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Stirring up memories


Wide and lonely
January 31, 2007

Wide and lonely, the South Dakota prairies stretch for lonely mile after lonely, wind-whipped mile.

In the winter, that wind heaps up snowdrifts; evening begins just after noon. It's a hard place to live.

Now imagine yourself out on that prairie in a farmhouse with your family: A mom and dad and four young daughters gather around the wood burning stove; two horses and a cow shelter outside in the barn. But it's not the 21st century—there is no Internet to while away the hours, no cell phone to call for help in an emergency, not even an electric light to read by.

More than 100 years ago, around 1880, this was the way one family spent the winter. More than 60 icy miles separated them from their nearest neighbor. They were on their own.

One of the girls was blind; her younger sister learned to "see with words" so that she could be eyes for her sister. She became so adept that years later she shared her words with the world as she wrote down her pioneer memories. The girl's name was Laura. Her words captured this wild and wide world for her sister, Mary. They shared this lonely abode with their sisters Carrie and Grace. Ma and Pa were Caroline and Charley. This was the Ingalls family. Laura recounted the story of this long winter in On the Shores of Silver Lake. (The last four volumes of the Little House series are set in South Dakota.)

On the whole white prairie nothing moved but blowing snow, and the only sound in the vast silence was the sound of the wind.

The snug house, though, wasn't silent. On winter days, Pa left to tend the livestock and walk his trap line on the edge of the Big Slough. He'd bring back his quarry and, sitting in the lean-to against the house, he'd skin the muskrats, coyotes and foxes. Inside, after the tidying up the house, Ma and the girls gathered by that big stove to knit and sew while Mary told a story. They could stop and sniff dinner cooking—often a goose Pa had shot when the migrant birds crossed Silver Lake in the fall. He kept them frozen in the lean-to with all those animal skins.

After supper, Pa brought the home-made checker board for a game with Laura. But then he'd put it away.

"Checkers is a selfish game," he said, "for only two can play it. Bring me the fiddle, Flutterbudget."

Then the prairie rang with song and laughter!

South Dakota Roast Goose (updated)
Preheat a modern range to 425 degrees. (Of course, Ma used a wood stove with no thermometer.) Remove giblets and as much fat as possible from the cavity of the goose. Place the bird, breast side up, on a rack or trivet in a roasting pan. Prick all over with a skewer or the point of a knife. This is to let the fat out. Rub salt and pepper into the skin and fill the cavity with sliced onions and an apple, if you have one.

Place the goose in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, and then cover the breast with greased aluminum foil. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees and cook for about 2½ hours, or until the juices run clear when you push a skewer into the thigh or breast. For a crispy skin (it's better) remove the foil for the last 20 or 30 minutes of cooking. If too much fat accumulates in the roaster drain it off with a turkey baster.

Now what to do with all that goose fat? (This is on no one's diet list but it is mighty good.)

Prairie Roasted Potatoes
Boil several potatoes until they are almost done. Remove from water, cool and slice into thick chunks. Place the goose fat from your roasted goose into a cast iron Dutch oven and place in a 350 degree oven. When the fat is hot, submerge the potatoes and several cloves of peeled garlic in the fat. Return to the oven. Give the potatoes and garlic a stir every 10 or 15 minutes. In 50 to 60 minutes the garlic will be dissolved and the potatoes a crusty, golden brown. Remove them, drain on paper towel and serve while they are still hot.

Don't feel guilty until tomorrow. (Thanks to my son Christopher for developing and sharing this bit of heavenly eating.)

For dessert? At the Ingalls household whether on Plum Creek, Silver Lake or wherever the family was living, it was always this:

Ma's Two-Egg Cake
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
¼ cup milk
2 cups flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg yolks and beat thoroughly. Sift flour, measure and sift with baking powder and salt. Add alternately with milk to creamed sugar and butter. Beat thoroughly. Add flavoring. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Pour into well greased and floured cake pan. Bake 35 minutes at 375 degrees. When cool, frost with your favorite frosting.

The Ingalls probably ate the cake plain without frosting, and happy to have it. If you should make it a week from tomorrow, Feb. 7, go ahead and pile it high with frosting and stick on a candle or two...or 140 of them, for it will be Laura's birthday.

Here's to the lady, the family and the pioneer spirit!

If you want to learn more about Laura and the Ingalls family years in South Dakota you can go to www.sdhistory.org, but it's more fun to read the books themselves.

Jim Smith at the Book Nook on the Square will be happy to help you out. He always has plenty of Little House books in stock. Or drop by the Gilbert Gragg Library; the series is in the collection.

Do plan to be at the Library at 5:30 on the afternoon of Feb. 20, when Catherine Vanstone will talk about this famous South Dakotan and her work.

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network