A conversation with Sarah Uthoff of Trundlebed Tales

I first came across Sarah’s website Trundlebed Tales when casually googling “Laura Ingalls Wilder blog” during lunch one day at work (ok, it wasn’t lunch but a reallly boring meeting). After rereading the Little House series over the course of 30 years and slowly sifting through my library’s shelf of biographies, memoirs waltzing around the homesteads and collections of letters I decided to seek out my LIW tribe online.  That google search did not disappoint! Clicking through the nonprofit, corporate and homesite web pages I found Trundebed Tales. Sarah has streamlined discovering Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Little House series to the academic and descending into just plain fun. Her site includes pathfinders for children and adults, lists out Laura articles, online links, even a call to arms (Sarah is seeking out photocopies of any fan letters that Laura may have answered during her lifetime). I reached out to Sarah via Twitter to discover how she found Laura Ingalls Wilder, more information on the speaking programs she offers and what changes she has seen this cultural icon undergo since she began her own research.

Sarah grew up on a family farm that celebrated “agriculture not agribusiness” a backdrop perfect for reading the Little House series. Her mother’s friend had recommended the books and through garage sales a complete set was located. She quickly began “playing Laura” learning various skills described in the book.  When I inquired as to her favorite book, she had the most nuanced answer I’ve ever heard. She views the set as one continuous narrative however she enjoys the individual stories found in Plum Creek and believes The Long Winter as the best designed. With her childhood is it any wonder she would get a BA in history education and a Masters of Library Science. Trundlebed Tales was eventually created and has become a Laura Ingalls Wilder empire with a podcast, blog, links to academic sites, articles and Sarah’s live programs. She is also the former President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association, listmistress for the Country School Association of America, serves on their board and has taught continuing education classes at two community colleges and a training sessions for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Burr Oak, Iowa.

It was Sarah’s programs I found so enticing when I initially came across her site. What better way to combine a love of research then to educate new and old Laura Ingalls Wilder fans during this incredible period of American history. These programs range from general LIW biographic storytelling to specific niches, like food history, and can be delivered at LIW conferences, home sites, museums, libraries and schools.  Laura Ingalls Wilder has a broad reach of fans from the book series to the television show to the real life biography of a woman which spans a time period of traveling in a covered wagon to flying in an airplane. Sarah is always accessing which programs work or don’t quite hit the mark with her audience and adjusting them.With Laura Ingalls Wilder “you find in it what you bring to it”, something I am guilty of myself as I took a deep dive into the culinary programing Sarah was creating.

“In the Kitchen with Laura” combines Laura’s biography with culinary history. From the 1930’s to present kitchens have pushed cooking/home economics into a science with recipes and measurements versus pioneer cooking which was “the art of substitutions”.  Cooking was by look or feel and most families had 5-8 steady recipes they used again and again. I remember on By the Shores of Silver Lake when Ma is perplexed thinking about measurements when sharing her biscuit recipe with Rev. Alden’s new charge. The feel of the dough, the smell, the look of the bubbles and rising were so ingrained she didn’t need to  measure each time she made them for her family.

Delivering these programs have allowed Sarah witness two key changes in her audience: the cyclical nature to Laura’s fans (book, tv, person) and to the changes in school education. For example, if you don’t grow up in a house that has home cooked meals the description of Caroline Ingalls’ iron spider vs frying pan wouldn’t connect with you as a reader. Children today have such a different relationship to food, underlying knowledge of history and farming that you cannot assume a program’s audience would immediately understands all of the content’s leaps into the past.  Sarah saw decline when the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 was introduced as it shifted cross discipline teaching into linear units that could be measured and tested. Previously teachers could use Laura Ingalls Wilder as a cultural touchstone to discuss the environment (farming, dust bowl), government (homestead act, land policy, migration), etc and spend a semester slowly teaching the world the children live in using Laura as the jumping off point. It’s noticing these subtle shifts that keeps Sarah’s programs so relevant to all of her audiences.

While I loved discussing food science and history I had to ask about Sarah’s recommendations for the Laura fan that wanted to begin learning more about this incredible pioneer. It’s a question she gets a lot and she is very careful in how she answers it. As she said earlier “you find in it what you bring to it” and she always follows up the recommendation query with another question. What did you like about the books?  This helps her direct the person to the right resource. For me it would be the Laura cookbook, for someone else it may be the new book Laura’s relationship to nature.  For a general easy reading biography without footnotes she recommended: Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography by William T. Anderson. For a detailed, comprehensive dive into Laura’s life John E. Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder is her steady choice.

With the recent overwhelming success of Pioneer Girl, (the autobiography Laura initially set out to write and was never published) we saw a resurgence of Laura books that covered the environmental to the political aspects of her life. Publishers were willing to take a renewed chance on the Laura audience and a slew of books quickly released. It’s a patterned response Sarah has seen repeat every decade.  The biographies by Anderson and Miller were followed by 1st person narratives of authors discovering the Little House world and homesites. The American Girls dolls and books of the 90’s paved the way for Little House chapter prequels surrounding Martha, Charlotte, and Caroline.  I remember as a child discovering the Rocky Ridge series that followed the perspective of Laura’s daughter Rose.  These additions were easy, enjoyable reads as a child but they do not have the structure, themes and voice that made the Little House series so successful .

I would add a personal recommendation with a new extensive biography Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser.  She isn’t afraid to add her own analysis to the established timeline and was incredibly well researched. I’ve read every bio at this point and learned more detailed nuance with her book then any other. Prairie Fire also just recently won the Pulitzer Prize in biography. Don’t skip over the acknowledgements at the back of the book either; you’ll find Sarah is thanked for her research contributions!

I am incredibly appreciative that Sarah took the time to speak with me and was so patient during app glitches and life interrupting my publishing schedule. It’s not often that you can find someone that shares such a specific fandom and appreciates it from all the angles of academic research down to pop culture references.  As you delve into this world, I dare you to not recognized a reference to, book 6 of the series, The Long Winter during extended storm coverage in North America.  Scroll through Instagram and you’ll notice the hashtag #lauraingallswilder is permanently attached to any outfit with a maxi skirt or floral pattern. It’s a wink and nod that only a few appreciate but it’s a devoted following with amazing people to meet along the way. I’ve tried to link to the original books, blogs and websites I’ve referenced as often as I could throughout this article to make your own spiral into the covered wagon easy going. Please start with Trundlebed Tales as I’m sure you’ll enjoy Sarah’s podcast and writing as much as I do. It’s so rare to meet someone that appreciates learning how to quilt or make the perfect loaf of salt rising bread. Find your tribe friends!


Dan Barber & Laura Ingalls Wilder

I recently gave birth to a tiny human in January which has resulted in being awake at such random intervals that the only sensible thing is to finally read (a few pages at a time) the long list of books on my shelves that I’ve saved for a rainy day.  How many of us enter a book store and really have the strength to buy just one book? I find myself spiralling by the third bookshelf and god help me if there is a sale of my favourites on a center table. I will emerge with several volumes of work but between work and life these books may languish away in my library or be set aside as the newest purchase/release/twitter/blog/article recommendation steals my attention away.  This was sadly the fate of Dan barber’s book The Third Plate when I initially bought it.  It wasn’t until a 4am feeding that while watching NETFLIX’s Chef’s Table episode with Dan Barber that I turned again to the bookshelves and pulled out The Third Plate.

Chef Barber runs both Blue Hill in Manhattan, NY and Blue Hill at Stone Farms in Pocantico Hills, NY. Blue Hill in Manhattan was defined early by food critic Jonathan Goldstein as a farm-to-table experience. A concept that every millennial has grown  up with but was popularized in large part to Chef Barber.  Blue Hill at Stone Farms is a non-profit farm and educational center with Blue Hill restaurant featuring the produce and highlighting local cuisine.  So to say the Dan Barber cares about flavour found in seasonal produce and the future of farming is an overwhelming understatement. His book The Third Plate focuses on “a new paradigm of American eating where good farming and good cooking intersect”.

Barber broke his book into four sections: soil, land, sea and seed. Not only is that perfect for a sleepy new mother (easier to focus on a highly organized topic when one can only reading a few pages between feedings)  but it allows the  reader to look at a very interconnected topic through specific pinholes. Each section uses  personal experiences in Chef Barber’s career to highlight the science and introduce his experts which include farmers, writers, chefs and scientists. Instead of feeling like a lecture between two covers, The Third Plate feels like the conversations you have around a table post dinner  several bottles of wine into the night.

It was his stories speckled throughout the book that kept bringing me back to my favourite parts of the Little House series.  He discusses hay, livestock, weather, soil quality, even the Homestead Act. Which immediately brought me back to Laura tossing a pig’s bladder to Mary during butchery,  Pa breaking sod for oats, the dash to stake out prairie claims in the spring. It was reminiscing  between the two books that my disdain for the popular understanding of farm-to-table began. All restaurants use farms to bring food to the table. It may be a monoculture farm using genetically modified seed that you disagree with… but still a farm.  It’s the modern farms using a symbiotic relationship between their crops or crops and animals that Chef Barber leans into. The chickens helping to spread the cows’ manure which improves the soil, the cows grazing the pasture which tramples down the leaves/dead foliage, the goats eating the brambles and encroaching weeds instead of using chemical sprays to ward back the forest from your crops.  Laura and her sisters grew up on a sustainable farm in Dakota territory before it became popular due to Michael Pollan and chef TED Talks. Little Town on the Prairie shows cows grazing, chickens hiding their chicks, Pa planting corn and oats while Laura is weeding away the rows of radishes, greens, peas and onions.

The Ingalls & Wilder families are farm-to-table inadvertently as their diet was “about seasonality, locality and direct relationship with your farmer”.  The agricultural landscape was changing though around Laura during her lifetime. Family farms began to shift into giant agribusiness and feed lots. This modern farm system produced an abundance and lowered costs which our pioneer ancestors may have envied but it also produced “eroding soils, falling water tables for irrigation, collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests and deteriorating grasslands”.  The very prairies that the Ingalls built their claim shanty on would suffer from the influx of settlers displacing the native grass with seeds from back East. Farm-to-table emerged as a movement to celebrate the farmers and unplug from the conventional farming system that was creating to much periphery havoc. Standing in the center of the now popularized movement Dan found however that “the larger problem […] is that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow”.  Dan Barber creates a strong case looking through his chapters of soil, land, sea and seed to move beyond the biodiverse farms of the Ingalls and push Americans into a soil to tail diversity on their plates not yet experienced. From producing a sterile or dystopian vision we would create a uniquely American  cuisine.  “The very best cuisines -French, Italian, and Chinese, among others -were built around this idea. In most cases, the limited offerings of peasant farming meant that grains or vegetables assumed center stage, with a smattering of meat, often lesser cuts such as neck or shank.  Classic dishes emerged—pot-au-feu in French cuisine, polenta in Italian, paella in Spanish—to take advantage of what the land could supply”.

I’m enjoying The Third Plate immensely and it’s become a remarkable jumping point in conversation between my husband and I in planning out this years garden. How will we be eating this summer and fall and do we stretch ourselves out of our comfort zone. I’ll post pictures on Instagram throughout the season and comment below with your recipes or gardening advice.

Barber, Dan. The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. Penguin Books, New York  2014.

Pamela Smith Hill on Laura Ingalls Wilder

I do love to keep on eye out for fun courses.  I’ve used Udacity, Coursera or even specific Universities’ free online platforms in the past and always try to keep an eye out for a great class in can take in the few free minutes I have during the day. I stumbled upon Pamela Smith Hill’s  online Laura Ingalls Wilder course and my heart sang. Ms Hill brings your through Wilder’s works looking at authorship, race, history, autobiographical, memoirs and fiction themes.

It was the discussion of autobiographical, truth and memoir that caught my attention. In an age of David Sedaris and the scandal of James Frey I just haven’t grown up expecting an author to tell the truth. I suppose reading Lolita at too young an age stopped me from ever trusting my narrators. So while I always enjoyed reading Laura Ingalls Wilder I never took her books for historical nonfiction. How could you? Try remembering your childhood and then cross reference that against history. Which is your truth? Your memory and feelings surrounding the experiences  or do you deviate into dry timelines?

Remember YouTube is always another great source for finding lectures by Ms. Hill. Universities have been really diligent about uploading guest speakers to their online channels which means from the comfort of your work computer (sorry boss!) you can listen to Stephen King trash poor writing or Pamela Smith Hill discuss your favorite childhood author. Check out the attached video and comment.

Pickled Limes History & Recipe

`Why, I owe at least a dozen pickled limes”- Amy March

I totally breezed past the fact that Amy was discussing limes in this chapter and not chocolate, fidget spinners, pogs or even digital Pokémon …looking back it may seem weird that pickled limes were the children’s currency of choice but lets be honest…my own babies will probably mock me in the future.

Once I accepted that pickled limes were all the fashion it was interesting to begin researching why and what teachers had against them. Linda Ziedrich concisely broke down the cost, hidden political dealings and social implications of these tasty treats in her book Pickling.

“There they were sold from glass jars on top of candy-store counters, and some families even bought them by the barrel. Because the import tariff for pickled limes was quite low – importers fought to keep them classed as neither fresh fruit nor pickle – children could buy them cheaply, often for a penny apiece. Kids chewed, sucked, and traded pickled limes at school (and not just a recess) for decades, making the limes the perennial bane of New England schoolteachers

Who knew there were  lobbyists keeping regulation at bay that long ago? Lime lobbyists must have been a pretty tart bunch to deal with…see what I did there? Teehee.   I previously wrote about plum pudding and referenced Eliza Acton’s amazing book Modern Cookery for Private Families from  1845 and of course she also has a pickled lime recipe!

pickled limes

I really want to make a batch of these but I’m struggling on what to use them in after. I can’t see my coworkers wanting to trade with me or eating them outright. I could see using the pickled lemons when roasting a whole chicken…perhaps a good future Christmas present: a jar of pickled lemons and a jar of sea salt with thyme and rosemary mixed in. It’s a small group of foodie friends that would value that gift but the reaction would be amazing!

I may need to start compiling a separate page just for all the recipes I’m compiling throughout the years writing on this blog. You can tell my priorities at least when reading. Love a story and a snack!

The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables

160469789x-1Timber Press in April is publishing The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables by Catherine Reid and I must insist we all gift this book to our favorite Anne Shirley bibliophile as it is simply perfection!

When I read landscapes in the title I wrongly assumed this would be in the style of a coffee table book with only beautiful photographs of Prince Edward Island. While that is true, the photography is stunning, it’s the history and descriptions of the island, Maud and her rich family backstory that sets this book apart. It should be required reading when finishing the series for the first time.

I had the pleasure of cycling the island for 12 days with my family a few years back and seeing the island from the viewpoint of old railroad tracks, following bike paths along beaches and crossing through forests. It was such a unique way to stumble upon the Lake of Shining Waters or Haunted Woods and the intimate images in this book brought me right back to these memories.

I am going to have to purchase this book for my father-in-law as he planned out our cycling routes with the intention of seeing as much of the island as possible. These photos will bring him right back to those sun (and two rain) filled days. The descriptions and history behind these photos I hope will enrich his understanding of own my love/fandom for Lucy Maud Montgomery and remind him of an incredible adventure we all undertook. For your own gifting pleasure I would suggest finding the perfect picnic basket to fill with The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, a bottle of raspberry cordial or tea and some scones for the Anne of Green Gables fan in your life.

Plum Pudding Recipe for the Holidays

“Everything went right until I saw Marilla coming with the plum pudding in one hand and the pitcher of pudding sauce warmed up, in the other”

@emily_kw combines that rare mix of  thoughtful, kindness and intelligence that you find once in a lifetime. We have cross stitched and drank wine for hours on her couch as the snow falls down around in us in Calgary, we have explored Chicago together on vacation and can be found together at all high holidays giggling over silver goblets sunk into a cushion of pillows and quilts.

We started our friendship off making dates to visit all of Calgary’s top named restaurants almost 6 years ago and food has continued to take a starring role on our adventures. Thanksgivings, Christmas dinners, themed brunches…you name it and she can put a meal plan, table runner and themed decor faster then you can say Julia Child.  So it’s no surprise that when I want to combine a literary plum pudding moment from Anne of Green Gables and the original 1845 English recipe book that referenced plum pudding as Christmas pudding I would bribe @emily_kw to help. And by help, I mean do the majority of work as I perch on her table with a look of fear, respect and curiosity. I’m basically her house cat while she cooks though I’m very good at keeping her wine glass full- I can be taught!

Archive.org being the greatest of all resources has a 1882 reprinted copy of Eliza Acton’s book Modern Cookery for Private Families online.  It’s here we first see plum pudding reference to Christmas. Eliza previously had published poetry but at the behest of her publisher (what, no male poets could also cook?) she took up researching, borrowed from friends and ended up publishing a cookbook that became the standard in the industry.

The plum pudding scene has become so iconic thanks to the Sullivan 1985 mini series and even on their website they have a plum pudding recipe from their Anne of Green Gables Cookbook.  But plum puddings have rich English history steeped back possibly as far as King George I. These recipes would have been brought over to North America as families began immigrating and  it’s possible that Lucy Maud Montgomery ‘s inclusion of the scene was due to her mother’s family special plum pudding moments.

So if I can bribe @emily_kw correctly you may see our Twitter and Instagram accounts light up with photos of us trying to create a new pudding Christmas memory this year. Comment below with your own special holiday traditions.  If you get snowed this season in visit archive.org to read Modern Cookery for Private Families and try to recreate your favorite family recipe from the original.






On the Way to the Big Woods: Part 3

Before the Big Woods

This is part 3 of a multi part series tracing the Ingalls family from Lincolnshire, England to the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Remember to read part 1 & 2 before jumping into the amazing that is part 3.

“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little grey house made of logs.”

When we last left our multiple generations of Samuel Ingalls, they had moved from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. This migration would have been natural at the time as the two territories had a tumultuous relationship surrounding land claims as they grew from individual settlements into communities and finally defined territories.  Two more generations of Ingalls would live in New Hampshire, Timothy and Jonathan, before Jonathan’s son Samuel (omg, what is up with that name) would marry and live for a time in Quebec before  moving into western New York after 1818.  This is how Lansford Ingalls (Charle’s Pa) was born in Quebec and would create the first Ingalls connection to Canada.

While the Ingalls were branching out across the emerging English colonies, New France, present day eastern Canada, was attempting to establish itself simultaneously.  Between 1600-1613 settlements would start, end, move and burn to the ground. Similar to New England though, the possibility of access to new fisheries and fur trades  would push France to continue establishing settlements. St. Croix Island and Nova Scotia would see colonization as early as 1604 while Quebec would be established in 1608. The Atlantic settlements would focus on fisheries similar to New England and fur pelts pushed New France into the northern interior. Beavers (aka cash money in the luxury goods business) were becoming  scarce in Europe; merchants wanted colonization for trade and the French Crown was invested to stem the English strength in the New World. In 1627 France gave a royal charter to The Company of 100 Associates allowing them control over the fur trade in Quebec and land in exchange for growing and maintaining the settlements in New France. The company would push coureur des bois, freelance explorers, to create trade routes and promote communication between the company/government with local tribes as they dove deeper and deeper into new territories. However the Thirty Years War between France and England in Europe would impact even the colonies and eventually Quebec would surrender to English invaders. It wasn’t until 1632 that Quebec would return to French control and by then the battles had taken a toll on company management. They would officially dissolve in 1662 and in 1663 New France would revert from company settlements to a province of France. New France’s government and laws would begin aligning closer to it’s home country.  France began focusing in on strong, permanent communities as well as strong trade.  France would pay passage for single women and send money and goods as part of dowry and cash incentives were even introduced for families to have children.

It was this environment that Samuel Ingalls would have entered when he migrated into Quebec territory. It must have been stark contrast to the British colonies whose origins didn’t solely focus on trade but on religious and familial connections. Edmund’s wealth in England and lack of religious persecution would have made him academically more of a natural Canadian immigrant.  However this isn’t how history is written and Edmund’s ties to Lincolnshire ensured his connections to Endicott’s Massachusetts party. Eventually Canada’s evolution  would meet up with Edmund’s family line. The end of the Seven Years War would cement British control over the Canadian territories. Concessions to French culture would include the Quebec Act of 1774  abolished and later reinstated most of the property, religious, political, and social culture of the French-speaking habitants, guaranteeing the right of the Canadiens to practice the Catholic faith and to the use of French civil law.” But British rule was cemented and the Constitutional Act of 1791 would split the Canadian lands into Upper and Lower Canada provinces in part to assist the influx of British loyalist fleeing the colonial rebellion in the 13 British colonies to their south (aka the American Revolution). Samuel and Lansford would have experienced a prominently French Canadian culture in lower Canada, a culture that would have followed them into New York thanks to it’s early position in the fur trade (who remembers in Farmer Boy Almanzo’s interactions in with French Canadians) a culture Lansford would have seen again later in Wisconsin. It was the War of 1812  that would bring Samuel and Lansford back from Lower Canada (Quebec) to New York and the families continual search for economic prosperity that took them from New York to Illinois and Lansford’s eventual settlement in Wisconsin.

Lansford moved his family originally to Jefferson Country, Wisconsin where the Ingalls would meet the Quiner family and a young Caroline Quiner (Ma). Eventually the Quiners would marry into the Ingalls family. Polly (Ingalls) and Henry (Quiner), Caroline (Quiner) and Charles (Charles) and finally Eliza (Quiner) and Peter (Ingalls). However as the US slipped into a depression Lansford was unable to pay a mortgage he had taken out on his Jefferson County land and decided around 1862 to move further west into Wisconsin. Remember when Laura spoke of Ma’s fine clothes made out east…yea, that was eastern Wisconsin. Lansford’s sons and their new Quiner brides decided to move as well. Charles and his brother Henry would buy adjoining land 7 miles outside of Pepin where on February 7th 1867 a little girl names Laura Ingalls Wilder was born.

Zochert, Donald. Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1976. Print.