried until crispy. Patty’s grandmother was a slave, so I assume that’s where she learned.
    My hubby just finished reading Little House in the Big Woods to our little girl. We all enjoyed it!

  25. says

    My four girls and I are reading a chapter (or so) every evening before bed. They LOVE it (even though the eldest daughter – 9 years old – is more than capable of reading them herself) and beg for more!

    We have had conversations about all that you have mentioned – the girls have made butter in school and we render our own lard and my father and his cousins make our own pork brats (and liver sausage) and smoke them, so lots of the experiences aren’t too new to us! :)
    .-= Jessica´s last blog ..MORE dishwasher secrets! =-.

  26. says

    I love the Little House Cookbook! I own it and have been reading out of it over the years. I’ve been wanting to make recipes from it but haven’t done any yet. I’ve been particularly interested in the game and sourdough recipes, and am hoping to try some of these this year.

    I loved the Little House books all during my youth and have tried reading them to my son, but he hasn’t been terribly interested. I keep hoping as time goes on we’ll be reading them a bit more.

    I love the simplicity of their lives and the meaning in everything they did from their worship to eating and preparing of food, and to holidays and special occasions. It’s definitely an admirable way of life and one that I love to think about very much.

    I try to uphold some of the principles in those books in our home (at least in spirit) because we don’t live on a homestead and don’t hunt and raise our own food. I’ve tried to transfer as many of these great values onto my son and our family environment, and although we may not live in harmony with nature as much as Ma and Pa Ingalls and their family did, I still believe many of the philosophies and beliefs I have about my life have been strongly influenced by these stories and others like them.

    Something interesting I’d like to mention about the cookbook is the inclusion of pasteurization of milk. It’s interesting to read the commentary about pasteurization and how it is necessary to eliminate “harmful bacteria”. It makes me wonder how Ma and Mother Ingalls really viewed sour milk back then when things were still so natural and real.

    Page 145 reads, “Milk, the saying goes, is perfect food for calves, infants, and bacteria. In its use as human food it has often served as well as a carrier of disease. Ma Ingalls and Mother Wilder knew that new milk would sour or their families might get sick if they neglected to keep cows and milking equipment absolutely clean.” It’s interesting how there is no mention at all of good bacteria, making fermented foods with dairy, nor the benefits of creating and consuming these foods.
    .-= Raine Saunders´s last blog ..The Perfect Evening – Dinner, Champagne, Dessert, and Alice in Wonderland! =-.

  27. says

    The Little House books profoundly affected me as a child. I started baking our bread when I was eleven, learned how to knit, and made everyone’s Christmas presents for years. Now in my forties, I cook everything I can from scratch, and write a home crafting mystery series that features different colonial home crafts as the backdrop to the storylines.

    I agree that the hulled corn is hominy. Water run through wood ash provides lye to preserve the hominy (which can then be ground to make grits), and they would have also used the lye with saved tallow to make soap.

  28. says

    I LOVE Little House books. I just read Little House in the Big Woods in November with my kids. Isn’t it fun to re-read an old childhood favorite as an adult? It gives you a new perspective on the book. I thought the same things you posted as we read it. The majority of their year was spent gathering and preparing food for the winter. Everyone was involved and learned by watching and helping. Remember the girls tossing the pigs stomach around for a balloon? My grandma who is 89 reminds me all the time of old fashioned frugality just by being herself. She sends my kids a card with a dollar in it (for an ice cream cone she writes) and a stick of gum for their birthdays. :-)

    Some cool links:

    free lap books:

    Did you know Laura wrote for a newspaper? They have archived hundreds of her articles here:
    .-= Kelly E.´s last blog ..January 2010 update =-.

  29. Trish says

    Kristen, Thanks so much for this post! I read these books to my daughter as her first chapter books, too, and she is now 21, graduating from college in a few months!! We both always loved reading the sections in each book about the food because Laura was so incredibly descriptive; we could just taste everything as if we were there! I too have the cookbook and just got it off the shelf again after reading your post. There is a recipe for the salt-rising bread. It does include a ferment, a sponge, and a dough, as the author puts it. I’d be glad to type up the recipe and post it for everyone if you’re interested. Thanks again for reminding me of a very interesting resource right on my own shelf!

  30. says

    I wore those books out as a kid. Really only the first book and the Farmer Boy book have great food descriptions. The other books have much more spare eating. I was always amazed that years went by without vegetables ever being mentioned. Descriptions of fruit are even more scarce in her books. Dairy was also pretty rare until they started to prosper more just before she married. It always made me wonder how healthy they really were during those lean years.
    .-= marcella´s last blog ..Bread Baking Class =-.

    • says

      I think they probably ate whatever vegetables they could get — presumably Ma had a garden wherever they were. But, for example, over the Long Winter they got none, and Carrie never does recover from that. My guess is, she’s vitamin deficient — what she needs is a lot of good milk, veggies, and liver to stop her from passing out in school!

  31. says

    “Little House” books are my all-time favorite, and I remember to this day all the interesting food references – even the family grinding their own flour in a coffee mill during the long winter! For those of us who are just getting into traditional nutrition and trying to implement the sprouting, souring, etc., I’m so thankful for Laura and the prep work she did without even knowing it :)

  32. Amy Clark says

    I love it! That series is what got me into traditional foods! I’ve been reading these to my children before bed for some time now. First I started a garden, then changed other ways that we eat, then began our quest for natural, traditional and organic foods. Thanks for the post!

  33. says

    My mom’s mom (and my mom when she was a little girl) lived somewhat “Little House style”, if you will. Mom told me lots of stories over the years about how during the Depression they used honey as their only sweetener, preserved their meats from the farm and how they dealt with leftover milk.

    They had a small dairy farm, and the milk was placed in milk cans and chilled in a spring fed trough. Grandpa would take it to the creamery by wagon or sled. In the house, grandma always kept a small pot on the back of the stove. Any milk leftover at the end of the day (from what had been brought in for meals) would be added to this pot. Over time the milk would curdle into a soft cheese (curds and whey or cottage cheese type consistency). I’d be surprised if the Ingalls didn’t do something similar if they had leftover milk.

    BTW, I was a little disappointed in the Little House cookbook, because I thought the recipes were too modernized.
    .-= Laurie N´s last blog ..A Look Around Another Way Home =-.

  34. says

    That corn cooked with lye (from the ashes) is hominy. The reason they did that was so that they wouldn’t get pellagra.

    I buy it canned, but if you dry and grind it, you’ll have grits.

    After the Civil War up through the turn of the century Southerners were dying from pellagra because they didn’t know to use lime water on their corn, and corn is all they had to eat as they rebuilt.
    .-= Milehimama´s last blog ..Berkey Water Filter WFMW =-.

  35. Sarah-Anne says

    I was out of yeast, and searching for breads I could make without yeast. After much searching, I stumbled upon “Salt Rising Bread”. It sounds really neat. I tried to make it, but was a little skeptical of my “raisin” or starter, as I had it out and fermenting a really really long time, so I tossed it out. I’m definitely going to try to make it again! I was delighted to learn this is the kind of bread that Laura Ingalls used to eat, neat! Thanks for sharing!!

    Here are the links:
    Information (the website is a little difficult to navigate, but there is SO MUCH information about Salt Rising Bread, and several recipes, too!)

    Recipe #1, from the above website. This is the one I attempted.

    Recipe, almost the same information, but this one contains just a little bit more help.

  36. says

    from someone who has made & eaten head cheese, it’s not made from pig brains. it’s made from meat trimmed from the pig’s head.

    shelling corn means getting the corn kernels off the cob whole. to do that, it would have needed to have been at least partially dried. i’ve seen the old fashioned hand tool used for that purpose.

    huge fan of LIW. i had a LIW cookbook that I got from the “book fair” at school as a kid. I dunno what happened to it. we had a taffy pull once. very fun.

  37. Heather says

    You don’t need to dry corn to shell it…but it would have to be raw & very fresh. Keep in mind sweet corn as we know it today wasn’t really around in the 1870’s. They would have been using what we would now consider to be an heirloom variety of field corn. Much less tender kernels.

    Also, Laura was telling stories, and only really talked about food as it had to do with the story she was telling (although I get the idea, from Farmer Boy, that she might have envied Almanzo’s boyhood eating some–she spent a LOT of time on food in that book). From what I remember, the Ingallses had a garden most years, which would have meant vegetables that could be grown in Minnesota & the Dakotas, and probably enough to store of things that were storable . Local fruit would be mostly whatever berries grew, & maybe wild plums or chokecherries. Apple trees did not grow on the Dakota prairie then, so apples had to come by train. And the Ingallses didn’t stay in one place long enough to really have any perennial fruits or vegetables or meat (rhubarb, asparagus, a good chicken flock, etc) until after the Long Winter. And in real life, the family moved a couple of more times than Laura even wrote about!

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