As Charles Ingalls of “Little House” fame moved his family across the Midwest, setting up homesteads in Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, and South Dakota, he, Ma, and their children were always presented with the beauty, the vastness, and the challenge of the tallgrass prairie. No matter how hard they worked, they were always mindful of the challenges of life on the prairie…the droughts, the fires, the severe storms, the locusts, and even the loneliness. But in the good years, when there was enough, but not too much rain, when the locusts stayed away, when they could get through the loneliness and the dangers of a brutal winter, when the crops were successful, there was nothing like living on the wide open Midwestern prairie. The land was fertile, the changing seasons of the tallgrass were beautiful, and living among people who were always willing to lend a hand was a truly blessed life.
When our children were young, we took them to see several of the Inglalls homesteads. After we moved to Missouri, they also had an opportunity to visit the home in which Laura lived after she moved to Missouri with her husband, Alonzo Wilder. Those places that were once open prairie have been, for the most part, turned into fields growing wheat, corn, and soybeans. We may have seen “where” the Ingalls lived, but we certainly did not see the “places” they had lived. For there is today, less than 1% of original American tallgrass prairie left.
The American prairie was created thousands of years ago. As the Rocky Mountains pushed higher into the sky they created a rain shadow on their eastern side. This made it impossible for trees to survive well in this region. As glaciers moved down over the land in the rain shadow, they flattened the area, and as the glaciers melted, they left their rich sediment behind.
The tallgrass prairie, those found in fourteen Midwestern states, developed because many different animals, such as deer, bison, and elk had used the land for grazing long before any white man arrived. The Native Americans were also burning the prairie at regular intervals to aid the prairie in revitalizing itself. Tallgrass prairie is dependent on fire to clear out dead plant matter, as well as to kill off any trees that might have germinated.
Plants that grow on the prairie are unlike any other. The grasses are called sedges, and the flowering plants are called forbs. Many of these plants, especially the grasses, have root systems that can go down as far as fifteen feet below the surface of the land. Up to 75% of the biomass of these plants is underground. So when fire clears off the prairie, these grasses can reach way down to find their source of regeneration. The roots not only help the plants to regenerate, but their bulk helps stabilize the land and guard against erosion. Without fire, the prairie would disappear because the surviving trees would shade them, as well as crowd them out.
There is a concerted effort in the Midwest to save the limited amount of virgin prairie still remaining, as well as restoring other pieces of land to their prairie beginnings. In Missouri, this task has been taken on by the Missouri Prairie Foundation. Its mission is to obtain and preserve as much original prairie as possible, as well as work to restore other parcels of land to prairie. A few weeks ago, my husband and I attended the dedication of Linden Prairie in southwestern Missouri, an unplowed piece of original prairie owned by MPF. It is a beautiful place…I commented that I thought I knew what the prairie looked like, but after seeing Linden, I understood I had been wrong.
Tallgrass prairies are an important ecosystem in the Midwest. I am thankful that groups like MPF are working hard to save them and I hope you take an opportunity to see a real tallgrass prairie…then you, too, will want them to be preserved. You can find out more about the Missouri Prairie Foundation and their work by visiting their website at
Other places you might want to visit to experience the prairie up close and personal are:
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas,
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa,
and Prairie State Park in Missouri,
And now a recipe that would have made Pa very happy after working on the prairie all day…no matter what the job had been,
Midwestern Chops with Cream Gravy
- 6 pork chops, preferably from a local farmer
- 1 cup flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 1 tsp. Cajun seasoning (or adjust to taste)
- 4 Tbsp. oil
- 2 cups milk
Mix together, in a shallow dish, the flour, salt, pepper and Cajun seasoning. Dredge the chops in the flour and save the unused flour.
Heat the oil in a large skillet and heat to medium-high. Brown the chops on both sides and add 1/4 cup of water. Cover and cook over lo heat for 30 minutes or until pork chops register 145 degrees on a meat thermometer. Remove the cover and crisp the pork chops. Remove chops to a paper lined plate to drain.
Make sure you have 3 tablespoons of oil remaining in the pan; add some if you need to. Scrape up the little crispy bits of flour in the pan, they make the gravy extra good.
Add 3 to 4 Tbsp. of the reserved flour to the hot oil, and stir constantly until lightly browned. Add 2 cups of milk all at once and continue stirring until the gravy is thick and bubbly. If you think the gravy is too thick, you can add a bit of water. Season the gravy with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve the pork chops smothered in the gravy. We also love sauteed beet greens with these pork chops, and mashed potatoes go good with everything!
The recipe above was adapted from one I found at food.com. The Cajun seasoning was my addition to the original recipe. I am not sure Ma would have had this ingredient in her cupboard, but it gives the pork chops a nice extra kick!