I grew up on the Little House books. Laura, Mary, baby Carrie, Ma, Pa, and Jack all became companions for long winter nights. Now, of course, I understand that there were greater social and political issues that were contributing to the story of the Ingalls family, including the tragedies of the Indian Removal Act and the implementation of crooked treaties, which pushed American Indians out of their homelands. However, I do think that the Little House books influenced my young interest in history. And, in the greater historical sense, the books do serve as a primary source of childhood during the “Manifest Destiny” era.
With that, let’s begin today’s post. Fairly recently, I reread the books and made note of the myriad of activities that filled the pages. To everything there was a season: planting, harvesting, storing what you had gathered, and watching the days get longer as the long winter wait wore on. Everything was cyclical (one of many aspects of living in the past that I believe we have sadly eradicated). But, as I believe we are finally rediscovering, the small joys are often what make the longest lasting impressions. The activities of the Little House books exhibit this joy simply and spectacularly.
One of the stories from the book that has always stuck with me is that of “snow candy” from Little House in the Big Woods. The passage is as follows:
“One morning [Ma] boiled molasses and sugar together until they made a thick syrup, and Pa brought in two pans of clean, white snow from outdoors. Laura and Mary each had a pan, and Pa and Ma showed them how to pour the dark syrup in the little streams on to the snow. They made circles, and curlicues, and squiggeldy things, and these hardened at once and were candy. Laura and Mary might eat one piece each, but the rest was saved for Christmas Day.”Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I decided that I could use the multiple snowstorms sweeping through the area to my advantage and test out the recipe myself. So, one morning when it started to snow, I set out a cast iron pan and waited. Lo and behold, by evening it was filled and the candy making process could commence. I began by boiling 1/4 cup sugar and 1/8 cup molasses in a pan:
Constant stirring was required so as to keep the mixture from burning. After it had become homogeneously caramel-colored, I took it off of the heat and brought in the pan of snow.
Letting the sugar mix cool for a minute or two can be helpful, as it will increase the viscosity and help you achieve more uniform shapes. Next was the pouring. I tried to emulate the shapes mentioned in the passage…
After the candy had cooled, I tried it out. It is much sweeter than the standard candies of today; no flavoring masks the sugary content. As the text references, this would have been considered a real treat. Sugar, which is used in the production of molasses, was a relatively expensive commodity. One pound of sugar cost as much as a pound of dried apples or a yard of calico fabric. Alternative sources of sugar, such as tapping maple trees for syrup, were also utilized, as is visible in Chapter 7, “The Sugar Snow.” The ingenuity that went into these simple pleasures is really quite admirable.
Hopefully, should snow visit your area, you will also take the chance to experiment with this historical treat. If you do, let me know how it turns out!