In the Kitchen with Laura Ingalls Wilder

by Sarah S. Uthoff | Sep 4, 2015

There are many different ways to be a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. Some people research topics in depth. Some people wear a sunbonnet and buy a Charlotte doll. Some people try to get autographs from as many actors/actresses from the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show as they can. I’ve done some of all of those things, but the most important one to me is learning how to do the things Laura Ingalls Wilder did.

Come Into the Kitchen with Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura describes things she did and especially what she cooked and ate so precisely that you feel like you are capable of baking a pie with blackbirds or green pumpkins or making sourdough bread after reading about it. My interest in Laura led me into living history where I learned to do things like pioneer gardening and cooking on a wood cookstove. So one way or another, I have felt like I have been spending a lot of time In the Kitchen With Laura.

The House on Rocky Ridge Farm - Laura's kitchen was a modest kitchen. COURTESY OF THE LAURA INGALLS HOME AND MUSEUM

The House on Rocky Ridge Farm - Laura's kitchen was a modest kitchen. Courtesy of the Laura Ingalls Home and Museum..

Laura Grew Up in the Kitchen

Many fans only think of Laura as a pigtails and calico-wearing little girl, running on the prairie, but I feel the grown-up Laura, who was a farm housewife, a women’s club member, and who wrote the Little House books, was just as interesting.

Cooking changed a lot between when Laura learned to cook at Ma’s knee and when she became a women’s club member, looking to impress the other members of her clubs. She went from recipes that were handed down, to The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (the first with standardized recipes), to the original Joy of Cooking (a club woman’s favorite).

Old bowls show from pioneer days to the 1930s

Pioneer Cooking at the Time

“Would you mind writing it down? Said Reverend Stuart. “How much flour, how much milk?”
“Goodness!” said Ma. “I never measure, but I guess I can take a stab at it.”

—By the Shores of Silver Lake, Yellow Paperback ed. P. 221

Cooking was very basic for pioneers. They didn’t have a lot of different ingredients to use and most things they cooked or baked were variations of a small number of recipes. Unlike today, the pioneers likely didn’t know recipes outside of their ethnic traditions and what Ma and Laura cooked was definitely in the Yankee tradition.

While there were written cookbooks available (1st published American cookbook – Amelia Simmons, 1796), most home cooks like Ma cooked more like an art than a science. As she explained to the character of Rev. Stuart in By the Shores of Silver Lake, Ma didn’t really follow recipes, she just knew how to make a recipe, what recipes looked like at each stage, and when to add more liquid, shortening, or flour as needed.

Simple recipes included things like

Farmwife Cooking Described by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“All the work of the farm centers in the farmer’s wife’s kitchen. I skim milk, make butter, and cook bran mashes for the chickens and potato pairings for the hogs, in mine.”

—Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Whom Will You Marry? The Farmer’s Wife Says” McCall’s Magazine, June 1919

In the kitchen with Laura Ingalls Wilder

As Laura grew older, her cooking and the scope of her recipes expanded when she first became a farm wife, a partner responsible in managing a farm. She cooked meals for cash money to help achieve their farming goals, belonged to multiple women’s clubs and wanted to show off new dishes to her fellow club members.

Her dishes included things like:

Historic Foodways

I’m not the only person interested in food history. The field of study is called historic foodways and includes both amateurs and scholars with conferences, food history collections, and reference books. These include hands-on cooks and those who just study and research food and how it impacts everyday people’s lives. If asked, many of the hands-on cooks will say their first exposure to historic cooking came from Laura and The Little House Cookbook by Barbara Walker. There is a wide range of historic cooking and baking to explore.

Replica pantry of a historic Laura Ingalls Wilder website.

Replica pantry of a historic Laura Ingalls Wilder website.

So I hope that you will visit with me again In the Kitchen with Laura and try to bring a little bit of Laura and Ma into your own kitchen. To stay informed of future essays about Laura Ingalls Wilder, be sure to join the newsletter.

Note: Recipes listed are typical of the time periods mentioned and may or may not be specifically listed in the Little House on the Prairie books or positively identified as being cooked or baked by Caroline Ingalls or Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally-known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest.

28 Comments

  1. Since LHOTP the TV series seems to have a lot of supper and breakfast scenes, I specifically came here looking to find out if it was accurate when sandwiches were eaten. I don’t see them on this list, however, they may have eaten them while traveling in the stage or by train. Also, they seem to eat a lot of fried chicken, and I actually read that KFC was served a lot as the meal on the table for various scenes. I know both the show and the books weren’t 100% accurate, so when watching I can’t help but wonder what’s true and what’s fabricated. For example, attitudes on race in the show are pretty progressive and in the books there are racist depictions that haven’t aged well. But I digress…I just wanted to know what these folks were likely to eat. It’s plausible that they did eat sandwiches, I guess!

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  2. I grew up on Little House episodes. For years I have held off buying the episodes thinking my kids probably wont like them as much as I did, and when do I watch that much tv? It went on sale and I couldn’t pass it up. My kids LOVE them and beg for snuggles and Little House time. My hubby is shocked I can tell him everything about the episode just seeing a few moments of it. It’s so fun to watch them in order for the first time. Before, I just watched whatever was on TV. My youngest is starting to read her first chapter book and is reading one of the modified Little House books. The older two are starting the regular books, and I came on here to see if I could find original Headcheese and Johnny Cake recipes from book 1. Love Jannie’s idea of making all the recipes with my girls.

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  3. Interested in cook book

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  4. I need the recipe for Ma Ingalls buscuits. I neve have any luck with other recipies?Love to all, Judy Corrette

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    • Did you ever find the recipe?

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  5. I grew up watching Laura being the same age as me in Colorado. To this day I say I was so much like her. Now that I am older I have come to realize that this show has helped me in doing my family history and understanding how families lived and migrated together. When you look at a census report in the 1800’s it allows you to understand what was going on at that time and this show really brings that to life for me. Some episodes you see children adopted into families that were killed in accidents or coming down with scarlet fever or other diseases. I look at the census with great details. This year I have the honor of working for the census bureau here in Houston, Texas. How exciting is that. I am an enumerator. I will make sure to let people know the importance of this task that without it, they would have not been able to find and do their family history. I don’t think I would love doing family history if it hadn’t have been for this wonderful family show I watched throughout my childhood and till today. I tell everyone to tell their legacy otherwise if not, all they will be remembered by is a headstone. Not me. I want someone to find me some day.

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  6. Does anyone know what the dishes used in the boarding house were?

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  7. Has anyone ever replicated the pantry on Laura and Almanzo’s tree claim?

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    • I want to know too!

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  8. I’m 54 and I STILL love little house. I also loved it when my Dad used to take us to Jackson hole Wyoming when we were little to visit our Grandma. There was an old rickety wood bridge over a creek that we had to cross to get there. Me and my sister Kathy would go down it on inner tubes and we would fish for hours in that creek, catching lots and lots of fresh trout that we would eat that night. In the morning my Grandma would make us side pork and eggs and we would pick fresh goose berries for pie. Best memories ever! Little house helps keep them alive.

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  9. My sisters and I grew up with LHOTP and now we’re making sure our daughters watch as well. I live across the country but we still bond by instant messaging everyday about LHOTP and recipes!

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  10. As a little girl, I read the series so regularly that the pages became dog-eared and I had whole passages memorized. The food ones made the greatest impression on me. If I hadn’t been transplanted from ‘back east’ to Los Angeles at the age of seven, I would have surely made maple snow candy by now. And I wondered about the taste of vanity cakes, wintergreen berries, chokecherry jelly, maple cakes Pa brought home after ‘sugaring’, and so many other treats. The supper party that Laura attended as a teenager at Ben Woodworth’s home seemed the height of glamour. Not only a fancy menu with oyster soup and flower-sculpted oranges to accompany the birthday cake, but beautiful place settings and the young ladies and gentlemen having a good time while dressed up and treating the special occasion with the etiquette it merited. Of course the Wilders’ daily meals described in Farmer Boy were in a league of their own, but Laura Ingalls Wilder made her own simple childhood meals seem delicious. Then special events like the New England Supper or the Christmas on Silver Lake really dazzled Laura’s eyes and appetite. The books are so educational, too, with descriptions of planting, harvesting, preserving, churning, and such goodies as homemade sausage and hulled corn.

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  11. Little House brings back so many memories of my childhood, only my mother was hardly ever there, but I learned to cook , do laundry and keep house with my Father and it is all good memories and I wish I could go back to those days and “visit” the home I grew up in again.

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  12. I am in the United Kingdom and the series “Little House On The Prarie” is showing 3 times a day on our TV.
    We never get bored with their little adventures and gives me an idea of the American way of life in times
    gone by.
    I have never visited the USA but I am planning a visit to the “Deep South” as I have always been fascinated with
    everything about it.
    I have a Nephew that lives in North Carolina and pla a visit hopefully soon.
    I am so pleased I found your site and shall be looking for Laura’s books in our book stores, as I would love to
    read them,

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  13. Years ago I read all the Little House books with my little girl age 4, 5, 6. We made every food and craft mentioned in the books, from sourdough biscuits to sun bonnets to stove blackening. When the TV show came on my daughter didn’t believe it was LHOTP and refused to watch. Now she’s an adult who is passionate about historical reenactment and has a historical cooking blog.

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  14. Almanzo liked Apples & Onions. My family has been cooking this for years & I wonder how Mother Wilder made hers. We use 2 parts apples, sliced, & 1 part sweet onions cut into petals. Stir & fry on medium in a pan with butter & bacon fat until translucent. Pour off excess fat & stir in brown sugar & cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger or any spice combo that pleases you – 1/2 to 1 cup sugar & 1/2 to 1 tsp. spice to a skilletfull of A&O. Stir over med. heat until sugar gets syrupy. A little salt makes it taste better. About 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. Just like with Ma giving her recipes to the Rev. Alden, the amounts vary as we never wrote it down. To make it a main course we’d add link sausage, bacon or ham, fried crisp first. YUM!

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  15. Thank you for sharing! I am trying to find a list of tools/dishes that would have been used in the kitchen during Laura’s lifetime. I know I can see some of the things in the pictures, but would there be a list somewhere of specific tools/dishes that would have been normal to see in a kitchen (especially during her younger years)? Thank you so much!

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  16. I love the books-have had three sets over the years;the original yellow bordered set from 1971, the checked paperbacks, and an almost new set of the yellow ones that I bought used on Amazon.The first two sets fell apart from reading!I’m also on my second copy of the Little House Cookbook-the original one from 1979 got lost in a move,so I ordered a third edition hardcover one.

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  17. On the TV show, or one of the books, Pa refers to Ma cooking with love when she puts her handprint on something…cornbread or sourdough, maybe? Does anyone recognize that reference? If it was actually in one of the books, I would love to find it again!

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    • That was in Little House on the Prairie-Ma put her handprint on the cornbread before cooking it.

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      • And Pa said that was all the sweetening he needed… 🙂 <3

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  18. I love little house on the prairie. Nothing but good.

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  19. My love started with the books. I read and reread the library copies my Mom bought me the set. Which I wore out. Twice. I even still have a set-and once in a while I still at 52 get them out to read. I also have books about her life, places ect. While I enjoyed the TV show, I know how inaccurate it was and didnt watch it looking for that.
    I LOVE Barbara Walker’s book. I still make mincemeat from that recipe. Her writing was great when I bought the book in 79 I think,

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  20. I learned so much from the Little House Books. My grandmother would tell these stories as I was growing up, while we worked in the garden and kitchen canning. I have the Little House Cook book which is a great resource as well.

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  21. i started watching this show when I was a young woman and I watch it now.Those memories Are my fondest.I have always kept my kitchen to the old way.

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  22. I grew up watching Little House and I loved it then as much as I love it now… I am very interested in the way they cooked their meals back then and what they cooked…

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  23. Interesting read

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  24. I love this show everything about it

    Reply

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