Some of the stories sent a chill down my spine, because I understood their implications in a way that I couldn’t as a child.
For example, how the family listened to the war drums of the Indians along the Verdigris River. The family was squatting illegally in Indian-controlled territory, and the Indians were not all terribly pleased by the appearance of white settlers. (The story becomes a heartbreaking one when you look at it from the perspective of the mother of the black-eyed papoose that stole Laura’s heart, as the Indians headed West in a great line of ponies and people).
Likewise the story of The Long Winter, when the family nearly starved to death. Most of us have never been truly hungry a day in our lives, so how can we conceive of the fear of starvation and sickness that ripples in an unspoken undercurrent through the story, as the snow-bound town waits for trains that never come? The family had reached the point where they were listless with hunger; Pa’s hands were so cut and swollen from braiding hay for the fire he couldn’t play the fiddle; and the most chilling detail of all can be imagined in how he must have looked:
"They all began to talk again, but Mr. Ingalls rose up tall and thin from the box by the stove. His face had shrunken to hollows and jutting cheekbones above his brown beard, and his blue eyes glittered bright. "One detail that struck me was how at the beginning of the book, the family’s garden struggled on the freshly-broken sod. When frost strikes, Ma gathered all the leftover green tomatoes and pickled them. She only got two quarts. It doesn’t say how long the pickles lasted, but how delicious they must have been, and how quickly they must have disappeared. The rest of their harvest comprised five bushels of potatoes, a gallon of sweet relish, a bushel of beans, “lots of turnips,” some corn, and just six yellow-gold pumpkins. It wasn't much.
This is one of those moments where a book sheds a new light on your own life. This past fall I had a bounty of green tomatoes on the vine as frost threatened; they weren’t far enough along to ripen inside, so I picked them and—since I was in the midst of a canning kick (again, don’t ask; it’s genetic)—canned 12 pints with dill and vinegar brine following the direction in the canning bible known as the Ball Blue Book (which is no longer blue, by the way).
I am not sure exactly how I expected them to taste, but upon opening the first jar four weeks later, found that they tasted exactly as a home-grown, home canned pickled green tomato should taste…which I am sorry to say, was not entirely to my liking. In fact my thought was, “Yuck! This tastes like some weird thing Grandma served me when I was little!” So other than an additional jar opened for my book group, for demonstration purposes and which they claimed to like, the green tomatoes have sat all winter on the cellar shelf.
Here is where the local history part comes in. After reading the Little House books, a light bulb went on in my head, and I scrounged through the motley collection of church cookbooks that came to me from my Grandmother Balliet. I had previously amused myself reading the ones from the 1960s and their bedazzling array of dubious “salads” involving jello. But in 1948, the Lutheran ladies of LaOtto, Indiana were all atwitter over pickles. In addition to the 14 official pickle/relish recipes, my great-grandmother and grandmother had handwritten several additional pickle recipes, including one for pickled crab apples.
Obviously, farm women who were scarred by the privations of the Great Depression canned everything they could get their hands on. They carefully saved their seeds from year to year, grew copious gardens, and had root cellars full of the bounty. Sure, they could always go to the grocery store if they ran out before spring…but that would entail hitching up a team of horses and driving miles into town down the Lima Plank Road (which was composed of actual planks) in the dead of winter. Better to work hard, save your money, and ensure that your babies and husband will stay fat and sassy all winter long from your labor of love, even in the depths of Depression.
So on a whim I canned pickled green tomatoes last fall—along with a half-bushel of peaches, 6 quarts of applesauce, 12 pints of an insanely good heirloom tomato, roasted garlic and basil marinara, and I forget how many pints of dilly beans. I was really proud of the accomplishment, because it was really hard work, because I grew most of the tomatoes and greenbeans, and because my toddler son wolfs down his mama’s peaches, applesauce and pasta sauce in messy euphoric handfuls and clamors for more.
But after thinking about it from the perspective of my great-grandmother and her family, or the Ingalls family, or people who are going hungry in our own town today. it is somewhat shaming to have the luxury of being a picky eater. Or to regard my sliver of vegetable garden as entertainment, not really caring if we ate the food, or it happened to rot on the vine or kitchen counter. Or to pat myself on the back for a cute little supply of food that wouldn’t last a farm family a week in the winter. Or to drive a car powered on gasoline mixed with ethanol—a practice that burns a third of the U.S. corn crop in one of the most incredibly inefficient modes possible, while China’s cereal crop dries under sun and the price of food sparks riots worldwide.
It’s a lot to think about, and takes me right back to the grim economic headlines from which I was originally seeking refuge. But it certainly puts “hard times” into perspective. While there has been a spike in people who garden, can, knit or raise chickens, it’s generally not because they are financially pressed, because each of those activities is more expensive in both money and time than just picking the same item up from Walmart. It’s because they are yearning for self sufficiency and connection to the past.
And that is the power of history—to know that you likely have the same knife nicks and dings on your hands as Ma Ingalls; that your great-grandmother probably burned her fingers too when she hauled hot cans out of the boiling water bath; and that you are using the same Indiana-based Ball canning jars as your family for generations—like any good Hoosier. And it gives extra relish to a taste you might not immediately like, to think of how delicious the flavor of pickled green tomatoes would be to a family that faced down the never-ending winter of 1890, or scrimped and saved during the Great Depression.
So maybe I’ll crack another jar open tonight…and dare I try Eliza Jane’s recipe for pickled watermelon rind from Farmer Boy…?