Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chapter 12: The Wonderful Machine

"'It would have taken Henry and Peterson and me a couple of weeks apiece to thresh as much grain with flails as that machine threshed today. We wouldn't have got as much wheat, either, and it wouldn't have been as clean.

'That machine's a great invention!' he said. 'Other folks can stick to old-fashioned ways if they want to, but I'm all for progress. It's a great age we're living in. As long as I raise wheat, I'm going to have a machine come and thresh it, if there's one anywhere in the neighborhood.'

Pa was too tired that night to talk to Laura, but Laura was proud of him. It was Pa who had got the other men to stack their wheat together and send for the threshing machine, and it was a wonderful machine. Everybody was glad it had come."

The closer winter comes, the busier life is at the cabin in the Big Woods. Ma works all day preserving summer's bounty so it can be enjoyed during the winter. Carrots, turnips, and potatoes are all dug and put away. Pumpkins are harvested and cooked down for eating and pie making. Corn is hulled and turned into hominy. The girls help by spending long hours gathering the many different kinds of nuts.

Ma also takes the straw from some of the oats and soaks it. When it is soft, she braids long braids to be used for hat making. Ma can make beautiful hats, and Laura is learning to do it, too, by making a hat for Charlotte.

One exciting day, a clankity-clackity machine comes down the road. It is the threshing machine, run by a crew of men who all expect to be fed. All the extra work in the kitchen is a sacrifice Pa is willing to make, because it saves him untold hours of work in the field. How wonderful the new machine is!

I happened to be reading this chapter right during harvest time out here on the prairie. From morning until late into the night, giant farm machinery could be seen rushing back and forth across acres of fields. The harvest must be got in, and you can sleep when it's winter or you're dead, which ever comes first.

I wanted to do the chapter using one of the modern harvesters. It would have been very interesting to see how technology has changed since Pa Ingall's day. For instance, I don't think that horsepower is counted in real horses anymore! But just in case that didn't work out, I picked up a cooking pumpkin one of my trips to Williston.

My pumpkin sat for over a month, no doubt growing smug in its belief that it would not be needed after all. Surely I would be able to focus on harvesters and it would be allowed to grow old gracefully as a genteel autumn table decoration. But unfortunately, I never got around to the fascinating study of harvesters, and in the end, it all boiled down, if you'll pardon the pun, to the pumpkin.

"With the butcher knife Ma cut the big, orange -colored pumpkins into halves. She cleaned the seeds out of the center and cut the pumpkin into long slices, from which she pared the rind. Laura helped her cut the slices into cubes."

It was a sad day for my pumpkin, but it had to be done.

"All the water and juice must be boiled away, and the pumpkin must never burn."

I put the cubed pumpkin chunks in water to boil, then went back to cooking and eating lunch. The pumpkin boiled merrily away, and kept right on going! Before I knew it, the water was all gone, and my golden chunks were sticking to the bottom of the kettle with an odor suspiciously similar to char. Well, maybe it wouldn't hurt if the pumpkin burned a little...

After the pumpkin was cooked, I mashed it and began the process of boiling it down. I tried to gain clues from a careful reading of the text--"thick, dark, good-smelling mass", "rich brown stewed pumpkin", that sort of thing. Not exactly a precise recipe! How thick was thick? How dark was dark? And did it count if some of the darkness was from the charcoal?

At long last, I decided the pumpkin must be done. If I boiled out any more moisture, I'd be spraying pumpkin dust when I took the first bite. Now, oh joy, it was time to taste this delectable treat.

"Ma never allowed them to play with their food at table; they must always eat nicely everything that was set before them, leaving nothing on their plates. But she did let them make the rich, brown stewed pumpkin into pretty shapes before they ate it."

Ah! A reprieve! I set to work sculpting. And sculpting. And sculpting. At last, everything that could be sculpted was sculpted.

There remained but to try it. I will draw the veil over the next few moments. Mainly because the one picture I took of me eating it was ridiculously unflattering (at least I know what I'll look like at 50!), and there was no way I was doing a do-over for a better shot. One bite. That was it. No clean plate, no matter what Ma would say about that. I don't know what her version tasted like, but if it tasted anything like mine, treats have improved in the intervening years. I could market that stuff as a dietary aid. Taste it and your appetite leaves you. But Laura was right about one thing, you can make pretty pictures out of it.

A Rare Literary Find

The lost chapter

It's been quite a while since my last Little House post due to a very exciting event in the literary community....the discovery of a lost chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Recently, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Preservation Society has been renovating the recreated cabin from Little House in the Big Woods. Buried in the right-hand corner, under the concrete foundation, was an old-looking package wrapped in brittle duct tape.

The contents were 5 typed pages that, after rigorous examination by a panel of experts, have been determined to be hand-written by Pa Ingalls himself. It details a previously unknown period of time in the Ingalls saga.

It seems that one fall a tragedy occurred that could have brought an early end to Laura's tales. Late one September, Pa suddenly realized that he had done no winterizing to the cabin all summer long. Winter was rapidly approaching, and without dramatic intervention, the family would freeze to death.

Undaunted by this seemingly insurmountable circumstance, Pa devoted the next month and a half to unceasing labor. His job was made harder by the fact that most of what he needed hadn't been invented yet. So Pa set to work creating a primitive oil refinery to develop the petroleum products he needed for covering the windows with plastic, a loom to create the first duct tape recorded, and a furnace to spin glass fibers for basic fiberglass insulation.

After invention came installation, and Pa spent many, MANY hours putting all of his clever devices into use. Of course, Ma was right by his side, and being gifted with truly hardy pioneer spirit, refrained from pointing out that if Pa had done it when he was supposed to, he wouldn't be in such a rush now.

When I learned of this stunning lost chapter, I simply had to include it in my blog. I have followed Pa's account as closely as possible, though of course all the products are already available to me. I don't have to invent them, thank goodness, because just installing them has proven to be enough of a project! It has been a truly unforgettable experience, but I am glad to be finished and ready to pick up the less strenuous "known chapters."