Posts Tagged ‘history’

Masonic Monday: French Chefs

A friend sent me this link recently. It’s an article that looks into the claim that all the best French chefs are Freemasons, and they keep non-Masons from advancing in the culinary field. It’s a good example of some of the rumors that abound about Freemasons. As the author of the article discovers (spoiler!), although some top chefs in France and around the world are Masons, many others aren’t, and some won’t say either way. Whatever their status within or out of the fraternity, it has no bearing on their culinary skill or whether they support those attempting to rise in the industry.

There are other theories about Freemasons that are a bit more ambiguous. For example, history-inspired friends have told me that after reading Little Lodges, they began noticing how many founders – of cities or counties, states, and even our country – were Masons. Sometimes they wonder if that’s evidence that Freemasons want to take over the world.

picture1Picture6.pngIt’s true that many founders belonged to the fraternity, but in a way that’s like saying, “Most of the founders had brown hair, so brunette men must want to take over the world.” During the peak of Masonic membership, most men did belong to the Lodge. It was an opportunity for working-class men to become acquainted and socialize with those who were powerful and influential. So belonging to that ancient organization was almost as common as having brown hair (among men, that is – no women allowed).

But in another way, it’s not entirely coincidental that Masonry counted in its membership so many men who were also men of power and influence. The tenets of the fraternity focus on improving society as well as self – ideals that one wanting to establish schools and law and other necessities of civilization would naturally be interested in. Add in the fact that a man beset with scandals could have neither joined the Lodge or advanced his career, and it’s not surprising that movers and shakers were often Freemasons – whether they had brown hair or not.


Wilder Wednesday – Color-coding Children

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by the Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Then Laura saw her own pink ribbons on Mary’s braids. She clapped her hand over her mouth before a word came out. She scrooged and looked down her own back. Mary’s blue ribbons were on her braids! She and Mary looked at each other and did not say a word. Ma, in her hurry, had made a mistake. They hoped she would not notice. Laura was so tired of pink and Mary was so tired of blue. But Mary had to wear blue because her hair was golden and Laura had to wear pink because her hair was brown…“Oh dear!” Ma exclaimed. “I put the wrong ribbons on Laura’s hair!” “It’ll never be noticed on a trotting horse!” said Pa. So Laura knew she could wear the blue ribbons.  ~On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

A friend recently turned me on to Sarah Albee’s blog, which I’ve been enjoying. Not long ago, she posted about the trend of gender-specific colors, which you probably know is a relatively recent development. I wanted to know why these trends developed, and found some interesting theories.

It was around the mid-1910s that colors were “assigned” to specific genders. Before that, both genders were usually dressed the same. Same styles and same color – white, for a very practical reason: the inevitable stains could be bleached out. But some market-minded person realized that if mothers could be persuaded to dress their children in colors, there would be more sales; and if the genders had different styles – including different colors – that would be even more sales (succeeding children of a different gender couldn’t wear the older sibling’s clothing). For some time, there was no consensus on what those colors should be, but eventually pink and blue took over.

Pink was designated as the color for boys, and blue for girls. It is supposed that this selection was influenced by Renaissance art, which usually depicted the Virgin Mary in blue and the Christ child in pink. Blue has traditionally been associated with the heavens and purity, and thus appropriate for females, who were viewed as more virtuous. Pink is a derivative of red, a bold and aggressive color, so it was suited for masculinity. Trade publications of the fashion industry promoted these choices, along with other differentiations such as that blue was flattering for blue-eyed blonds and pink for brown-eyed brunettes. This encouraged more sales among even same-gendered children.



Timing begs the question, did Laura’s story of the ribbons actually happen? Or was it inspired by the fashion of the day that she was writing? Perhaps it could be read as an indictment of silly fashion trends – why on earth shouldn’t she enjoy ribbons of blue, or any other color, just because her hair was brown? Or perhaps the opposite: showing children that there have always been social norms to which they should conform. This scene in On the Banks of Plum Creek could be polysemantic. Or maybe it’s just a fun scene. What do you think?

So when and why did pink and blue switch genders? Theories abound, ranging from nursery rhymes to Hitler. Some believe that verses such as “Little Boy Blue” brought the change. Others claim that the purple triangle assigned to homosexuals under the Nazi regime led to the color being thought of as feminine, and then lightened to pink for female children. Still others mention the influence of “battleship gray” and “navy blue” in World War II in identifying blue with boys. There is no real evidence for any of these theories.

During the 1940s, an advertising company surveyed sales of several large department stores across the country. They concluded, based on what customers chose, that boys preferred blue and girls preferred pink. (It would probably be more correct to say that parents preferred blue for boys and pink for girls, but this is not definitive since we don’t know to what extent parents let the children do the choosing.) Manufacturers adjusted accordingly.

After a time of mostly unisex clothing during the ‘70s, coinciding with the women’s lib movement, the pink-for-girls-blue-for-boys came back with a vengeance in the ‘80s. It seems this stems in part from the homophobic idea, now understood to be incorrect but for centuries held as incontrovertible, of gender as binary.  The phobia was (is?) so deep-rooted that it was deemed insulting not to know at a glance whether an infant or young child was male or female, but of course one can’t know without some added contrivance – like color-coding.

Recently, there has again been movement away from “gender-appropriate” color. I wonder what Laura would think.

Wilder Wednesday – The Dark Side of Old Dan Tucker

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by the Little House on the Prairie series of books.

“Play, Ingalls!” he said. “Play me down the road!” So while he went down the creek road and out of sight, Pa played, and Pa and Mr. Edwards and Laura sang with all their might,
“Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man;
He washed his face in the frying-pan,
He combed his hair with a wagon wheel,
And died of the toothache in his heel…”
Far over the prairie rang Pa’s big voice and Laura’s little one, and faintly from the creek bottoms came a last whoop from Mr. Edwards.
“Git out of the way for old Dan Tucker!
He’s too late to get his supper!”

~Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Ingalls family loved music, most often supplied by Pa’s fiddle. Laura recorded dozens of songs that the family enjoyed. One of these is Old Dan Tucker, more strongly associated with Little House on the Prairie due to the character of Mr. Edwards, who sang it often on the TV show.

The song dates from the middle of the nineteenth century. It is not certain who wrote it, although it is often attributed to Dan Emmett (who also wrote Dixie). It is certain that his blackface troupe Virginia Minstrels made it popular.

Wait…did I just say “blackface?” Yes, I did, and that term should be explained for those unfamiliar with it. Merriam-Webster defines it as “makeup applied to a performer playing a black person, especially in a minstrel show; also: a performer wearing such makeup.” What the definition does not say is that blackface minstrel theater was more than just makeup; it was an exaggerated, stereotypical portrayal of caricaturized black people, meant to be humorous. (I’ll discuss minstrel shows, including Pa’s – Pa’s! – participation in one, more in a future post.)

A poster for a 1900 minstrel show

A poster for a 1900 minstrel show

In the case of Old Dan Tucker, the original words were written to be performed by a troupe, with some verses sung – and acted out, an essential ingredient in minstrels – by “Dan” and other verses sung by other members as observers of Dan’s antics. Despite some claims to the contrary, there is no doubt that Dan was supposed to be black. The vernacular of the song, particularly Dan’s own verses, was overplayed Black English (now often called Ebonics). An early playbill calls the show “a Virginian Refrain, in which is described the ups and downs of Negro life.”

It was the usual practice for blackface troupes to portray people of color as ignorant and uncouth, or worse. Old Dan Tucker, according to the 1843 lyrics (which can be found at the end of this post), was a fighting, drunken glutton who had no sense of, or didn’t care about, social mores. He sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, as a child might, which is to further show his simple-mindedness. Part of the appeal of this portrayal is that it allowed “lower class” whites to poke fun at the culture of the “upper class” in an analogous way, as opposed to outright finger-pointing, which would only further cement their own lesser-mannered class.

It is important to note that both black and white performers used blackface. Black minstrel performers often satirized the behavior of whites, including their racist attitudes, and promoted abolition. By the 1870s, white minstrel shows were giving up blackface (often incorporating other ethnic stereotypes, such as the blarney-filled, drunken Irishman, or greedy, conniving Jews, instead) and black performers were taking over blackface theater. Some African Americans saw it as a means of spreading their own culture, while others realized that it was a much easier way to earn a living than most avenues available to them (which was mostly menial labor). This does not, of course, excuse the caricaturizations of black people by white minstrel performers in blackface.

Old Dan Tucker was immediately successful and became a popular song across the country. In fact, it was one of the top 3 most popular songs in 1843, thanks in large part to the Virginia Minstrels.


However, its lyrics did not remain static. Performers added, deleted, and changed verses as it suited them. Hundreds of different versions have been recorded. Some of these promoted specific causes; for example, in 1844 a group called the Hutchinson Family Singers turned it into “a song for emancipation” with abolitionist lyrics. Other versions were designed to eliminate the racist portrayal of blacks and convert it into a generic, fun tune.

That is how we today think of Old Dan Tucker. Its history should not make us shun the song, but learn from it. Let its modernized verses bring to mind Mr. Edwards and his helpfulness and neighborliness – to everyone, regardless of their race or color – and enjoy it as an entertaining bit of Americana. Here’s a mix of that version.

What do you think? Does the dark history of Old Dan Tucker change how you think about the song? Should it?

dan music

1843 sheet music for Old Dan Tucker

1843 Lyrics of OLD DAN TUCKER as sung by the Virginia Minstrels

I come to town de udder night,
I hear de noise an saw de fight,
De watchman was a runnin roun,
Cryin Old Dan Tucker’s come to town.

Gran’ Chorus:
So get out de way! Get out de way!
Get out de way! Old Dan Tucker.
Your too late to come to supper.

Tucker is a nice old man,
He use to ride our darby ram,
He sent him wizzen down de hill,
If he hadn’t got up he’d lay dar still.

Gran’ Chorus.

Here’s my razor in good order,
Magnum bonum—jis had bought ‘er,
Sheep sell oats, Tucker shell de corn,
I’ll shabe you soon as de water get warm.

Gran’ Chorus.

Old Dan Tucker an I got drunk,
He fell in de fire an kick up a chunk,
De charcoal got inside he shoe,
Lor bless you honey how de ashes flew.

Gran’ Chorus.

Down de road foremost de stump,
Massa make me work de pump;
I pump so hard I broke de sucker,
Dar was work for ole Dan Tucker.

Gran’ Chorus.

I went to town to buy some goods
I lost myself in a piece of woods,
De night was dark I had to suffer,
It froze de heel of Daniel Tucker.

Gran’ Chorus.

Tucker was a hardened sinner,
He nebber said his grace at dinner;
De ole sow squeel, de pigs did squal
He ‘hole hog wid de tail and all.

Gran’ Chorus.

Masonic Monday – The Quick and Dirty Lowdown on Freemasonry

Masonic Monday is a series that discusses a bit of Freemasonry each week, from famous members to strange rituals.

I’ve been asked to explain what Freemasonry is. There have been volumes written about this, so one blog post can’t do justice to the subject. But, so that Henscratches readers will better understand the “Masonic Monday” posts, I offer this “quick-and-dirty lowdown,” excerpted and condensed from Little Lodges on the Prairie. Feel free to ask any question, or leave any other thoughts, in the comment section.

Legend holds that the organization began with the stone masons who worked on King Solomon’s Temple almost a thousand years before the Christian era. Only masons of the most upright character were allowed to work on that holiest of buildings. To ensure that only the deserving would have a place at the construction site, they devised secret words and phrases to convey the trade secrets of their craft to deserving masons, and keep those secrets from masons who were not deemed worthy and from persons who were not masons.

Although there are no records supporting this theory, we know there were stone mason societies in existence in Europe from long before the Templars’ time; extant records date them as early as 643 A.D. From these documents, we know that societies of masons existed, that they had instructions in behavior, and that they had rituals and secret words. These masons were the ones who built the great cathedrals and castles of the medieval period. The headquarters for the stone masons at a large building site was a smaller building or tent nearby known as the lodge. In the lodge, the craftsmen received their orders from the supervising master mason and met to discuss the technicalities of their work; it was also the place they could rest and eat.

Suppose you are a stone mason living in 1200 A.D. You have heard that a large castle is being built in Exeter, so you journey there, seeking work. When you arrive, no one there knows you. You find the supervising (master) mason and ask if there is a place for you to work. The master can make his decision in one of several ways. He can just look at you and make a decision. Quick, but not very reliable. He can ask you to sculpt something, to prove that you know what you’re doing and see your level of skill for himself. Reliable, but not very quick. Or, he can ask you for the secret words and signs. Since you had belonged to a society of masons previously, you know secret words and signs which instantly let the master know that you are trustworthy, that you have vowed to follow certain behaviors and work ethics, and how skilled you are (since there were different words for masters, craftsmen, and apprentices). Quick and reliable. Which do you think the master would most like to use?

This is the origin of Masonic Lodges, with their rituals and secrets. They were “operative masons,” that is, working masons by trade, and the oaths and signs and secret words had a practical purpose in the trade at that time.

Toward the end of the Gothic era and the beginning of the Renaissance, there was less physical building and more emphasis on enlightenment and intellectual growth, meaning less work for trade masons and, therefore, a decline in their membership. So, Lodges began to admit non-masons as honorary members. They only accepted into a Lodge men who were deemed worthy in regard to their moral behavior and who, in harmony with the new ideals of the enlightenment, wanted to work in cooperation with other men to create not only a better Lodge society, but also a better society at large. Also in harmony with the times, when symbolism of all types was enjoying a spurt of popularity, signs and symbols were used to reinforce the teachings. Naturally, these signs and symbols were drawn from the trade mason’s craft.

The non-mason men who were initiated into Lodges were known as speculative masons. Before long, speculative masons began to outnumber operative masons. By the early 1700s, so many Lodges were made up of mostly “accepted” speculative Masons, with only a few true “free” operative masons, that the leaders began to see the need for some sort of means to keep them unified in their rituals, words, and so forth. So in 1717, on the 24th of June, the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster (also called the Premier Grand Lodge of England) was organized.
As the ultimate authority, its leaders established the ritual and set some basic tenets to which all Lodges had to conform in order to be recognized as a true Masonic Lodge.

In outlining the tenets of the society, the Grand Lodge drew inspiration from the tolerance, unity, and advancement of intellectual pursuits promoted by the enlightenment. The founding principles were liberty, equality, and peace. Charity, beginning within the Lodge, Mason to Mason, but also extending outside the Lodge to any in need, was also an important precept.

Today, Freemasonry is said to be the oldest and largest fraternity in the world. There are approximately five million members worldwide; about half of those are in the United States. Within the organization, all members are equal as individuals; there is no recognition of social status or class among them. The Masonic term is “on the level,” and it means that a lowly laborer may meet with the President of the United States, and while in the Lodge, the President has no more prominence as a person than the laborer — they are equal as brothers. Although an office in the Lodge, such as that of Worshipful Master, may be a higher office, the individual in the office remains on the level with the other members.

The requirements for membership are simple, yet meaningful. The first three requirements are to be free, male, and adult. Much of ritual Masonry depends on the obligations made, which has always been considered a contract. Slaves, females, and children were not able to act in legal capacities, and this is what precluded them from membership. In addition, children must answer to parents, slaves to owners, and – in those days – wives to husbands; thus, none of them had complete control of their own actions, and might therefore be unable to fulfill a commitment made. Furthermore, women and children were not stone masons in ancient times. As Freemasonry builds on the Old Charge landmarks of masonic guilds, these membership requirements remain as they were in those days. A man must also hold a belief in a Supreme Being, and be of high moral character.

Many people believe Masonry is a religion. This is a misconception. Freemasonry is a fraternity, not a religion. A Mason may be of any religion or faith, as long as he is not an atheist. One reason confusion exists about the nature of the organization is the spiritual aspect of the fraternity. Faith is an important value in Freemasonry. Masons are admonished to seek the blessing of Deity before commencing any important undertaking. Furthermore, they are instructed to diligently study the Sacred Law; however, during Lodge meetings, no religious dogma or creed may be advanced, nor any political agenda. The meetings are “no religion or politics” zones, as Lodges are to promote unity, not discord.

Freemasonry is sometimes mistakenly called a “secret society,” but Masonry is not a secret at all. Everyone knows about it, and its Lodges are brazenly marked. It is instead a society with secrets. Supposedly, anyway; there really aren’t that many secrets. Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1730, “Their Grand Secret is That they have no Secret at all.” In these modern days of the information superhighway, there is more truth to his statement than Franklin would have thought possible.

Why does the fraternity have secrets at all? Remember that in the beginning there was a practical purpose for the secret words and signs: to convey, without the time, effort and cost of actually sculpting something, a mason’s level of skill and trustworthiness in a time when there was no other means to do so.

The secret works (signs, words, and rituals) used today are symbolic of this trustworthiness. If a man cannot keep a mere word or hand signal secret, how is he to be trusted with your business, your wife, or anything else of importance? The ability to know that a fellow Mason will treat you honestly in business, care for your wife or widow, keep his word, and render aid when needed: these were — and remain — important characteristics within the Lodge.
The secret words and signs also give Masons a means to identify one another, and know upon meeting that this is a brother Mason, who has taken an oath which includes helping fellow Masons or their family if needed. It may be easy to overlook the importance of this, but to those living in times or places that make it difficult to know who can be trusted, such as in Nazi Germany, these secret words and signs can mean safety or even life.

The goal of Freemasonry is, as it was in days of old, building. Today Masons are building not structures and a physical society, but rather character and a better communal society. The stated aim of the fraternity is “making good men better.” The organization seeks to meet this goal by focusing on lessons that strengthen relationships; promote honesty and brotherly love; and encourage education, tolerance, and charity.

This is accomplished by learning from the ancient wisdom of the craft of masonry, and defined by degrees, or stages of advancement within the society, which represent movement from darkness and ignorance to light and knowledge. The steps through the degrees include self-examination, determination of values, resolution to keep those values, and making all actions consistent with them. The lessons of each degree are taught through ritual dramas in which the initiate takes part in acting out various scenes from the building of King Solomon’s Temple. The continual use of signs and symbols from those dramatic rituals reinforces the lessons.

Probably the most widely recognized symbols in Freemasonry are the square and compasses. In the craft of masonry, the square is a tool with an angle of 90 degrees, and is used to ensure that the edges of a stone subtend the same angle for accuracy. In the Craft of Masonry, the square symbolizes morality, truthfulness, and honesty; the duties of a Mason to his Brothers and neighbors. Masons are obliged to square their actions by the square of virtue. The symbolism of the square has become so ingrained that it has become common to speak of “a square deal” for any honest transaction. There are many more such symbols used in the character building lessons of the Craft. These symbols remind Masons of their obligation to apply the associated value lessons in their daily lives.

The fraternity is benevolent in nature, and another time I’ll discuss this aspect. It’s truly awesome.

Masonic Monday – Texas Rising

Masonic Monday is a series that discusses a bit of Freemasonry each week, from famous members to strange rituals.

What does Freemasonry have to do with Texas Rising? Plenty.

Let’s start with the Alamo. I can only assume that the History Channel decided to begin their story after the fall of the Alamo because so many are already familiar with that chapter of the Texas Revolution. The heroes of the Alamo have become legends: Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, James Bonham, Almaron Dickinson, Col. William Travis, Juan Sequin.What many people don’t know is that all of those men were Freemasons.

In fact, it was Freemasonry that brought them together. Col. Travis recognized that he would never be able to defeat the Mexican Army with the few men he had in the Alamo; so, he sent out several calls for help. Some of these were sent to other military regiments, like Sam Houston’s forces, but others were sent further afield. The most famous letter is addressed “To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World.”


First page of Col. William Travis’ letter “To the People of Texas & all Americans in the world”

Other men in the Alamo also sent messages requesting aid. Some of these pleas for help were read in Masonic Lodges in several states. I’ve had the privilege of seeing some of these letters in the museum at the Grand Lodge of Texas. One letter I saw reached Tennessee. Davy Crockett was one who came from Tennessee; he brought several men with him.


Davy Crockett

In a letter to Sam Houston dated November 5, 1835, Crockett wrote, “I have raised a small company of men. About 30 or so and we plan to go help Texas in their war against Santa Anna.” Of course, the Mexican Army still far outnumbered the Alamo defenders, and overtook it. There were a few survivors, but none of the Freemasons were among them. (Juan Seguin is sometimes counted as a survivor, as he had been in the Alamo. He left on a courier mission for Col. Travis before the final battle, however, so he was not present when the mission was overrun.)

The wife and child of a Freemason did survive. Almaron Dickenson reportedly gave his Masonic apron to his wife, Susanna, who kept her child covered with it during the battle and later held it up to a Mexican general when he threatened them. Susanna was the only adult Anglo spared.


Susanna Dickenson

The end of the first episode of Texas Rising introduced James Fannin. He was also a Freemason, as were Sam Houston, Mirabeau Lamar, and many other of the main characters of the TV show, and of the Texas Revolution. At the battle of San Jacinto, the final battle in which Texas won her independence, there were 151 known Freemasons fighting for Texas independence.

There were Freemasons on the other side, as well. Legend says that Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s membership in the fraternity saved his life: he gave the Masonic sign of distress, after which Houston would not allow him to be executed. Houston set a guard over Santa Anna so that he would not be killed (the Texians were eager for revenge of those who had been slaughtered at the Alamo and Goliad). The story goes that Houston also provided Santa Anna a Masonic apron, as further discouragement of attempts on his life, since all Freemasons have taken an oath to protect one another. Houston honored this vow, even though Santa Anna did not. Santa Anna is reported to have given this apron to his guard, and it is still owned by the same family. However, it lacks verified provenance, so it is not definitive.


Apron reportedly given to Santa Anna by Sam Houston as a protection

Several reports from Mexico stated that Santa Anna had been a Freemason, but was expelled for conduct unbecoming. These also were unsubstantiated. Thus, until recently, Santa Anna’s status as a Freemason was not established. The question of Santa Anna’s affiliation with Freemasonry was answered last year, when the Livingston Masonic Library of the Grand Lodge of New York announced that it has possession Santa Anna’s original 1825 Scottish Rite certificate. They presented a copy to Library and Museum of the Grand Lodge of Texas, with complete provenance established.

3-anna cert

Santa Anna’s Scottish Rite certificate

In addition to the battles of the Texas Revolution, Texas Rising focuses on the establishment of the Texas Rangers by Stephen F. Austin. The stories of renowned Texas Rangers Henry Karnes, Deaf Smith, Jack Hays, and Big Foot Wallace are featured on the show. Austin, Hays, and Wallace were all Freemasons. In fact, the majority of Texas Rangers in those days were members of the fraternity. As I mentioned above, Masons take a vow to protect one another. The Rangers do the same. It makes sense that either group would choose members from the other group, since they take the same oath of protection. Here’s a photo of the real Big Foot Wallace (on right), with another Ranger, A.J. Sowell:


AJ Sowell and Big Foot Wallace, Texas Rangers

Here’s a couple of other Texas Rangers of bygone days:


JP Crider & Heinrich Liesmann, Texas Rangers

These men are ancestors of mine. The man on the left is J.P. Crider, and on the right is Heinrich Liesmann. You won’t see them on Texas Rising; they were with the Rangers a few years later after those events.

Would the outcome of the Texas Revolution have been the same without Masonry’s impact? We may not be able to answer that question, but the influence of Freemasonry in the rising of the Republic of Texas is indisputable.

I’ll be posting more about Texas Rising, Texas history, and the Texas Rangers in the coming weeks. These will not necessarily be part of the Masonic Monday posts, so if you’d like to be notified when they appear, just click the “follow” button in the side bar on the right.

#texasrising #freemasonry

Wilder Wednesday – Venison

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie book series.

Pa had shot the deer the day before and Laura had been asleep when he brought them home at night and hung them high in the trees so the wolves could not get the meat.
That day Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary had fresh venison for dinner. It was so good that Laura wished they could eat it all. But most of the meat must be salted and smoked and packed away to be eaten in the winter.
~Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods

from Little House in the Big Woods

I don’t think I’ve met anyone who read the Little House books that didn’t remember all the food. With the exception of Farmer Boy (which is more like a food orgy), it was often in short supply, but even then life revolved around it. Growing it, hunting it, canning or drying it or otherwise preserving it, cooking or baking it, and eating it: these occupations took up much of the Ingalls family’s time.

The very first food mentioned in the books is venison (above). I grew up on venison, and love it. But I’ve found that if someone is not familiar with cooking it, it often turns out tough and/or gamey; then, that someone decides that venison is nasty. And, sadly, what they cooked was.

When properly prepared, venison is tender and tasty. It has about one third the fat, cholesterol, and calories of beef, equivalent protein, and higher vitamin content.

So how should you prepare venison so that it is as good as Laura said? As with beef—or any other meat, for that matter—it depends on the cut.

The best cut of venison is the backstrap. That’s the muscle that runs down each side of the spine. It should be sliced cross-grain into pieces about a centimeter thick (a little less than half an inch). Place the slices in a shallow pan and cover with buttermilk (whole milk will also work). Refrigerate at least 4 hours, up to overnight. The fat in the milk absorbs the gamey odors, and the lactic acid and calcium both act as tenderizers by breaking down the proteins and softening the collagen.

Some people marinate venison & other meats in vinegar. I do not like this for two reasons. One is that vinegar is a different and stronger type of acid, which oxidizes the myoglobin in the meat. Oxidation is unhealthy (which is why we all try to take antioxidants). It can also cause oxidation in the fat (although there’s not much fat in venison), which turns it rancid. And two, the flavor of venison soaked in milk is much nicer than venison in vinegar, since it’s less gamey.

Some people also season the milk, but personally I find that unnecessary.

So, you’ve sliced and soaked the venison. Now give the slices a quick rinse and lay them on paper towels. Cover with another paper towel and let it sit out for about an hour. This is because cold meat doesn’t sear as well. Throw the milk out, of course.

Now sprinkle the venison slices with seasoned flour (salt & pepper only!) and pan fry in a bit of oil.

That’s all there is to it. Fried backstrap with fried eggs & potatoes and fresh homegrown tomatoes. Yum! That’s my all-time favorite meal in the world.
Of course, we often had it with vegetables for dinner, too. Sometimes, Mom would batter it like chicken before frying. That was really good also, especially with gravy.

My second favorite way to have venison is smoked. Laura describes how her family cut the meat into strips, seasoned them, and hung them in a “smokehouse”(hollow tree onto which Pa had built a roof). We did the same thing when I was growing up. Once, the smokehouse caught on fire. That was a terrible year: we had no jerky or dried sausage.

Little House in the Big Woods

from Little House in the Big Woods

We also had roasted venison, ground venison, and venison sausage (made with the addition of pork, since venison is too lean on its own).

Now I’m really hungry.

Barbara Walker’s The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories discusses venison, and all the other wonderful foods of the Little House books.

Have you ever had venison? How do you prepare it?

Wilder Wednesday – Highland Mary

Welcome to Wilder Wednesday, a new series based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series.

After supper that night [before Laura’s wedding], Laura brought Pa’s fiddle to him, and asked, “Please, Pa, make some music.”
Pa took the fiddle from the box. He was a long time tuning it; then he must resin the bow carefully. At last he poised the bow above the fiddle strings and cleared his throat. “What will you have, Laura?”
“Play for Mary first,” Laura answered. “And then play all the old tunes, one after another, as long as you can.”
She sat on the doorstep and just inside the door Pa and Ma sat looking out over the prairie while Pa played “Highland Mary.” Then while the sun was going down he played all the old tunes that Laura had known ever since she could remember.
~Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie

Music was an important part of Laura’s childhood family. It comforted them, uplifted them, strengthened them. Laura once remarked, “Whatever religion, romance, and patriotism I have, I owe largely to the violin and Pa playing in the twilight.”

There was Scotch blood in the Ingalls family, and much of the music Pa played reflected this. One special song was “Highland Mary,” which was evidently Mary Ingalls’s favorite song.

The song was composed by Robert Burns in 1792 in memory of his one-time lover Margaret (called Mary) Campbell. She was called “Highland Mary” because of her heavy Gaelic accent.

Mary was described as “a great favourite with everyone who knew her, due to her pleasant manners, sweet temper and obliging disposition. her figure was graceful; the cast of her face was singularly delicate and of fair complexion, and her eyes were bluish and lustrous had a remarkably winning expression.”*

She certainly became a favorite of Burns, pretty much as soon as he met her at church in April, 1786 while she was staying with a mutual friend. Evidently the couple even held a secret ceremony of ancient, traditional Scottish betrothal, in which they exchanged Bibles over a water course. Burns had written verses in his Bible (two verses), signed them, and impressed his Masonic sign.

HighlandMary Burns

The Betrothal of Burns and Highland Mary

Burns later wrote about Highland Mary:
This was a composition of mine in very early life, before I was known at all in the world. My Highland lassie was a warm-hearted charming young creature as ever blessed a man with generous love. After a pretty long tract of the most ardent reciprocal attachment we met by appointment, on the second Sunday of May, in a sequestered spot by the Banks of Ayr, where we spent the day in taking farewell, before she should embark for the West Highlands to arrange matters among her friends for our projected change of life. At the close of Autumn following she crossed the sea to meet me at Greenock, where she had scarce landed when she was seized with a malignant fever, which hurried my dear girl to the grave in a few days, before I could even hear of her illness.

Alas, Mary left the area the day after this, less than 2 months after meeting Burns, and died before she returned. The probable cause of her young death (at the age of 23), was typhoid fever, from which she had been nursing her brother.

Burns remembered her fondly for the rest of his life. He dedicated three poems to her, including “Highland Mary.” He wrote the words to go to the melody of “Katherine Ogie,” which he thought had “very poor” lyrics “altogether unworthy of so beautiful an air.”**

You can hear the melody here.

Highland Mary ~ Robert Burns

Ye banks, and braes, and streams around
The castle o’ Montgomery,
Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,
Your waters never drumlie!
There Simmer first unfald her robes,
And there the langest tarry:
For there I took the last Fareweel
O’ my sweet Highland Mary.

How sweetly bloom’d the gay, green birk,
How rich the hawthorn’s blossom;
As underneath their fragrant shade,
I clasp’d her to my bosom!
The golden Hours, on angel wings,
Flew o’er me and my Dearie;
For dear to me as light and life
Was my sweet Highland Mary.

Wi’ mony a vow, and lock’d embrace,
Our parting was fu’ tender;
And pledging aft to meet again,
We tore oursels asunder:
But Oh! fell Death’s untimely frost,
That nipt my Flower sae early!
Now green’s the sod, and cauld’s the clay,
That wraps my Highland Mary!

O pale, pale now, those rosy lips,
I aft hae kiss’d sae fondly!
And clos’d for ay the sparkling glance,
That dwalt on me sae kindly!
And mouldering now in silent dust,
That heart that lo’ed me dearly!
But still within my bosom’s core
Shall live my Highland Mary.


Highland Mary sheetmusic


HighlandMary p2

Highland Mary p2

Amber Waves Band played this tune, among many others from the Little House books, at LauraPalooza 2012, and there’s now a video of it on YouTube.

You can also purchase some CDs that contain many of the songs in the Laura books here.fiddle

Pa’s fiddle is now on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home in Mansfield, MO. (This is an older photo; today, the fiddle in kept in a glass case, but photos are no longer allowed in the museum, so I couldn’t take a newer one.) Once a year, on Wilder Days held the third weekend of September, the fiddle is taken out and the old songs are played on it. I wrote about Wilder Day in 2012 on my old blog.

*Hill, Rev. John C. The Love Songs and Heroines of Robert Burns. 1961, London : J. M. Dent.
**Letter of George Burns to George Thompson, dated 11 Nov 1792.