Hot Bean Soup and Laura Ingalls Wilder

Snow has fallen softly all day, and my thoughts have turned to keeping warm and burrowing in for the winter. My freezer is full of chopped tomatoes from my vegetable garden, stacked alongside gallons of tomato juice made according to my mother’s recipe. All summer long, my family and I feasted on cold soups, especially gazpacho replete with cucumbers, peppers, onions, celery, and toasted bread cubes. But now, as the temperature dives, my thoughts turn to hot bean soup and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Prior to the Hard Winter of 1880–1881, the Ingalls family painstakingly cut their garden plot from the tough prairie sod on their claim outside of De Smet. As we learn in Pioneer Girl, they harvested a meager amount of potatoes, which the family supplemented with milk from their cow. They moved to town for the winter so that they could acquire supplies from the local shopkeepers, who relied on the railroad to replenish their shelves. Once snow blocked the trains, food shortages began. In The Long Winter, the Ingalls family’s garden yielded a more satisfying but still scanty harvest of five sacks of potatoes, “lots of turnips,” six ripe pumpkins, nearly a bushel of beans, ten shocks of corn, and enough tomatoes to make a gallon of sweet preserves and “almost two quarts of green tomato pickle” (pp. 28–30). The stretching of this limited food supply over eight months provides a good deal of the drama both in Pioneer Girl and the novel, which one reviewer called a story “without much of a plot” but nevertheless “a good pioneer record.”1

Starting with her creation of a green pumpkin pie, readers watch Caroline Ingalls nurse her small harvest and a few store-bought staples (tea, flour, sugar, salt codfish, salt pork, canned oysters) through the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Even during the early October blizzard, when supplies seem plentiful, Ma makes a batch of beans serve double duty as both soup for lunch and baked beans with salt pork for supper. The domestic details punctuate a cold and blustery day with warmth and coziness: “Now and then [Ma] spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda-water from the kettle and filled it again with hot water. . . . The cold crept in from the corners of the shanty. . . . But the steamy smell of boiling beans . . . seemed to make the air warmer. At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove” (Long Winter, pp. 39–40). As the winter deepens, bean soup becomes a distant memory as the family’s rations dwindle to a single whole wheat biscuit per person or a bowl of mush with water.

With temperatures headed into the single digits this past week, it seems that the winter of 2020–2021 has started early here in South Dakota. I think I’ll soak a batch of beans tonight.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Nebraska Education Journal, Feb. 1941, quoted in “Copies of Reviews of ‘The Long Winter,’” Box 15, file 241, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

11 thoughts on “Hot Bean Soup and Laura Ingalls Wilder

  1. My exact thoughts and actions last weekend when temperatures dropped to single digits and we received the wildfire-damping snows in Northern Colorado! I soaked pinto beans and slow-cooked them with salt pork for a satisfying, warming bean soup. Cornbread on the side – or, as my husband prefers, to crumble into the soup!
    Thanks to Laura, The Long Winter and you for this reminder.

  2. I just covered this same passage on my weekly Lessons With Laura post. It’ s so unbelieveable to think that just bean broth was lunch. I also made a bean inspired craft so it will soon be a bean cooking night for me as well. Stay warm!

  3. Pingback: Hot Bean Soup and Laura Ingalls Wilder — The Pioneer Girl Project | My Eclectic Writings

  4. Your blog post was a suggestion for me in my Google news feed and I loved it. I am a huge LIW fan. I live in Rochester, MN. Pretty close to Pepin, very close to Spring Valley , where Almanzo and Laura convalesced, and Oak Center where poor Freddie died.

    I often think about the Hard Winter. Thinking if just one more train had gotten through. A tough story to read.

    Do you know any of the varieties the Ingalls grew in their garden? I have a large garden and I plant it all with a nod to history. One year I decided to grow a shell bean called Good Mother Stollard. It was prolific in my zone 4 garden. From 2 cattle panel trellis’ I got 5 lbs of dried beans. My dad happened to stop over when my kids and I were shelling them and he casually said “those are the same beans your Great Grandma grew”. They are a very distinct looking bean. I was so overjoyed. She was born in the late 1880’s and I was growing her bean by accident! They do so well every year here and are such a versatile bean with a creamy texture.

    I enjoyed the book by Marta McDowell, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder but not sure if she talks variety in it. Will have to reread.

    I also just finished a book Giants in the Earth, fictional story about Norwegian immigrants in South Dakota a tad before the Ingalls settled. What is interesting is that I believe that LIW and this book are independent from each other, meaning that neither had read each other’s book. They are many similarities. One tidbit that I have read a few times is that when the prairie sod was cultivated there were no weeds. Can you imagine as a gardener? I am sure they dealt with the grasses trying to regrow but no weeds?! A gardener’s dream.

    Anyway sorry for the long-winded comment. I enjoyed your blog post. I am assuming you are enjoying the second summer we are having this week also? The sunsets are beautiful and I bet more so on the prairie.


    • Thank you, Heidi, for sharing the story of your garden and its “nod to history.” Unfortunately, I do not know what varieties the Ingallses grew in their garden. I did a quick check of Marta McDowell’s book, and she mentions the common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris (p. 347). When I first started making bean soup, the recipe I used called for navy beans, a meaty ham bone, onions, salt, pepper, and a bay leaf. Later, I found that I preferred the softer, quicker great northern beans, but lately I’ve been using cannellini beans. When I lived in Kentucky, I also developed a taste for pinto beans cooked with salt pork and eaten with cornbread, but I can’t always find the salt pork up on the Northern Plains, so my go-to recipe is the one I learned early on.

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