Secrets Revealed

The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic StoriesIt’s not often that I read a cookbook straight through, but after dipping in to The Little House Cookbook, I knew this was one that I had to read.  It has been out for a very, very long time (1979), and I have a very dim recollection of checking it out at the library when I was a kid.  But I had never gotten around to purchasing it for my library.  After reading it cover to cover, I’m thrilled to add it to my kidlit history shelves!

From a historical perspective, Walker does a wonderful job of talking about the challenges of cooking in the 19th century.  She talks about the shift from hearth to stove.  How to preserve foods.  What could be purchased from a store–and how exciting it was when new products were born.  It’s stuff we try to explain to visitors at the museum on a regular basis, and her introduction to these complex stories is superb.

And from a kidlit perspective–this book is pure magic!  These books spend a lot of time on food.  Quick–how many Little House foods can you name?  I’ll wait.

See?  A lot, right?  I think it is physically impossible to read Farmer Boy and not raid the kitchen.  There are so many wonderful things to think about: fried apples n’ onions, vanity cakes, green pumpkin pie, doughnuts, even something as simple as popcorn just sounds better after reading about it.  And this cookbook has all these recipes and more.  Of course, Laura didn’t include recipes for everything, and Walker’s research skills really show here as well.  She hunted through period cookbooks and tested and tested again to make these recipes possible for modern cooks.  Granted, there are several recipes I have no interest in trying (roasting a whole pig?  umm, no), but the fact that even those recipes were included makes this book extra special.

The Anne of Green Gables TreasuryMy delight in reading this book reminded me of a treasured book from my childhood.  Back in 1991, Carloyn  Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Eriksson published The Anne of Green Gables Treasury.  Picture this: nerdy, 12 year old Melissa on the phone with a friend who also loves Anne.  We’re thumbing through our respective copies together, squealing and giddy.  Finally, we have the answers to so many questions!  A map of Avonlea!  The floor plan to Green Gables!  A tea time menu, complete with recipes for Monkey Face Cookies (which are wonderful!) and Plum Puffs (also quite good)!  Explanations of the clothes!  Oh, it was really, really exciting.

Collins and Eriksson have gone on to publish more Treasuries, including books on The Secret Garden, Little Women, and of course, Little House.  They are all quite good, but in my mind, none of them have had the magic that the Anne treasury did.  Suddenly, almost all of my questions were answered.  It was like these authors had uncovered these secrets that L. M. Montgomery had left buried in the books.

Books like these certainly aren’t for everyone.  A lot of readers may not want to go beyond the page.  But for those that do, I thank people like Barbara Walker, Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Eriksson.  They’ve brought me a lot of joy as a reader–and certainly helped grow my love of history.


By Northern standards, the weather we’ve had this last week is Not Much.  By Dallas standards?  Well, life as we know it stopped this week.

On Monday night, a giant ice storm hit.  And the temperature hasn’t made it past 25 since.  Last night, the forecasters said there was a 30% chance of a light dusting of snow.  This is what my backyard looks like right now:

As one friend put it: “light dusting my@#*!”  At any rate,  I didn’t get much sleep last night, and late this morning, I decided that I might as well take a nap.  I mean, what else is there to do?  The house is clean.  I’ve been catching up on the DVR and reading.  Sleep was a way to kill some time (have I mentioned that I haven’t left the house since Monday?).

I had one of those absolutely incredible naps, in which you completely pass out.  And along with it was an incredibly vivid dream.  I came into the living room.  My roomie was on the couch.  I said “Why don’t we make some maple-sugar-on-snow candy?”  And she said “Sure!” And then we went out on the patio and poured maple syrup on the snow.

The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic StoriesThen I woke up and started seriously thinking about recreating the scene from Little House in the Big Woods.  I knew we had maple syrup in the house, but I wondered if they didn’t do something else to the syrup before pouring it on the snow.  Conveniently, last May, I had bought a copy of The Little House Cookbook at the museum in Mansfield.  I had never had a chance to really look at it, so after lunch, I plucked it from the cookbook shelf and looked up “maple-sugar-on-snow.”  Sure enough, there was a recipe!  But it was for molasses.  Not the same!  And involved boiling molasses and brown sugar, which didn’t sound very yummy to me at all.

So I put the dream aside, but I kept reading the book.  I have some other literary cookbooks, but this has got to be one of the best.  Walker brilliantly sets the context for what cooking during Laura’s lifetime was like–plenty of information about the technology changes, food preservation issues, and all that.  And a wee bit of wondering if the intense focus on food in the Little House book isn’t perhaps a direct result of the hunger Laura so frequently faced as a child.

I haven’t finished the book yet, and at this point, there aren’t any recipes I really want to try.  But for a fan of the books, this is a must read.

Are there any foods from Little House that you’ve dreamed about?  Any things you’ve always wanted to try?  Any experiments worth sharing?

“Wonder, contentment and more than a little hope”

On Christmas morning, just after hugs were given and coffee was poured, mom turned to me and said “You’re going to love the editorial page this morning!”  This year, the Christmas editorial of the Dallas Morning News featured Little House in the Big Woods!  The complete text can be found here.

Little House in the Big Woods (Little House, #1)The editorial opens by mentioning the power of story, and listing some other favorite Christmas stories of staff.  And then, they wrote “One more book that comes to mind probably isn’t considered part of the Christmas canon, but it still has much to teach us about the spirit of the holiday and the foundation that our own traditions have been built upon.”  They do a brief summary of Little House in the Big Woods, complete with a bit of background on Laura.  They quote extensively the scene when Laura receives Charlotte.  The editorial concludes: “Somewhere in our past, each of us has roots and ancestors for whom something as humble as a pair of mittens or stick of candy would make a sublime Christmas.  And in these days of undertainity and political bickering, it’s never a bad thing to remember: ‘All alone in the wild Big Woods, and the snow, and the cold, the little log house was warm and snug and cozy.’  May we all, like Laura and her family, find wonder, contentment and more than a little hope in this Christmas 2010.”

First, I was thrilled to see Laura get such play in the mainstream press–and it wasn’t even Little House on the Prairie!  And this article didn’t quite descend into the common trap of “look how much simpler thing were–wouldn’t that be better?”  Instead, it really emphasizes the magic of Christmas, no matter what gifts were received. 

Of course, in my world, Little House is definitely part of the Christmas canon!   But after reading more than a few Christmas scenes from children’s literature and as I continue with The Battle for Christmas (a history of Christmas celebrations in the 19th century that is fascinating.  Our current “Christmas wars” have nothing on the 19th century!), I’m struck with the idea that often the most magical part of Christmas is found around the Christmas tree, with friends and family.  It’s the moments that aren’t forced or manufactured. 

Here’s hoping you had a very merry–and the Christmas joy continues as long as you’d like it to!

Christmas Classics

Though it’s not quite the holiday season yet, I’ve spent much of this morning reading Christmas scenes from various children’s books.  For Candlelight (the museum’s biggest event of the year), I decided to create a pre-visit lesson plan for teachers visiting in December.  And what better way to talk about how holidays have changed in the last 150 years than kidlit history?

As I was finishing up, I realized that some of you might be interested in the selections and discussion questions.  What favorite scenes am I missing?


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott  (set in the 1860s, during the Civil War)

Chapter 1: “Playing Pilgrims” and Chapter 2: “A Merry Christmas”

Times are tough during the war.  The four March daughters decide to spend their Christmas money not on themselves, but on gifts for their mother.  After they share their breakfast, they put on a play—and end up having a wonderful party through the generosity of their neighbor.

 Favorite Quote

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

 Discussion Questions

How did the Civil War affect their Christmas?

What kinds of gifts do the sisters want for themselves?

What kind of surprises happen on Christmas?  How do their plans change?

Was it a Christmas without any presents?

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder  (Set in the 1870s.)

“Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus”

Mary and Laura are worried that Santa Claus will be unable to reach them, since there is no snow and they live so far from other families.  Ma and Pa are worried because they are unable to get Christmas presents.  But Mr. Edwards saves the day!

 Favorite Quote

“They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny.  Think of having a whole penny for your very own.  Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.  There had never been such a Christmas.”  p. 250

Discussion Questions

Why is the Ingalls family worried about Christmas?

 How is Santa Claus described?  Is it different than the way we describe Santa Claus today?

 What were the presents that Mary and Laura received?

More Adventures of the Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (set in the 1890s)

Chapter 1: “The Night the Monster Walked”

Tom Fitzgerald, aka The Great Brain, has reformed and is no longer tricking his friends out of items.  But in the aftermath of Christmas, he’s up to his old tricks.

 Favorite Quote

“It was the first Christmas parents bought presents for their sons, believing my brother wouldn’t try to connive their kids out of them.”  p. 2

 Discussion Questions

Have you ever tried to be a better kid to get what you wanted for Christmas?

 What reasoning does Tom give for his bet with Parley?  What do you think the real reason?

 What do you think of the reaction of the town to the tracks of the “monster”?

 Do you think Tom and John’s punishment was appropriate?

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace (set in the 1900s)

Chapter 10: “Christmas Shopping” and Chapter 11: “Mrs. Poppy’s Party”

Every year, Betsy and Tacy go shopping and this year, they bring a new friend along.  Christmas celebrations last longer this year, with the addition of Mrs. Poppy’s party.

 Favorite Quote

“You see,” Betsy explained to Winona when they invited her, “we usually make our Christmas presents, or else our mothers buy them for us. . . the ones we give away, I mean.”

“Then why do you go shopping?” Winona asked.

“We go shopping to shop,” said Tacy.

 Discussion Questions

What kind of stores do the girls visit?

 Why do the girls choose to buy an ornament every year?

 How does the Ray family celebrate Christmas?

 How do they continue celebrating at Mrs. Poppy’s?

 Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer  (set around 1900 in New York City)

Chapter 6: “Born is the King of Israel”

Lucinda decides to plan a special holiday surprise for her friend, Trinket.  She takes odd jobs around the   neighborhood to earn money for presents.  And all her friends join them for a party—and Trinket’s very first Christmas tree.

 Favorite Quote

 “It’s the nicest tree I ever had, and it will be Trinket’s onliest up to now.  I do hope you’re as excited about it as I am, Miss Nettie.”  Lucinda spread sugary fingers about Miss Nettie’s neck and said something that surprised them both: “I do love you, Miss Nettie.”  p. 112.

Discussion Questions

How do Lucinda’s neighbors help her in throwing the Christmas party?

How is the Christmas tree decorated?

What kind of traditions does Lucinda have to celebrate?  How are some of those shaped by where she lives?

Why do you think this was such a memorable Christmas for everyone?

General Discussion Questions

Of the traditions mentioned in these stories, what traditions do you also use to celebrate?

 How are some of these Christmases from the past different from your Christmas?

If you read more than one selection, what do these celebrations have in common?  How are they different?  What are some reasons for these differences?

If you could pick one Christmas to celebrate with some of the characters mentioned above, which would it be?

School days

Today is the first day of school for most of my Texas neighbors.  We also had a record high temperature of 107, but that’s beside the point.  Depressing, but not the point.

School is a really big part of so much of kidlit history.  Because, you know, these are books about kids and they spend most of their time in school.  Usually.  In no particular order, some of my favorite school incidents in kidlit history.

Illustration from Anne of Green Gables – Anne smashes slate on Gilbert's head.Anne thwacks Gilbert with a slate.   Well, he totally deserved it, what with calling her carrots and all.  Little did he know that she was not a girl to be trifled with.  Still love this line after all these years: “Anne had brought her slate down on Gilbert’s head and cracked it–slate, not head–clear across.”  And from there begins one of the greatest “I can’t stand you!” to “I will beat you at everything.” to “I guess we can be friends” to “I love you!” relationships ever.  What would their story have been like if Gilbert had never called her carrots?  Would there have even been a story? 

Side note: though I have nothing to back this up, I’m willing to bet that this one scene is the most commonly illustrated scene from Anne.  Such drama!

Side note #2: I have never been able to decide if this really hurt Gilbert’s head or if it was just super dramatic.  Perhaps it was more of a stunning situation. 

Side note #3:  Guessing all the boys were less likely to tease Anne after this one. 

Tacy runs away from school.  Everyone knows that Tacy is shy, and most people know how to handle that.  Except her teacher, Miss Dalton, who puts her right up front, away from the other kids (and more importantly away from Betsy), and next to her.  Who is, of course, a stranger.  So who can blame Tacy for running away during recess?  Tears and wailing on the part of both Tacy and Betsy ensues.  Thank goodness for Mrs. Chubbock who has chocolate men.  “They couldn’t very well eat and cry together.”  Words to live by, my friends!

Laura teaches school at the Brewster Settlement.  Laura is not yet 16 and is off to teach school.  Some of her pupils are older and taller and much meaner than she is.  The family she boards with is more than a little dysfunctional.  The scene with the knife still makes me shiver.  But as a historian, I’m grateful for this incident to show that not everyone did well in the wilderness.  The bright spot in what could be quite a lot of gloom—Almanzo–driving through the snow so she can go home each weekend.  Sigh.

Funny how two of my favorite school stories are also romantic. . .

What are some of your favorite school stories from children’s literature?

Meeting Laura

So, guess where I went today?

Today, I went to the source.  I walked the same rooms that Laura, Almanzo and Rose walked.  Interior photos weren’t permitted, but let me just say this: it’s one of my favorite historic houses ever.  It had so many wonderful personal touches, and their lives just oozed through the walls.  And can I just say here and now that I would love to have a man like Almanzo in my life?  He has got to be one of the handiest literary husbands ever (much preferable to Ewan MacDonald, L. M. Montgomery’s husband).  Laura was tiny, just 4’11”, so he built the counters so they would be comfortable for her.  She didn’t like to knead bread, so she requested he set the breadmaking counter between two windows, so she could gaze at the beautiful Missouri hills.  When they added to the house, he decided that she was taking too many steps between the kitchen and dining room, so created this great pass-through.  Can you tell I loved her kitchen especially?  She also had the most awesome wood stove EVER.

The house is a real hodge-podge, with rooms added gradually over the years.  You could definitely tell when they got to be a bit more successful, because the front room is gorgeous–and much nicer than the first part of the house.  They even have a little library nook!  There are such little details throughout–Almanzo’s collection of canes (that he made), his various lamps and nightstands made out of funky branches.  The lamp shades and needlework that Laura made.  Everything in the home was owned by the Wilder family.  The provenance and the collection (gotta get some museum nerd stuff in here somewhere!) is amazing.

She did some of her writing at this home and some at the rock house at the back of the property.  Her little desk is just charming, not too big, but lots of slots and such for notes and paper.  The first four books were actually written at the Rock House, built by Rose for her parents.  But her parents ended up moving back to the farm house in which they had put so much love and work.

But in some ways, the Rock House was my favorite.  First, there’s the view.

Then there’s all the wonderful 1920s touches–wonderful closets, light fixtures, and tile.  And I just love the door.  I’ve been looking for a porch light for my house, and I could totally picture their light at my house.

I ended my time at the Mansfield cemetery.  For a cemetery, it was actually kinda disappointing.  No big fabulous monuments or even any trees.  But it is where Laura, Almanzo and Rose rest.  And I will admit I got a bit choked up as I stood in front of Laura’s grave.

Laura, and after I visited her home, I do feel like I should call her Laura, lived a remarkable life.  She came from virtually nothing and created indelible images of the frontier experience.  There are two things we hear over and over at the museum, especially when kids are near our log cabins.  They either say “Look, it’s Abraham Lincoln’s cabin!”  (we will ignore how illogical this is.  They’re 8.  And we all know how great Texas is with Social Studies curriculum. . .). Or, they say “It’s just like Little House.”  Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

This is a place I have wanted to vist for many, many years.  It wasn’t quite the thrill that Prince Edward Island was, but it’s right up there.  These books have been a part of my life since I was very, very small.  My grandmother read them to me.  They were the first chapter books I read all by myself.  Today, I have all kinds of issues with these books, and they are no longer my favorites.  And yet, when it comes to kidlit history, they will always be first in my heart.

More pictures from my visit.

Front of the house--the final addition

The rocks of the chimney all came from their farm

Check out the mortar--all of it has some decorative element added to it

The dark side of fame, food and t-shirts

Some days seem to have recurring themes.  Today’s theme: children’s literature!

I have one of those page a day calendars on my desk at work.  After being out a few days, I was making it current and ran across this quote:

“Oh, I wish that God had not given me what I prayed for!  It was not so good as I thought.”  –Johanna Spyri, author of Heidi.

Yikes!  What happened to her personal life after her career took off?  Did too many people come knocking on her door?  Was there too much pressure to continue Heidi’s story?  A quick glance at wikipedia gives me no clues, and I’m thinking I may have to do some investigating into Spyri’s life (unless one of you knows!).  And reread Heidi for the first time in 20 years.

My roommate, being the fabulous person she is, sent me this New York Times article, “Little House in the Hood,” all about food in the Little House books.  What makes this article a bit different is that it’s a dad figuring out his son’s fascination with Little House.  He gains new respect for Wilder’s book simply because of the food descriptions.  And who are we to argue with that?  Vanity cakes, fried apples and onions, bird’s nest pudding, green pumpkin pudding.  Sigh.  Friend Wendy has even tried to eat like she’s in the Little House books.

I’ve been meaning to write an entire post about food, and one day I will.  But today is not that day.  But as a placeholder, what are some of your favorite foods from kidlit history?  As a kid, I was all about raspberry cordial and monkey face cookies and pickled limes.  Have you made anything inspired by a book?  Did it live up to your expectations?

Finally, the roommate also sent me a link to this website, featuring t-shirts of book covers.  Alas, none feature children’s books, but it’s still worth sharing.