Onions were made into long ropes, braided together by their tops, and then were hung in the attic beside wreaths of red peppers strung on threads. The pumpkins and the squashes were piled in orange and yellow and green heaps in the attic’s corners.
– from Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Somehow I skipped the Little House books as a child, thinking they were too girly for a no-nonsense type like me. I finally joined the vast contingent of Laura Ingalls Wilder fans many years later while reading Big Woods aloud to my son. Can anyone resist the cozy images Wilder painted of her early childhood in Wisconsin?
In this book in particular, and in Farmer Boy, describing Almanzo Wilder’s childhood home in Malone, NY, the author looks back past lives filled with no small amount of hardship to a time of plenty and comfort. The work of growing, processing and preserving food – enough to last through winter months – is detailed at length, accompanied by vivid memories of feasts. Passages like one describing Ma using grated carrot to give her butter a yellow color speak to absorption in world where such things mattered, in the same way that discussions of cars and all things automotive occupy us today.
The Little House books give a poignant glimpse of the backbreaking effort and care that went into keeping a rural family fed in the mid 1800s, with some details that are still useful for those of us trying to provide more of our own food. In the quote at the top of the page, it’s interesting to note where they stored their vegetables. The Ingalls did not have access to the reams of advice and USDA guidelines we have today for proper storage temperature for various vegetables; they just knew that roots – potatoes, carrots, beets – went in the cool cellar, and fruits – pumpkins, squashes and peppers – went in the warmer, drier attic.