The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker

Book Review 2010

After seeing Faith's delectable post about making maple syrup taffy à la Little House in the Big Woods, I was compelled to pull down my battered copy of The Little House Cookbook and pore over the recipes inside. If, like me, you regularly re-read the Little House series as much for the mouthwatering food writing as for the stories, this cookbook is a must-read.

A surprising number of Little House fans are unaware of this cookbook, which was painstakingly researched and written by Barbara M. Walker (and illustrated by Garth Williams -- yay!) and published in 1989. The book was out of print for about a decade, but has been re-released in recent years, possibly due to people's growing interest in traditional, old-fashioned cooking.

Walker has done an heroic job of compiling more than 100 recipes from the series and interpreting them for the modern kitchen, but her dedication to the subject matter truly shines in the book's introductory chapters, which are as much about social anthropology as they are about food. (Though, really, aren't these two subjects always closely intertwined?)

Walker points out how much the Little House books focus on food: finding it, preserving it, storing it, cooking it, eating it... and in the dire straits of The Long Winter, running out of it. She notes that food looms large in Laura Ingalls's stories because, even in happier times, there was rarely enough of it. Avid fans will recall the diverse and plentiful meals the Ingallses enjoyed in Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in the series. After the family moved west and developed the semi-nomadic diet of prairie settlers -- a diet that consisted largely of cornmeal, lean game, and wild fruits -- those early days of plenty became nothing more than wistful memories.

But what about the recipes? I haven't tried all of them, but the very first one I attempted, years ago, was fried apples 'n' onions (from Farmer Boy). I served it as a breakfast dish, and it was a great accompaniment to fried potatoes. (A warning: This is definitely not a light meal! But remember that the Wilders were a farming family, so this was good stick-to-your-ribs fare to warm you through pre-dawn chores in minus-30 weather.) You can find other variations on this dish online, but let me advise you to keep the skins on the apples, because otherwise they start to disintegrate.

The hasty pudding recipe was also a winner, though it wasn't remotely hasty. Hasty pudding is basically a maple-syrup sweetened (you can also use honey or molasses) baked custard that uses cornmeal as a primary ingredient. The prep time wasn't too onerous, but it does take about two hours to bake. The results were worth the wait. I served mine warm and fresh with vanilla ice cream, but it was also tasty the next morning eaten cold with yogurt.

Of course, I couldn't not try the baked beans recipe, since baked beans loom so large in the novels. These came out very well, right down to the golden-brown crust that Laura lovingly describes.

The hardcore breadmakers among you will be happy to know that there are many bread recipes in this book, from Boston brown bread to rye 'n' injun to Ma Ingalls's beloved sourdough.

Now that I've revived this book from my shelves, there are so many recipes I'm still eager to try: codfish balls, corn dodgers, vinegar pie, real eggnog... I could go on and on. Have you tried any of these, or any other early settler dishes? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Related: What Are Your Favorite Children's Picture Books About Food?

(Image: Harper Collins)