Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter Imperfectly Remembered

The original jacket by Helen Sewell.

On snowy weekends, details from The Long Winter, my favorite Little House book, often pop into mind. But I haven’t reread it for years,  perhaps because I wanted to remember the story as I thought it was.  But even a razor-sharp memory doesn’t retain indelible impressions of childhood favorites forever, so the last stormy weekend, the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder came up from the basement.

For me, the story had been all about the relationship between Charles Ingalls and his second daughter Laura, and I can still call up ghostly images of Garth Williams’ illustrations of them haying in the shimmering summer heart and twisting hay into sticks in the freezing cold.  If Laura had been Ma’s little lady and not helped Pa with the haying, then the Ingalls family probably would have perished during the great winter of 1880-1.  The tomboy daddy’s girl seemed to be the most independent woman in the Ingalls family, being freer from gender role expectations than Ma and her sisters.  I hadn’t really taken in the extent to which Laura’s rebellious thoughts stayed in her head and how quickly she backed down when her parents—usually Ma—shut down outbursts with a few quiet words.

The neat division between the work of men and women was no surprise then, but resentment about the inequality between the sexes bubbled up now in two small incidents.  Pa had the freedom (weather and work permitting) to venture into town for news and company, but the womenfolk had to stay within the four walls.  The Wilder brothers weren’t facing privation in their warm, well-provisioned feed store.  It seemed unfair, even unkind, that Royal and Manzo fed the undernourished Ingalls stacks of buckwheat cakes, molasses, and fried salt pork when he visited, but didn’t send him home with a care package for the half-starved women in the semi-dark grinding wheat berries in a coffee mill for brown bread.  Perhaps that would have been a silent rebuke to Pa for failing to provide for his family.  Manzo’s wild goose chase across the frozen prairie to find a farmer with wheat to sell who might not exist did save the community from starvation until the trains could come through.  But now I can’t be sure if he hitched up the horses motivated more by pity for his neighbors or the desire to keep his seed wheat from them…

Then there was Ma, the upright Scotswoman, who taught school before she was married.  As a girl I wasn’t capable of putting myself in her shoes, even though it was obvious how hard it must have been to juggle childcare, housework, and homeschooling in the middle of the nowheres where her husband was happiest. Rereading The Long Winter during the pandemic forced me to recognize the remarkable equanimity she showed in the face of a likely death from starvation or the cold.  Making sourdough brown bread was not a fun activity to help pass the time.   Cleverly constructing a lamp from a dish, axle grease, a little scrap of cloth, and a button gave them a little light to read by when the kerosene ran out.   Admonishing her girls to be thankful for what they had still sounded prissy, but I had to admit from my experience during Covid that there is more strength in cheerfulness than in self-pity, both for your spirits and for those around you.  What was a  temporary toilet paper shortage, compared to keeping a small house holding six people, including one toddler, habitable during seven months of blizzards.

The Long Winter remains for me an extraordinary story of one family’s survival, even though I know for other people condemn it for what Wilder did not say about the effects the push westward had on the Native Americans in its path.  They point to the scene where the old Native American man comes into Fuller’s Hardware to warn the settlers in a dialect no one ever spoke that this winter will be the worst in decades, with seven months of blizzards.  In a 2015 blog post, Debbie Reece argues that such  scenes teach Native American children to despise themselves and non-Native American readers to hate indigenous people.   I have to admit to having forgotten this scene, but I am pretty sure that I did not think as a child that it was “true,” any more than the behavior and speech of  Native American characters in Westerns was.  It may have had something to do with  my mother who used to imitated the stilted dialogue to drive home the point that the programs were too ridiculous to watch.  Not having any familiarity with Native American individuals or knowledge of their cultures, there were no better ideas to replace the clumsy, disrespectful stereotypes.  Now that scene seems more awkward because it is so obviously constructed as a plot device.   The old man’s forecast was accurate, but presented as the mysterious knowledge of primitive people, and it follows the scene where Pa explains to Laura what his careful observation of  how thick the muskrats were building the walls of their houses might mean for the winter ahead..Rereading classics, especially ones whose reputations have changed, can be as important keeping up with new books.  It risks disappointment, because there is always the chance that the memories are better than the book.  The ones that hold up to repeated rereadings force us to test our memories’ validity and if necessary revise our interpretation in light of new things noticed and new ideas about its reception.

The hay that was twisted into sticks to heat the Ingalls’ house during the Long Winter.

Drum Cake from Betty Crocker’s Classic Cook Book for Boys and Girls (1957)

“If you use your cook book often I can promise you real fun and lots of good things to eat,” Betty Crocker told her young readers.  And she was as good as her word.  The last chapter, “Rules,”  which ought to have been first because it introduced the basics of kitchen safety, measuring, equipment, and vocabulary came after the recipes.  The book led off instead with “Extra Special,”  cakes, cookies, candies, and beverages “good things to make for parties—for holidays—for your friends—and just for fun.”   Betty may have been a corporate construct, but she was no fool.. She shrewdly figured more children would be lured into the kitchen to  stir up a batch of brownies than a pan of mac and cheese.  Her  beginners and their sweet-teeth learned right off the bat how to  grease and flour pans, use a spatula to scrape the last of the batter out of the mixing bowl, and test a cake for doneness  with straightforward recipes for chocolate sheet cake, cocoa fudge cake, and yellow layer cake.  Recipes and directions for frosting a cake followed, strategically placed to build confidence before introducing the delectable subsection of party cakes.

.The soldier with the marching side drum in Archibald Willard’s “The Spirit of ‘76” (1876) could have been the inspiration for this drum cake, which would bring the family Fourth of July picnic to a cracking conclusion.   It didn’t have to be made  from scratch: Betty Crocker’ mixes would save energy for the all-important job of decoration.   To imitate the zig-zag rope tensioning around the drum’s chocolate devil’s food shell, a pattern of peppermint sticks and maraschino cherries had to be pressed into the thick glossy coat of pure white fluffy icing.

Could eight- to twelve-year-olds, General Mills’ target audience, actually make this cake? Yes,  because a group of home testers,  eight girls and four boys identified on page 6, cooked every dish.  Tester Bette Anne explained that “We had to say if things were easy or hard and did they taste good.”  Veto power was in their hands. “ If we didn’t like it,” said tester Chris, “Betty Crocker didn’t put it in this book.”   The children’s comments were run above the lower margins and they designate the dishes they would make again, offered helpful hints, identified skills they wanted to polish, and even conceded the vegetable recipes were tasty.  The home testers were real kids who lived in Cranbury, New Jersey, but they would have been at home on Klickitat Street.  They made the book for many of the baby boomers who have hung on to their treasured dogeared, sticky copies.The editorial team that compiled Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls in the decade after World War II saw the kitchen as a space where budget-conscious meals were made with what was on hand.  Dinnertime came once a day, not once a year like taxes. As family members, kids were expected to help out with meal preparation, but they were also invited to be creative in the kitchen.  If a child wanted to surprise the family with a heart cake for Mother’s  or Valentine’s Day, a special shaped pan wasn’t necessary, with an 8-inch round and 8-inch square pan around.  Mother didn’t have to hover because the young baker could be trusted to have enough good sense to get the pans in and out of the hot oven and cut up the cooled cakes with a long sharp knife without accident.   It’s easy to point fingers at the outdated gender roles in the illustrations, like the exclusion of girls from the campfire cooking chapter or the insensitive representation of Indigenous and people of color in this cook book. Fifty-odd years out, I could not help but be struck at how refreshing it was  to see no signs of extravagant consumption signaling wealth and privilege— a batterie de cuisine, countertops full of appliances, a gastronomic library of print and on-line resources, shelves of ingredients from around the world—that so much of today’s more sophisticated home cooking depends upon upon.   Cakes made with butter taste better than ones made with hydrogenated shortening or from a mix, but Betty Crocker’s drum cake from 1957 is still within the means of more people than the birthday cake dreamed up for  a children’s birthday party in The Best of Gourmet (2005).I read and reread my well-thumbed copy of Betty Crocker  until I had perfect recall of all the color plates of the iconic party cakes.  I never made one of them. If the results were likely to fall short of the pictures, I was too intimidated to try.  Even if I hadn’t been daunted by the food styling, I  knew my health-conscious mother would nix the drum cake, because it required hard candy and maraschino cherries, full of sugar and red dye number 2.  She probably would have pointed out that the cake wouldn’t taste as good as it looked and I would have been reluctant to admit she was probably right.  Better to never bring up the subject than to concede the field later.   Or offer a face-saving explanation is that the cake construction gene skipped a generation.  My daughter or nieces down under would tackle a drum cake  in a heart’s beat as child’s play.   All I have to do is ask.