My dream has finally come true. Last week, my 8-year old daughter picked up our threadbare copy of Little House in the Big Woods and devoured it. As is the case with sharing many of life’s passions with your children, she had rejected my earlier attempts to impart upon her a love for Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I tried to read this book to her a couple of years ago, my daughter’s eyes glazed over. “Can I go to bed now, Mommy?” She asked.
“C’mon, honey, they are making candy out of maple syrup and snow. Just SNOW!” Untouched by my enthusiasm, my daughter shrugged and refused future offers to read the rest. I couldn’t comprehend her indifference. I had lived for evening reading sessions with my parents at age 6. What was wrong with her?
While my disappointment may be tinged with a shade of Literary Tiger Mom, you must understand: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s nine-book depiction of pioneer life was kind of a big deal for me.
Little House’s impact had nothing to do with Michael Landon’s schmaltzy TV series. Even as a kid, the show felt holier than thou. No, I was quite catholic in my devotion to the books, which are rather dry upon reexamination. Wilder spends an inordinate amount of ink recounting rustic-yet-ingenious homesteading processes, like smoking meat inside a tree. BO-ring! Yet Wilder’s commitment to detail –the clarity of her memory— is precisely what left a lasting mark on the way I saw the world.
Through her work, I saw the power of memory and words. Sitting in a Subaru outside our town pool in the early 80s, I recall thinking: ‘I need to remember this moment because some day it might be important. I will need to tell people what this is like.” Alas, my experience as a suburban kid did not pack the same historical punch as Laura’s pioneer trek from the woods of Wisconsin to the plains North Dakota. Nevertheless, I continued to hone my memory. I carefully packed away friend’s one-liners or memorable nights out, saving these images for future interpretation.
It is why I studied history, became a journalist and ultimately felt compelled to blog about the memory of my mother. Memory and words are a potent combination indeed.
The Ingalls family cannot take all the credit (or blame) for my obsession with connecting to the past. On a far deeper level, it comes from my father who possesses a sharp ability to recall distant moments and a starkly beautiful writing style. (“Kovers never forget,” he warned my husband in his wedding toast.)
When we were small, my Dad would put us to bed by telling us Skippy stories, tales of the antics of his childhood dog. Each story began exactly the same –“Once upon a time, in a teeny tiny town in upstate New York…” Yet from there Skippy usually launched into a world that was part historical, part fantasy. Skippy hated the water because Arthur threw him in one day to teach him to swim (True). Skippy caught a robber by riding the local policeman’s motorcycle. (False) Like Little House, Skippy stories connected me to the external and internal world of my father as a boy in the 1930s.
It was with great delight when my daughter and I discovered that not only had Jeanne saved all of my Little House stories, but she also kept The Little House Cookbook. The discovery of my father’s inscription behind the front cover “To our darling daughter Amy. With hugs and kisses from Mommy and Daddy” felt even more fitting.
This weekend, my father turned 80 years old. As a vibrant, engaging and exciting person, he has forever changed my definition of the term octogenarian. To celebrate, I will share with you the only recipe from the Little House Cookbook I ever successfully cooked: Heart-Shaped Cakes. These cakes taste far plainer than Laura described them in Little House on the Prairie but, then again, that’s the beauty of memory. We tend to sprinkle a little bit of sugar to much of the past.
The Little House Cookbook
- 1 1/2 C Unbleached flour
- 1/3 C granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- Pinch of ground nutmeg
- 1/4 C chilled lard (or butter)
- 1/3 C Cultured Buttermilk
- Preheat oven to 425. Mix first four ingredients in a two quart mixing bowl. Run the cold lard into the dry ingredients with 2 knives, by gutting or with cold fingers. Mix a well in the center, add buttermilk and work into dough that can be rolled. Shape the dough into a ball and roll it out on a floured surface into an 8 inch circle. With a table knife dipped in flour cut the circle in half and then the halves into thirds. Shape each piece into a heart.
- Grease baking sheet and arrange hearts so they do not touch. Bake about 15 minutes or until puffy and nicely browned. Remove from oven and sprinkle instantly with sugar.
- When cool, eat or wrap in blue tissue paper, which is the traditional wrapping paper for gift giving.
- Makes 6 cakes.