Who do I love to talk about the most, other than myself? Just take a guess. Correct. Laura. As in, Laura Ingalls Wilder! Only my imaginary best friend in the whole world, and yes, I know she was a real person, but she also became my pretend BFF in my 1970s childhood. You know how I love my LHOTP books, and the whole Laura history and mystique, right? It's been discussed here before. She's one of the primary inspirations for my radio show, Let's Get Real.
So, Laura... she's such an important part of the LGR story. So many times, when faced with a new Foodiness nightmare or unfathomable modern-age industrialized food horror, I'd think, "What would Laura make of this?" Would she even recognize what we call food today as food? Some stuff, sure. Meat, vegetables, butter. It probably wouldn't taste very good to her, since in her day, food had much more flavor before we industrially pounded it out in favor of uniformity, controlled ripeness or factory farming. But would she recognize pink squeezable yogurt in a tube as food? Or frozen dinosaur-shaped nuggets formed out of chickenpaste slurry? Uh, nope, most definitely not, not food. In her day or in ours, that stuff... is not food.
Throughout the course of the eight or so LHOTP books, we, the readers are taken along with the Ingalls family on their peripatetic journey as they make their way west, from Wisconsin's big woods, to Kansas's Indian Territory, to Minnesota, and Nebraska, and finally, DeSmet, South Dakota. They endure all the standard hardships of late 19th century life: blizzards, scorching heat and drought, record-setting cold temperatures, endless winters, plagues of locusts, near-lethal fevers, attacks by Indians, the standard stuff. We suffer and rejoice along with them, freeze and sweat, break sod with Pa and strain the milk with Ma. We work our skinny pre-20th century asses off, just trying to survive. Literally.
What we don't do with them, is sit around moping, and philosophically pondering our greater purpose, because at least as Laura tells it, there wasn't ever time for any of that stuff. There were always cows to milk, and wood to split, and laundry water to boil, and beans to soak, and biscuit dough to make, and dirt floors to sweep and fields to plow, but never really much time to think, "Huh, maybe I shouldn't have spent four years at art school and then changed careers at 25 and now find myself almost 50 and not sure what I really want to do with my life, but maybe I'll watch just one more episode of "Bob's Burgers" and eat another bowl of Greek yogurt, and not really think about it today and dust off my book proposal tomorrow instead." Nah, not much of that happened in the little house.
You think you're falling asleep earlier and earlier each year? Try watching TV by candlelight, you'll never make it past nine.
If you're working your pioneer tush off to survive, then that's what's on your mind, survival. Not, "Hmm, did I remember to eat a fermented food today and drink enough water, and is today an upper or lower body day at the gym or maybe a spin day, and what flavor protein should I add to my smoothie and what time was that waxing appointment and did I remember to post those pictures of the kids at stand-up paddle-boarding school on Instagram and what should we eat for dinner, the frozen chicken or the frozen salmon, but the salmon isn't wild and I think we're not supposed to eat farmed salmon anymore or maybe we should go out for sushi or order in vegan Thai, oh wait, aren't we paleo-vegans now?"
Too. Many. Choices. That's our 21st century form of suffering. Not plagues of locusts or severe drought or subzero weather. Oh wait, yes. We have that suffering too. But we also have so much other stuff to worry about, and focus on... but as they say, it was a simpler time. Eat or be eaten. That was about it.
Which brings me to my point, that the one fundamental, primal theme of the books is food. I mean, what else was more important to them, than making sure they had enough food to survive on? What else mattered? Their creative energy, their inner lives, their credit score, their abs?? Maybe their SEO ratings? Nope. Food was it. Up until the industrial revolution got well underway, if you weren't the ruling class, the ones controlling the means of production, getting enough food was a full-time job. You had to grow it, raise it, catch it, or hunt it all by yourself. Or as my niece Evelyn used to say, you had to do it BY SELF! And it was tough and scary and super unpredictable. One bad winter or dry summer or errant swarm of grasshoppers, and you were dead. So you planned and stored and rationed. Carefully putting food away for the lean seasons, and hoping it'd last 'til the summer crops came in. Or the fish ran again, or the animals came out of hiding or hibernation or the trees filled up with fruit. Whatever it took.
And in every book in the series, each of which I've read way too many times, it always comes back to the food. It's what got me hooked when I read the first one at eight years old, and it's what still gets me today. The relentless winter dinners of boiled potatoes and salt pork, endless mornings of cornmeal porridge, then glorious brief summers filled with fleeting lettuce and radishes; cyclical, reliable and yet still totally unpredictable.
And, like an early American insurance policy, underscoring or punctuating the monotony of it, there were the beans. Always, the beans. If there was a sack of dried beans in the pantry, everything would be ok. No salted meat left? No wheat? Cow's gone dry? Potatoes rotted? It's okay, we still have twenty pounds of beans to get us through! Whether they grew them on the farmstead or bought them at the mercantile, they needed them and ate them. Regularly. Ma's Yankee-style baked beans, cooked all day in the coal-burning cook-stove with a precious little piece of salt pork and some molasses. Pilgrim-style, yo. Or just in water if things got really tight. If you have beans, you survive. Remember, just because they lived most years within reach of a store, if the winter was terrible, the store had nothing left either. In The Long Winter things got so desperate the town had to eat their seed wheat, they'd have all starved without it. No beans left, I guess.
Beans are basic, and simple. There's nothing sexy or exciting about them, not to mention the socially unpleasant side of them. It's hard to make beans exciting. Peggy Olson and the SCDP team knew that when they landed the beans and sauces account. You can't spin a bean into something it's not. It's a bean. A humble, small, protein and fiber and mineral packed perfect nugget of real food, that provides sustenance for billions of people around the world. They don't even need refrigeration! Think about it. So many cultures around the globe rely on some sort of bean or other legume as their staple food, as they should. You can live forever on beans and rice, or lentils and rice, or beans and corn tortillas, or split peas or dhal, or mung beans or pigeon peas or even peanuts, as they're used in parts of Africa as a stew and soup staple; more like a bean, less like a bar snack. Legumes are the bomb. Eff the paleos who claim we're not supposed to eat them. Beans rule.
I've been eating my standard black-bean soup and lentil-eggplant stew diet all winter, and I'm fairly happy. I mean food-wise. I won't get into the other factors that affect happiness in my lifes, since I'm not fully occupied 24/7 trying to grow my food, and have too much time to think about stuff between episodes of "Louie" -- but food-wise, I couldn't be happier.
So, in the midst of all this leguminous joy, this happy transitional season from hot lentil soup to cold black bean salad, what comes along? The big humming killer machine of Foodiness advertising with an example of spin that'll make your head... spin. There's a new TV ad campaign running currently for baked beans... and I have to say, it's funny, and cute. I have a severe love/hate thing with advertising; you know... my other pretend BFF is Peggy Olson, after all. She and Laura and I hang out in my head sometimes and watch "Freaks and Geeks" on Netflix. It's very hard to explain to them in 2015 about a show from 1991 that's actually about life in 1980, starring every single actor who made it big in the 2000s. Peggy just keeps saying, "but that smart high school girl with the burnout friends is Don's neighbor on Park Avenue, I'm so confused! "
Baked beans. A delicious product that we've all enjoyed at many a picnic and barbecue in our lives, I mean who doesn't love baked beans, right? Well, Foodiness, Inc. is now insidiously spinning the little brown-sugar glazed nuggets to try to sell them to moms, with the news that baked beans are now a VEGETABLE. Yes, they are officially calling the baked bean a vegetable. I suppose beans technically are a vegetable, they grow on plants, in pods, like peas or green beans, but dried beans, full of protein and fiber and stuff, aren't really... vegetables. And if you drown them in a sauce of molasses, brown sugar and artificial smoke flavor... they're more like a hipster cocktail in Bushwick. Look, there's nothing wrong with baked beans, I like them, and I've made them from scratch, too. They're a great side dish with a burger, but let's call a bean-shaped spade a spade. They 'aint vegetables.
In the ad, we see a test kitchen setting with two adults, and a round table of cute kids. Adult number one says, "Okay everyone, tell us your favorite vegetable." And... crickets. Nobody's talking. So then they serve those adorable moppets a bowl of sugary sweet baked beans, and announce that they're actually eating vegetables, but shhh, don't tell the kids because they're slurping them down. Of course they are, they're sweet! But mom can feel okay about this because now, baked beans are a vegetable -- a VEGETABLE!!
So moms can chillax about skipping the spinach, eschewing the kale, skirting the salad, just open a can of baked beans. Forget the nightly struggle to make the kids swallow a leaf or stalk, now you don't have to because NOW WE'VE COATED OUR VEGETABLES IN SUGAR TOO! A single serving of baked beans, the "original" flavor with molasses and brown sugar and tomato paste, has 12 grams of sugar. And that's for a half-cup. A half-cup is four ounces. Think of a tennis ball, now cut it in half. Fill it with baked beans. There you go. Twelve grams of sugar. In comparison, a half can of cola has seventeen, so we're not so far off from filling the half tennis ball with soda instead, huh? And who only eats a half-cup of baked beans? Not me. And that's just the original flavor, other varieties have 16 grams per half-cup. SIXTEEN! Thanks Mom! Hey, what's for dessert, an insulin injection? Everybody roll up your sleeves!!
In Laura's day, cooking your beans with molasses and brown sugar was fine, as that was probably all the sugar you ate for the week, or month! And since you were doing hard, physical labor for 14 hours a day, it was okay... But today? Really? A vegetable? I'm not really sure I'll be able to explain this to Laura, and you know she's gonna have some questions about this one. Maybe Peggy can help me out... spin is her business. She did work on the bean account... What was her extension number again? Oh, I'll just call the switchboard.