Guess who came to dinner last night? Almanzo Wilder! Well, sort of.
Since this is autumn and harvest season and all, I was in the mood to reread FARMER BOY. Of course I was shamelessly salivating all the way through, as Laura described meal after meal full of farm-fresh produce. I marveled at Almanzo’s ability to polish off huge quantities of food, and still have room for pie (usually more than one piece)! It was all I could do to keep myself from running to the farmer’s market, loading up on everything, then gorging myself.
I resisted this compulsion until I came to this passage
“He knelt on the ice, pushing sawdust into the cracks with his mittened hands, and pounding it down with a stick as fast as he could, and he asked Royal,
‘What would you like best to eat?’
They talked about spareribs, and turkey with dressing, and baked beans, and crackling cornbread, and other good things. But Almanzo said that what he liked most in the world was fried apples ‘n’ onions.
When, at last, they went in to dinner, there on the table was a big dish of them! Mother knew what he liked best, and she had cooked it for him.”
Apples and onions? How wholesome! How healthy!! I could do that! This one simple dish really spoke to me. Onions from the dark earth mingling with apples that grew high in the sky. I loved that beautiful completeness, one which I discovered over and over again in the book.
The story takes place in 1866, when Almanzo was nine, one year before Laura was born. The Wilders had a dairy farm up in Malone, New York, which in its prosperous years provided a sharp contrast to Laura’s pioneering childhood. Food was plentiful on the Wilder farm; lots to go around for Almanzo and his older brother, Royal, and sisters, Eliza Jane and Alice. But Almanzo was always hungry,and his insides gnawed and twisted as he waited for his turn to be served. Being the youngest, he always had to wait the longest for his food. Laura masterfully builds up this anticipation (the most effective of literary appetizers), so that when we finally read about the meal, it fills us up to the brim.
“Almanzo felt a little better when he sat down to the good Sunday dinner. Mother sliced the hot rye ‘n’ injun bread on the bread-board by her plate. Father’s spoon cut deep into the chicken-pie; he scooped out big pieces of thick crust and turned up their fluffy yellow under-sides on the plate. He poured gravy over them; he dipped up big pieces of tender chicken, dark meat and white meat sliding from the bones. He added a mound of baked beans and topped it with a quivering slice of fat pork. At the edge of the plate he piled dark-red beet pickles. And he handed the plate to Almanzo.
Silently Almanzo ate it all. Then he ate a piece of pumpkin pie, and he felt very full inside. But he ate a piece of apple pie with cheese.”
It has been said that FARMER BOY was written partly to satisfy Laura’s own childhood hunger. Meals such as those described in this story were mere fantasies to her then. She often went hungry and worried about getting enough to eat. Laura described grasshopper plagues, fires, droughts, and a long, hard winter when Almanzo and fellow townsman, Cap Garland, risked their lives to save the town from starvation, but she never complained about these hardships in any of the Little House books.
All the more reason to take a long, hard look at why food is more than food in Almanzo’s story. Certainly the sumptuous descriptions of mealtime make every scene a feast for the senses — immediate, stimulating, ultimately unforgettable, especially on baking day, when the kitchen smelled of fresh, warm bread, syrupy pies, and fried doughtnuts.
But with these generous offerings, Laura makes sure we are aware of how the wheat was planted, tended, and harvested, how the butter was churned from their own cows’ milk, how the maple syrup was gathered on cold, snowy days from the Wilders’ own trees. And the vegetables? The whole family pitched in with planting, hoeing, picking, and weeding — parsnips, potatoes, corn, carrots, beans, and pumpkins. Together, they picked blueberries, huckleberries, and strawberries, and helped with the canning. All were involved in almost every aspect of food production, preservation, storage, and then, preparation. Of course they also raised and slaughtered their own livestock.
And the serving of this food? Whether at the breakfast or dinner table, or al fresco for a picnic, the social communion, laughter, and sharing all brought this act of eating full circle. For served with the food was the satisfaction of following an entire process, a pride and security in self sufficiency, and above all, a deep respect for the earth and what it can provide if man lives in concert with it — an abiding feeling of completeness.
The Wilder family was probably busiest during harvest time — busy making cucumber, green tomato, and watermelon rind pickles, drying apples and corn and making preserves. Nothing was ever wasted from the summer’s bounty; apple cores were used for making vinegar, and oat straws were soaked to be later used for braiding straw hats.
My favorite part of their harvest was, of course, apple picking. Ladders were set against the trees, and Almanzo, Royal, and Father climbed up to carefully pick all the perfect apples, which were placed in baskets. Then the rest of the apples were shook down, to be used for cider.
But back to the fried apples ‘n’ onions. We cooked up a nice batch of them last night to go with our roast chicken. Len skillfully sliced the onions and apples in thin rounds per the recipe, while I browned the bacon. You know how it is with bacon cooking. That smell took me to a place of lazy Sunday mornings, country roads, and gentle breakfast talk. After we added the apples and onions, we unpacked our patience, and savoured those slow cooking minutes.
I told Len about the scene in the book where Almanzo goes with his father and brother to cut ice blocks from the pond. It is bitterly cold when they saw 20″- thick blocks and load them onto the bobsled. Almanzo accidentally falls into the frigid water, but is pulled out just in time. It is as they continue working that Almanzo tells Royal about what food he likes most in the world.
So we remembered Almanzo Wilder as we ate our fried apples ‘n’ onions. I thought about how at the end of the book, Almanzo is given the choice of being apprenticed to Mr. Paddock, the wheelwright, or of becoming a farmer like his father, who says:
A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm.”
Almanzo did not have any trouble deciding. Farming was in his blood, and he lived out the rest of his life reaping the bounties of the land, as well as meeting every challenge it presented. This October 23rd will mark the 49th year since Almanzo’s passing. Why not honor his legacy by supporting your local farmers, and dishing up some apples ‘n’ onions?
Here is the recipe for Almanzo’s favorite dish, adapted from THE LITTLE HOUSE COOKBOOK, by Barbara M. Walker.
FRIED APPLES ‘N’ ONIONS
What you will need:
1/2 pound sliced bacon or salt pork
6 yellow onions (2 pounds)
6 tart apples (2 pounds)
2 T brown sugar
12-inch skillet, with cover
1. Fry bacon slices in the skillet until brown and crisp. Set them aside on a warm serving platter.
2. While the bacon is frying, peel the onions, leaving the stems to hold for slicing. Slice as thin as possible, then discard stems.
3. Core the apples and cut them crosswise in circles about 1/4 inch thick. Apple skins help the slices keep their shape and add color to the dish, so don’t peel unless skins are tough or scarred.
4. Drain all but 1 T of fat from the skillet, then add the onion slices. Cook them over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes. Cover with apple slices in an even layer. Sprinkle brown sugar over all, cover the skillet, and cook until tender, a few minutes more. Stir only to prevent scorching. Remove to the warm plate with bacon.
(Makes 6 servings)
Note: If Almanzo is coming, triple the recipe. This will taste twice as good if you read the book first. Don’t forget to wear your best calico.
LITTLE HOUSE COOKBOOK, by Barbara M. Walker,
To learn more about Almanzo Wilder’s family farm, which is open to visitors during the summer months, click here.