The Magical Fruit

Laura Ingalls Wilder, circa 1885
Laura Ingalls Wilder, circa 1885
Unknown Photographer – Public Domain

“‘I’m glad I put beans to soak last night,’ said Ma. She lifted the lid of the bubbling kettle and quickly popped in a spoonful of soda. The boiling beans roared, foaming up, but did not quite run over. ‘There’s a little bit of salt pork to put in them too,’ Ma said. Now and then she spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda-water from the kettle and filled it again with water. She put in the bit of fat pork.”

-Ma Ingalls – The Long Winter

Many years ago, my grandmother gave me the complete set of Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was just a little girl at the time, but I pored through the texts as if they were sacred. They were sacred to my little mind. I’ve always had an incredibly active imagination. I could read something and always get a picture of it in my mind. I readily absorbed the story and enjoyed every word. I wanted to dress like Laura, play like Laura, and even eat like Laura. I wanted to experience what Laura experienced… but after my battle with grasshoppers on my Meyer lemon tree last year, I only wanted a small experience.

Once I discovered The Little House Cookbook, I knew I’d found a gem! I’ve made a few recipes from the book before, but some of them are more challenging than others. The Stewed Jack Rabbit and Dumplings posed a slight problem. Sourcing the jackrabbit wasn’t easy. It’s not like I can just pop down to the market for it. Central Market didn’t even have it Thankfully, some relatives of mine were going hunting and brought me back a few jacks (as well as their younger, more tender brethren) for my freezer! Many told me I wanted the younger, more tender ones for my dish, but I wanted to eat what Laura’s family ate. Starlings are my list next… (If you’re wondering, I used the remaining rabbits for Hasenpfeffer.)

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Don’t allow this to dissuade you, however. Some of the recipes are quite doable. Take Ma Ingalls’ Baked Beans for instance. It had all easily accessible ingredients, easy to understand method of preparation (though it was still a process), and the only hitch was that I didn’t have a milk pan. In this case, I chose to use my Lodge cast iron skillet. A milk pan is more of a saucepan-style pan, but given that I cut the recipe in half, it ended up fitting just fine. There was no overflow, but I fear that I may have overcooked the beans a little too much. Mine turned out more or less on the “mashed” side. I ought to have maybe cut the cooking time by an hour and testing from the shortened time on for doneness.

The beans, despite the softer-than-intended texture, were quite tasty. The mineraly sweetness from the molasses didn’t overpower the bright grassiness from the green pepper (in my copy of the recipe) or the alkaline salt pork. The recipe also paired well with the smoked spareribs we made that night. We took the basic recipe for Jimmy Stewart’s Spareribs with Barbecue Sauce instead of baking them, we threw them on the smoker with some wedges of cornbread. It may sound bizarre. After all, who smokes their cornbread? Truthfully, it wasn’t planned. We were hungry after a long day and I wanted to heat the cornbread up without minding both the smoker and the oven. So without too much thought, I wrapped a few pieces up in some foil and placed them at the far end of the smoker to hang out while the spareribs were smoking.

Everything came together like a cicada symphony on a sultry summer evening. We ate our dinner out in the backyard with cold glasses of water listening to the sounds of a warm evening wrapping up the warm day that preceded it. The ribs were sticky-sweet with a snap and a bite from both the lemon and onion respectively. This in turn echoed the sticky-sweetness of the molasses and sharpness of the onion in the beans. The smokiness added to the cornbread was a surprising pleasure! Salty rivulets of butter dripping out of the sides of the cornbread were eagerly swirled into barbecue sauce and it somehow all belonged as if it was all planned in advance… right down to the smoked cornbread.

What dishes are you most looking forward to making this Summer?

Currently Reading: Magnolia Journal, Fall 2019

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