The Harsh Reality of Food for Little House Pioneers

The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder were a romanticized version of her childhood memories, written for children. As with many people, the good times stand out the most when recalls their childhood. The real hardships associated with pioneer living were glossed over, considered too harsh for young readers, or possibly too ordinary to stand out in Wilder's mind. The reality was that getting by was no picnic for settlers of the American heartland.

Pioneer food was often stodgy, plain, or altogether absent. While Laura’s family is concerned throughout the book with packing away stores to make it through harsh winters, Wilder tends to gloss over the risk of famine or even death. In summertime or fall, pioneers might feast on bear meat (Laura’s favorite), buffalo, venison, elk, and antelope, unconstrained by the big game laws of the Old World. But in winter, when nothing grew or could be hunted, pioneers were vulnerable.

Families like the Ingalls family had it especially tough. As historian Erin E. Pedigo observes, Pa’s “dreams of wide open space with few neighbors and accumulated wealth from working the land were far bigger than his abilities,” and his family paid the price. Out on the open frontier, or deep in the woods, there was no market economy or community to fall back on during difficult months.

Read how the Little House books put a happy face on a harsh life at Atlas Obscura.

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