Food as a device in the Big Woods


“The attic was a lovely place to play. The large, round, colored pumpkins made beautiful chairs and tables. The red peppers and the onions dangled overhead.  The hams and the venison hung in the paper wrappings, and all the bunches of dried herbs, the spicy herbs for cooking and the bitter herbs for medicine, gave the place a dusty-spicy smell.” pg. 19

Never begin reading Little House in the Big Woods with low blood sugar. The descriptions of baking, cheese making and curing will quickly send you into the kitchen. Or whimsically thinking about that city garden plot you meant to sign up for say 10 years ago.

Laura’s writing of planting, harvesting and storage plays a major role in developing the plot of Little House in the Big Woods. The food production also highlighted the workings of the family and their isolation in the Big Woods through each season. Pamela Smith Hill commented on this in her own book Laura Ingalls Wilder: a writer life. “…the activities Wilder describes in the novel-salting and smoking venison, butchering hogs, making butter and cheese, harvesting maple syrup-are linked to the family’s heroic survival in a harsh environment.” (pg. 17)   The Little House in the Big Woods introduces the Ingalls as a self sustaining family; the characters are interconnected in providing for the family.  This dynamic would play out throughout the series. Each move required Ma and Pa’s equal work in creating the home Laura grew up in. “For Caroline there was a constant round of cooking, tending garden, sewing, and keeping house. The work for both of them was never-ending and energy draining” (Miller 21)

As someone that loves Top Chef, Pinterest and a themetic dinner party reading about Charles and Caroline’s exploits in simply bringing dinner to the table each night was heart warming and daunting. I’m hungry right now and idea walking three feet to the pantry is exhausting. Clearly I lack the frontier strength. After posting I defiantly need to call my mother and thank her for always having dinner at the table each night.  Sue Hart wrote an article in Food as Love: Food as Love in Literature of the Frontier. She noted that the majority of the frontier literary genre follows male exploits of exploration or taming the land “little attention as been given the struggles of the pioneer or homestead woman to deal with her new environment, no doubt because the battles waged in the kitchen or parlors of dugout, soddies, log cabins or weather beaten frame house pale in comparison to wrestling a grizzly […] And the kitchen was indeed where many of the frontier woman’s hardest moments -and most rewarding times-were spent.” (Hart, 89)

One of the reasons I love the series is the point of view of Laura changes as she ages through each book. Little House in the Big Woods allows us to see  housework from the vantage point of a 5 year old. A five year old that would be close to Caroline throughout her daily tasks.  As the books evolve we’ll shift from the home to schools, towns and the prairie; if you include The First Four Years then to full circle back Laura’s own housekeeping.

Hill, Pamela Smith. Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society, 2007. Print.

Miller, John E. Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend. Columbia: U of Missouri, 1998. Print.

Schofield, Mary Anne. Cooking by the Book: Food in Literature and Culture. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular, 1989. Print.


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