When I was young, white bread—the softer, the better—was all I ate, but as an adult I have grown fond of nutty brown bread. As I crunch away, I imagine that its gritty texture is similar to the whole-wheat bread that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family ate during the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Of course, Wilder ground her wheat in a coffee mill, and her mother used sourdough starter to make it into bread, while I have the luxury of grabbing a prepackaged loaf off the grocery-store shelf. Wilder’s brown bread was a triumph over privation; mine is a matter of choice.
When Wilder’s family turned to making bread from hand-ground wheat in early 1881, almost everyone in and around De Smet was having to do the same. But it was not as automatic as Wilder made it seem in her novel The Long Winter, where Ma simply “reached to the top of the cupboard and took down the coffee mill” (p. 194). Such devices were at a premium in De Smet and do not appear to have been standard equipment in every pioneer home. Luckily, homesteader Delos Perry and his family had two: “One had a balance wheel and we took that one to town and they used it for their city flour mill. The other one we put up at home and the neighbors ground several bushels of wheat in it.”1 The “city flour mill” appears to have been in Daniel Loftus’s grocery store. In February, the Kingsbury County News noted that Loftus “makes a good miller,” having turned out “the first wheat ground in De Smet.”2
Resident Neva Whaley Harding reported that her neighbor Robert Boast shared both his seed wheat and his coffee mill. Harding, whose family made muffins from the whole wheat flour the Boasts supplied, observed in 1930, “Not knowing so much about the beneficial qualities of whole wheat then as we do now we were not so appreciative as we should have been.”3
That surprised me. Harding was aware of the benefits of whole wheat in the thirties when I was still eating processed white bread into the 1960s? Well, not surprising as it turns out. By the late 1920s, “the modest, ordinary loaf of white bread had been accused of some extraordinarily immodest deeds,” such as causing a whole list of diseases including anemia, cancer, and diabetes, as well as “criminal delinquency.”4 White bread resurged in popularity after it was enriched during the World War II era, but today whole grains are once again in the ascendancy.
Nancy Tystad Koupal
- Perry to Editor, De Smet News, Mar. 17, 1922.
- Quoted in Aubrey Sherwood, Beginnings of De Smet: “Little Town on the Prairie” Locale of Six Books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (De Smet: By the Author, 1979), .
- Harding, “Daughter of Homesteader,” De Smet News, May 30, 1930.
- Aaron Bobrow-Strain, “Kills a Body Twelve Ways: Bread Fear and the Politics of ‘What to Eat,’” Gastronomica 7 (Summer 2007): 45.