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
- 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.