Heartfelt felicitations to our very own Mrs. Wilder on her 150th birthday! As we continue Laura’s birthday celebration with our birthday-themed posts, let’s go back to Plum Creek and talk about the fabulous country party that Ma and the girls throw for their friends.
Last time, we reminisced about the town party that Laura and Mary attended at Nellie and Willie Oleson’s house at the back of the Oleson store. When Laura and Mary get back from the party, they tell their Ma all about it. Ma, in turn, decides that she and the girls should throw a party of their own. “We must not accept hospitality without making some return,” she says. “[Y]ou must ask Nellie Oleson and the others to a party here” (On the Banks of Plum Creek 168). Although the book never says it was supposed to be a birthday party, perhaps Ma considered this party to be a late birthday celebration for her two winter babies.
The party that Ma and the girls end up throwing is a total country party. As with the town party, no such account of the celebration appears in Pioneer Girl. However, the autobiography does talk about the fun time that Laura had scaring Nellie with the crab and the leeches that hid in Plum Creek (Pioneer Girl 92-94). Another account of Laura’s payback to the mean town girl Nellie Oleson also shows up in Laura’s Missouri Ruralist article, “How Laura Got Even,” that she would write later in her life.
Pioneer Girl doesn’t mention any treats that Ma served to Laura, Mary, and their visiting town friends. Near the end of the article, however, Laura talks about a “treat of good things that Ma had made ready.” In the chapter “Country Party” from On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura describes the preparations that Laura, Mary, and Ma made for the party. While the girls cut stars out from strips of paper to hang on the shelves in the house for decoration, Ma makes a special snack called vanity cakes. When the guests come, they eat these cakes while sipping out of their shiny tin cups full of cold, creamy milk. Even though Nellie doesn’t enjoy the party because of the old crab and the leeches, all of the other girls love Ma’s simple and sweet country party and country treats.
Pioneergirl.com describes Plum Creek as a “thirty-five mile stream near Walnut Grove, which flows northeasterly into the Cottonwood River, with its waters then flowing to the Minnesota River and eventually the Mississippi River.” This is the creek where Mr. Crab and the scary, blood-sucking leeches would have hid out. You can still visit Plum Creek today and stand on the site where the little dugout in the bank used to be. A sign marks its spot. Although the Ingalls family was living in a frame house near the creek at the time of the party, they would have been living in the dugout only a little while before.
In the book, Laura describes the vanity cakes that Ma makes as “honey-colored.” As she writes, the flavor of the cakes is not sweet, “but they were rich and crisp, and hollow inside. Each one was like a great bubble. The crisp bits of it melted on the tongue” (On the Banks of Plum Creek 175). The description of the cakes sounds quite wonderful, and it would have been a great treat to the young girls at the party. Today, though, these cakes might not be so appealing to modern eaters. Or cooks, for that matter. It turns out that Ma’s famous cakes are hard to make. According to The Little House Cookbook, making vanities requires a knowledge of “the subtleties of dough texture and shape and fat temperature.” These things, the authors write, make a difference between “balloons and bombs, success and failure” (The Little House Cookbook 202). Plus, the recipe is mostly just lard, egg, salt, and flour, so they’re probably not so appealing to today’s sweet-toothed crowd.