Anyone who has read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books knows what an important role food plays in telling the story of growing up on the untamed prairies of 1800s America. The books, filled with lush descriptions of endlessly wide sunsets, untouched grasslands, frigid winters, and baking hot summers, always pay intricate, loving attention to the family’s meals, acquired through the back-breaking efforts of the family’s farming and hunting. Sometimes the meals, as in the case of The Hard Winter, when early, cataclysmic blizzards robbed the townspeople of their winter supplies, consisted of nothing more than coarse brown bread, made from the family’s hand-ground seed wheat and a bit of sourdough starter. In richer times, the family ate garden fresh lettuce and tomatoes over little rounds of homemade cottage cheese, a light and refreshing meal that seems almost incongruous with the rough and hardscrabble times.
Farmer Boy, the sole book in the Little House series that was not based on the story of her own family’s pioneer days in the Midwest, is a particularly ripe example of Ingalls’ ways with words when it comes to food. Of course, it helps that the story is about her husband Almanzo’s upbringing in a successful farming family. Whereas Laura’s family would consider 5 bushels of potatoes to be a bumper crop worthy of several rounds of exuberant high-fiving, Almanzo’s family grew potatoes by the thousands of bushels, his family probably able to consume the Ingalls’ entire potato crop in the span of a week’s meals. And ate Almanzo did. His family’s meals consisted of whole roasted hams, sausages with gravy, mashed turnips, roasted potatoes, candied squash, several types of pie, huge wedges of cheese, and entire loaves of buttered bread all in one meal. True, this was a family who awoke at dawn to begin what would be a 12-hour workday consisting of intense manual labor, but still. Reading Ingalls’ descriptions of the food Almanzo Wilder’s family ate is enough to make a person start nibbling at the book’s pages.
As a child, reading about the food Almanzo’s family ate made me feel a sort of nostalgia for a time when pie was available to be eaten after every meal, and nightly after-dinner snacks included mugs of frothy apple cider and giant cauldrons of hot, buttered popcorn. But I was just as often confused by many of the foods Ingalls wrote about. What did crab-apple jelly taste like? Was the description of “quivering” headcheese supposed to sound delicious? And what in the world was salt fat pork? I spent a great deal of time not wanting anything to do with a lot of the food they ate (mincemeat made with boiled pork scraps and vinegar, for instance), but for years I maintained a fascination with what Almanzo Wilder claimed was the dish he liked most in the world: fried apples’n’onions.
Most people would probably find the thought of those two foods cooked together to be utterly repulsive. It remains a mystery why the dish stuck with me so much, and why I didn’t immediately draw away in horror when I first read about it. There is no logic that dictates why an apple and an onion might want to be stuck in a pan and sautéed together, but, alas, after almost 25 years of thinking about fried apples’n’onions, I decided that it was high time I took the plunge.
And do you know what? Fried apples’n’onions are incredible. They taste like the best parts of every meal you’ve ever had—the soft, mellow onions melting into the subtly sweet apples, together creating the type of comforting, savory experience that I can only imagine would envelop a labor-exhausted farmer in waves of narcoleptic splendor. It didn’t, of course. These people were hard working farmers, so they ate their food then went outside and worked some more. They made their own roof shingles, for heaven’s sake. They braided their own hats out of straw they grew and harvested. I do none of these things, of course (the closest I’ve come to being so self-sufficient was when I chipped bits of wood off of a recently felled apple tree so that I could use the chips to smoke some salmon at home but, man, did I feel totally rustic when I did that). Since I will never train my own oxen or dye my own full cloth (yeah, I had to look it up too), I will settle for simply testing out the food of the hard working farmers of the 1800s. While the work is certainly not nearly as notable, it is, in my mind, definitely interesting. I mean, how can you not want to learn how to make something called birds’-nest pudding?
There are all sorts of ways you could dress up this dish, from adding a pinch of chopped fresh rosemary or sage, or subbing out the butter for bacon fat. I like this dish as is, however, with each of its elements shining through in their own subtle way.
2 medium yellow onions
2 large apples
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Slice the onions in half, then slice each half into medium-thin half moons. Core the apples, then slice into rounds, leaving the skins on.
In a large pan set over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onions, then stir to coat with the butter. Add the pinch of salt. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, for 3-5 minutes, until the onions are just softened and beginning to wilt.
Add the apple circles to the onions, and stir to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes, until you can start to smell the onions and apples release a bit of their sweetness. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the apples and onions, cover tightly, and cook for 20 minutes, until the onions are tinged with golden, the apples have broken down a bit, and the whole dish is very aromatic. Remove the lid, stir, and cook for an additional 2 minutes or so, just to allow a bit of the moisture to evaporate.