One of my favorites is Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. As a little girl who was a child of immigrant parents, I thought it was great fun to read about a girl whose life experience was so different from mine. As an adult, it's a fascinating--and many ways unparalleled--account of that period of American history.
I've recently discovered that Harper Collins commissioned and printed books based on the other women in Laura's family, including fictionalized accounts of the lives of her grandmother, her Ma, and her daughter Rose. Being naturally suspicious of imitations and fiercely protective of the books I loved so much, I approached these with no small degree of hesitation--but found to my great joy that most of them are very good. It's surprising that most of them are already out of print, but they are still available in libraries and online.
The best of these so far has been the Caroline Quiner, or "Little House in Brookfield" series, which follows the life of Laura's Ma. I confess that in the original books I thought Ma was a bit of a stick in the mud, but I was surprised to find a thoughtful, sweet, and lively child whose life was just as full and interesting as Laura's was. I'm also enjoying the Martha books, which follows Laura's grandmother in her life as the daughter of a laird in Scotland, as well as various other biographies and offshoots of the series. It's striking to see the pioneering spirit that has marked Laura's family history throughout the generations, as well as to see how the authors present the ideals of independence, honor, kindness, and virtue in all the books.
No one who reads the Little House books can be unaware of the important role that food plays in the series, both the desperate want of it and the ongoing desire for it. As a child, I salivated over the rich bounty of American food, which to me seemed to represent both great comfort and luxury. I never really had home-cooked American food until my teens, and I still think of it as something of a treat.
My favorite book in the original series is Farmer Boy, which would vividly describe a long, hard day's work for little Almanzo--followed by the reward of a hot, heartening meal. There's also a great chapter that describes with giddy joy the week when Almanzo's parents go away for the weekend, and the children do nothing but eat big slices of cake with ice-cold milk, home-churned ice cream, icy watermelons cooled in the stream, and chewy, soft pulled taffy.
Reading the Little House books as an adult, particularly in today's era of packaged foods, it's impossible not to feel a deep sense of appreciation for the hard work that goes into harvesting good food by the farmers in this country, as well as in the care and making of meals are put on any table. I was also awestruck and humbled when I realized that throughout the entirety of The Long Winter, in which Laura writes about the terrible blizzards which strike the Dakotas for 7 long months, she never once speaks of being hungry, although the entire family was on the verge of starvation.
I like to keep reminders of two of my favorite scenes in Farmer Boy hanging in our kitchen--two Garth Williams illustrations carefully cut out of vintage books, backed with patterned paper, and hung in simple wooden frames. Most of the artwork in our kitchen has to do with food anyway, and these two were particularly appropriate.
During the winter when it's cold, I really like to read about people who are really cold and really hungry. And then I like to make foods that remind me of the series, including crisp salted popcorn, baked hams, warm pies, hot biscuits, and perhaps even a chicken pie now and then. After all, to this day there are still few things more comforting--or more luxurious--than a good meal.