Last fall, chef Mike Bomberg of Spice of Life Catering told me that he had been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books with his daughter and was enjoying them as much as she was. That was a good enough recommendation for me. I enjoy a great deal of children’s literature — more so today than I did when I was younger. So I sought out the first book, “Little House in the Big Woods.” But I didn’t pick it up until the New York Times ran a piece on how the series, nine books in all, was being championed by foodies. And for good reason. Most every chapter, it seems, deals with food on some level. Wilder describes the hunting for meat, the curing, the growing, the milking, the butter churning, the cooking, the cutting of ice blocks for the ice house. There are descriptions of frying doughnuts, serving popcorn with apple cider, tapping maple trees for syrup, and hulling corn. We learn about the delight Ma Ingalls takes in receiving a bit of exceptionally rare white sugar and the smell of a clove-apple beside Grandma’s mending basket. I am taking the series slowly, savoring each book like some rare chocolate truffle or a fine scotch, so that they last and linger. This is a bit of a departure for me; I’m known to devour authors, from Dickens to Trollope, as quickly as a pound of bacon. I am now in the middle of the third book, “Farmer Boy,” which describes the youth of the boy who would one day be Laura’s husband. Early in the tale, I came upon the following passage: Almanzo, the title character, is talking with his older brother, Royal:
“ ‘What would you like best to eat?’ “They talked about spareribs, and turkey with dressing, and baked beans, and crackling cornbread, and other good things. But Almanzo said that what he liked most in the world was fried apples’n’onions. “When at last they went in to dinner, there on the table was a big dish of them! Mother knew was he liked best, and she had cooked it for him.”Fried apples’n’onions. I don’t know about you, but that activated my salivary glands. I had to find out just what this mercurial combination would be. I first turned to “The Housekeeper’s Apple Book,” by L. Gertrude MacKay. This slender cookbook dates back to 1917 and features a handy collection of old-fashioned favorites, including various versions of dried apple cake, apple dumplings and apple tapioca. Sure enough, there was a recipe for something called Apples Fried with Onions:
“Peel onions and slice. Fry in fat until a rich brown; drain on soft brown paper. Fry unpared quarters of apple in fat left from the onions. Arrange apples in a border on a platter; fill center with the fried onions and serve hot.”Sounds great, but I somehow didn’t think it was quite the recipe that Almanzo fell for. Why? Because the people who populate Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books have an overwhelming sweet tooth. I don’t know if it’s because they are books for children or if they really did have hankering for all things sweet. So, I found a variation on RecipeZaar.com that even references “Farmer Boy,” and yes, it called for brown sugar. I used less than the recipe recommended — the onions and apples both have a natural sweetness — and I added a touch of kosher salt to bring out the flavors. One bite and I could understand Almanzo’s love of the dish. Try it with your favorite cut of pork, chops, roast, tenderloin or cutlet. And take a bite out of one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, if you haven’t read them. The description in “Farmer Boy” of cutting blocks of ice in weather that’s 40 degrees below zero will take the edge off the summer heat.