Smoked Salmon on Potato Crisps ~ PRAIRIE FIRES, by Caroline Fraser

Christmas 2020

For social distancing purposes, we spent this past Christmas in adjacent cabins in the Catskills. The book I brought with me was Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, given to me by my mother a Christmas or two ago.

My mother read me the whole series before I could read myself. Once I did learn to read I read the series again, myself. The first name I looked up in the index, it being Christmas and all, was Mr. Edwards.

Remember Mr. Edwards? If you’ve read the books, of course you do.

It is Christmas Eve on the prairie. The torrential rain of the past few days has stopped but the creek is still rising, still roaring. Hearing it, Laura understands that Santa Claus will be unable to cross. Ma hangs the stockings anyway. Mary and Laura are sent to bed. Mary sleeps; Laura pretends to. She hears Pa chide Ma for getting the girls’ hopes up, and, “There’s always the white sugar,” Ma replies.

(White sugar! In your stocking!? This moment always makes me think of the Christmas my little brother received not one but two Millennium Falcons.)

Laura wakes in the early morning to a commotion:

“…she heard Jack growl savagely. The door-latch rattled and someone said, “Ingalls! Ingalls!’”

Pa opens the door, and, “‘Great fishhooks, Edwards! Come in, man! What’s happened?'”

Given that he swam the creek with his clothes in a sort of turban on his head, the gifts inside the clothes; well, here I picture Mr. Edwards stark naked or at least shirtless, the treasures from Independence still swathed for transportation purposes.

“Laura saw the stockings limply dangling, and she scrooged her shut eyes into the pillow. She heard Pa piling wood on the fire, and she heard Mr. Edwards say he had carried his clothes on his head when he swam the creek. His teeth rattled and his voice shivered….’Your little ones had to have a Christmas…No creek could stop me, after I fetched them their gifts from Independence.’

Laura sat straight up in bed. ‘Did you see Santa Claus?’ she shouted.

‘I sure did,” Mr. Edwards said.’”

He sits on the floor by the girls’ bed and tells them about meeting Santa Claus in town.

“When he saw the creek rising, Mr. Edwards said, he had known that Santa Claus could not get across it. (‘But you crossed it,’ Laura said. ‘Yes,’ Mr. Edwards replied, ‘but Santa Claus is too old and fat. He couldn’t make it, where a long, lean razor-back like me could do so.’)

And Mr. Edwards reasoned that if Santa Claus couldn’t cross the creek, likely he would come no farther south than Independence…So Mr. Edwards had walked to Independence…And there, coming down the street…he had met Santa Claus. (‘In the daytime?’ Laura asked…No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.)…(‘Did he know you?’ Mary asked, and Laura asked, ‘How did you know he was really Santa Claus?’ Mr. Edwards said that Santa Claus knew everybody. And he had recognized Santa at once by his whiskers. Santa Claus had the longest, thickest, whitest set of whiskers west of the Mississippi.)

So Santa Claus said, ‘Hello, Edwards! Last time I saw you you were sleeping on a corn-shuck bed in Tennessee.’ And Mr. Edwards well remembered the little pair of red-yarn mittens that Santa Claus had left for him that time.

Then Santa Claus said, ‘I understand you’re living now down along the Verdigris River. Have you ever met up, down yonder, with two little young girls named Mary and Laura?’

‘I surely am acquainted with them,’ Mr. Edwards replied.

‘It rests heavy on my mind,’ said Santa Claus. ‘They are both of them sweet, pretty, good little young things, and I know they are expecting me. I surely do hate to disappoint two good little girls like them. Yet with the water up…I can’t ever make it across that creek.'”

It is decided that Edwards, lean young buck that he is, will get the girls’ gifts to them this year. Santa finds the gifts in his pack, shakes hands with Edwards, “and he swung up on his fine bay horse. Santa Claus rode well for a man of his weight and build…he tucked his long, white whiskers under his bandana…and rode away on the Fort Dodge trail, leading his pack-mule and whistling.”

In their stockings Mary and Laura find (one for each): a new tin cup, a stick of peppermint candy, a bright new penny, and a heart-shaped cake made with white flour and white sugar.

To my disappointment, I did not find Mr. Edwards in the index of Prairie Fires. Laura was only two or three when the series began, with Little House in the Big Woods, and approximation is the nature of memoir regardless. I’d already learned that the family lived twice in the big woods—before, then after, the house on the prairie—that a stint in the seedy town of Burr Oak, more Deadwood than Plum Creek, was left out of the series altogether, and that Laura’s beloved Pa was technically a squatter. But I flipped through the first few chapters and found this:

“The first Christmas Laura could remember was likewise strikingly dramatic. With the creek running high after days of rain, Charles warned his daughters that Santa Claus might not be able to reach them. The celebration was saved when a neighbor bravely swam across to deliver their gifts…Although no one, including the adult Wilder, could remember his name, his generosity would earn him a place in fictional history.”

Yes, Virginia, there was a Mr. Edwards. Not his true name, but his gallantry and courage persist in the hearts of young readers wherever the Little House books are read.

In honor of this great hero of children’s literature (and finding myself a little short on stocking presents in the Catskills, during COVID) I decided to make the heart-shaped cakes fetched from Independence. I used the recipe from the official Little House blog. Possibly I didn’t beat them enough—there was only a manual eggbeater in the airbnb and I possess neither the upper arm strength nor resolve of a pioneer woman. Possibly we are all just too used to having sea salt and ginger and cardamom in everything, and this is a recipe for children to make and eat. At any rate, they were not wonderful. I wrapped them in tissue paper and put them in the stockings and on December 26th disposed of them.

The Ingalls family did not eat smoked salmon on potato crisps with creme fraiche. They did not eat smoked salmon, at least as we know it, at all, though they did eat baked potatoes, baked in the coals of a fire, and sometimes they carried the hot baked potatoes to school in their pockets for warmth and then ate them for lunch. They may have eaten some sort of cured fish, but it would not have been salmon, rather a freshwater fish like trout. However, instead of linking to the cakes, here’s an appetizer I threw together to preface our Dickensian feast of Christmas Eve goose.

Smoked Salmon on Potato Crisps

1 Idaho/russet potato, 1 tablespoon olive oil. salt, several ounces smoked salmon, a small jar of salmon roe (optional), creme fraiche, a quarter cup of snipped chives, freshly ground pepper.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice the potato lengthwise into slices as thin as you can make them without hurting yourself. Toss the potato slices in a bowl with the olive oil and a little salt and a bit of the snipped chives. Lightly oil a baking sheet or line with parchment paper. Spread the potato in one layer on the sheet. Bake (in the top third of the oven) until the potato slices are lightly browned on both sides, flipping after 6-8 minutes. Remove from the baking sheet and let cool on a rack. Slice the smoked salmon into thin strips/ribbons. Top each potato slice with a dollop of creme fraiche or sour cream, a ribbon or two of smoked salmon, and a bit of salmon roe, if using. Sprinkle the rest of the chives over all, along with a few twists of pepper.

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