Saturday, June 30, 2012

off-the-beaten-track, but interesting....

I'm definitely a re-reader and re-watcher.  If a book is worth reading at all, it's worth reading again; ditto for movies.  Some films/stories i even enjoy more for their "atmosphere" than for plot or artistic value.  Some semi-fiction is also good for its historical information, helpful to me as a reenactor.

One of the lighter things i read every couple of years is the old Little House series, and the interesting bit is, i usually glean a little more with every reading, even after all this time.  I identify songs, places, processes/activities, foodstuffs, ... all kinds of things that aid me in improving my interpretations of history.  I get confirmations or refutations for anecdotes of the eras i read, for my characters/impressions.  With retrospective "biographies" of course, one does have to take some things with a grain of salt.

The internet gives me more information, too.  Thanks to historians whose work is available at places like Wikipedia, i know in what areas Mrs. Wilder fictionalized her autobiographical material to make it more "eventful."  I know what happened to the family after her stories leave them behind, as well.

Anyone who has ever read this series (ignore the television BS -- they got EVERYTHING wrong in that) is familiar with the hard times the family went through from time to time -- the periods when they were between long-term homes, living rough on the frontier, dealing with harsh natural environments in which they could not always count on a significant harvest to feed themselves adequately.  Their diet was often of the most minimal quantity and quality -- cheap carbohydrate foods, lean game, that sort of thing.

So -- what a surprise -- I find out that Pa Ingalls died of heart disease at the age of 66.  (Ma, i don't know, but she was 84.)  Mary died of pneumonia after a stroke.  Laura, Carrie and Grace died of complications of diabetes.

Even in the best of times, this family ate a high carbohydrate diet -- is it significant that the carbs were mostly "complex"?  Apparently not.

The eldest child, though she lost her sight as a result of a dangerous fever when she was about 12 or 13, seems to have been the hardiest of the family. In light of Dr. Cate Shanahan's hypothesis of "Second Sibling Syndrome" this is not at all surprising.  "...Unless the mother gives herself ample time and nutrients for her body to fully replenish itself, child number two will not be as healthy as his older sibling. And so, while big brother goes off to football practice, or big sister gets a modeling job, the second sibling will be spending time in the offices of the local optometrists and orthodontists. It’s not that they got the “unlucky” genes. The problem is that, compared to their older sibling, they grew in a relatively undernourished environment in utero."  (From "Deep Nutrition.")

Laura Ingalls' life, where she begins her story, is surrounded by the "forest primeval" where wildlife is abundant and the farm is apparently productive.  Meat is procured at the height of succulence -- in the autumn, when the deer, bear, and acorn-fattened pork is at its ... fattiest.  The climate allowed natural freezing of fresh meats, so only part of the meat-harvest is processed.  However, what WAS processed was done so in a natural and healthy way, with salt and smoke, not questionable modern chemicals.  Theoretically, her sister Mary (only a year older), had one more year's worth of wholesome diet than she, as well as superior maternal nutrition, before the family began subsisting on cornmeal and lean game.  Dare we assume that this is what "helped" Mary to die of what Dr. Donaldson (in "Strong Medicine") described as the most common cause of death in the elderly of his day, pneumonia?

Laura describes her next-younger sister, Carrie, as always having been "delicate" -- a synonym for "unhealthy" in this euphemistic era.  She further speaks of her as having not recovered from the Hard Winter (more on that later) very well.  Unhealthy indeed.  The youngest (surviving) sibling, Grace (we are told) had never known any meat except salt pork (and a little game) until she was three or four years old.

From her sixth year till her eighth or ninth at least, Laura ate mostly carbohydrate foods, lean game and some salt pork.  Again, between her 12th and 15th year, it seems the family's diet was similar.  Lots of potatoes and cornmeal, wheat, lots of beans, some fish, and latterly wild waterfowl, which is significantly leaner than the farmed ducks and geese of today.  What they ate while in Minnesota (between her third and fourth books) we don't know in detail; they had a farm with kitchen-garden, chickens and cow, but we don't know if they had pigs, or if they actually ate beef.  All she tells us of this period is, they had only two poor wheat crops, and most of the family was stricken with scarlet fever.

The worst nutritional debacle of which we read is in "The Hard Winter."  Their second winter in Dakota Territory, after the first minimal harvest from the raw prairie, was an extremely harsh one, and the new railroad line was incapable of negotiating the heavy snows that year.  The small, isolated town was insufficiently stocked with food and fuel in this frontier area; there was almost no naturally-occurring fuel on the bare prairies, and farming equipment of the time was incapable of pulverizing the tough sod, so that the virgin soil could not yield as had the rich eastern land to which emigrants were accustomed.  It seems to me that they were damned lucky to have survived at all.

Assuming that Mrs. Wilder wasn't taking too many liberties with history, we are to understand that the family ran out of meat by Christmas, and subsisted largely on whole wheat and some beans and potatoes between the first of the year and April, when the blizzards ended and supplies became available again.  The beans would have been properly soaked before cooking, and we know that the wheat's leavening was produced from an honest-to-god sourdough fermentation ... but we are also told that the whole family is weakened and dumbed-down by their nutritional deficiencies.  Her father, meanwhile, does occasional heavy labor.

After this period of nutritional want, though, the family goes back to eating an adequate (even generous) diet, but it is still very carb-heavy.  Their celebratory meal in the spring when the "Christmas barrel" arrives (still frozen hard) containing a turkey and cranberries, also includes potatoes, gravy and light bread (made with white flour and yeast), stuffing, pies and a cake.  When their garden begins growing and the cow "freshens" they have greens, butter and milk, but it will be months before they have much more than the general store can provide -- white flour, salt pork, cornmeal, potatoes and beans....

Sweets, at least, were a rare treat.  We're told that in Laura's earliest years, maple syrup and sugar are annually produced, but not frequently consumed except in tea, on pancakes and mush.  Finding a honey-tree was a truly rare and memorable occurrence.  Candy was something special, only to be expected as a Christmas gift.  Brown-sugar syrup was probably a semi-regular addition to pancakes, though, and when there was fruit harvested (mostly wild) it was dried or preserved with added sugar, depending upon the family's circumstances.  Notably in this era, tomatoes were a fruit one expected to eat sweetened.

The final harvest of all this nutritional imbalance we already know:  heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  The latter condition, Wikipedia tells us, "ran in the family."  I wonder if it was running in the family while they were still eating autumn-fat deer, bear, fresh pastured pork, whole dairy and eggs?


  1. Things seemed worse for my family in the 1930's. Early heart disease was common. I had always attributed it to the lack of omega 3's. In the lean years (without any income), it was what they could grow, gather or trade. So, that was pork, chicken, rabbit, potatoes, lots of turnips, preserved summer berries, and a bit of traded milk. Morels were much more common than ocean fish. Based on the tools my grandmother left behind, sauerkraut was plentiful, so it wasn't all bad.

    1. my first thought was, if their meat was pastured, it couldn't have been that bad ... then i noticed it was pork and poultry, which is high in omega 6s at the best of times. :-( if they used Crisco (as so many people did) it would have been even worse. yep -- hard times! (a maternal great-grandfather of mine lost everything he had to the Depression.)

  2. I wonder if the family was using the blood of the game and cow. This is how people survived winters in the days of old. With a large enough herd, you can make it on blood.

    That reminds me--I have enough blood in the freezer now to make something--maybe some coconut milk sanguinacchio.

    1. that's a good question -- there's no mention of saving it when they butchered. blood is reputedly a valuable food, though i have yet to utilize it. where do you acquire yours? i had to google sanguinacchio -- have you made it before?

  3. I save it from packages of liver, but it's available off the shelf in other countries. I've never made sanguinacchio--I'll post it on my blog if I do.

    Did Wilder mention blood sausage, black pudding or black pancakes? They're all made with blood.

  4. no, she doesn't. as she was writing for children, i'm not sure if she would have simplified "blood sausage" down to just plain "sausage" or not.... she speaks of playing with the pig's bladder as with a balloon, and of using intestines as casings, but she MIGHT have wimped out at describing blood-eating. ;-)

    i look forward to hearing of your cooking adventures! i've heard of people saving the blood from liver purchases; i guess i need to buy more lamb liver in the little tubs, because that's the easy way to do the latter.

  5. Well, I had sanguinaccio tonight--and it was filling. In fact, a cup of it was my whole dinner, even after no lunch today. The recipe is on my blog: