Melissa Gilbert will be in Naperville this week to promote her new “My Prairie Cookbook.”
Without question, “Little House on the Prairie” was what put Melissa Gilbert on our collective map of entertainment consciousness. To this day, the actress’ decade-long run as Laura Ingalls on that popular TV series that ran from 1974 to 1983, remains the role for which she is best known. While Gilbert has gone on to act in various big screen and television films, plus serve as president of the Screen Actors Guild and compete on “Dancing With the Stars,” the actress happily embraces the role thatoriginally defined her career. She has incorporated many memories and photos from her “Little House” years — plus 80 favorite, comfort-centric personal recipes — in “My Prairie Cookbook.”
Gilbert will be appearing in the area at 7 p.m. Thursday at Wentz Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville, for “In Conversation with Melissa Gilbert,” sponsored by Anderson’s Book Shop. This September marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of “Little House on the Prairie” on TV, based on the beloved books penned by the real Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Q: What was the genesis of this book?
A: Originally it started out as a scrapbook, but we felt it was a little thin. My publishers and editors at Abrams said, “You cook, don’t you? Do you make any homey kind of stuff?” I said, “Are you kidding me? I have four boys!” So, I went into the files and came up with about 200 that could work. We culled it down to 80.
The thing that took the time was converting them into actual measurements. I’m an eyeball cook. Unless I’m baking, I don’t pull out the measuring spoons at all. It took time to perfect everything, so other people can cook these recipes easily and correctly.
Q: Do you like to have people over and cook and talk and entertain all at the same time?
A: Yes. When I had children at home, I would have my very tight-knit group of friends over for lunches or dinners. My best friend Sandy Peckinpah is like a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. We would get together every Sunday and start cooking at noon. We would eat appetizers as we cooked all day and then sit down with our families in the evening. We would have Italian night or Asian night or we’d do roast dinners. It was just for our kids and for us. It gave us this wonderful feeling of community. Cooking and eating is so important. It’s an important ritual — especially the sitting-down-with-family part.
Q: Do you have a favorite recipe — or one your friends and family members love?
A: I’ll tell you a story. I’m down in Wilmington, [North Carolina] shooting a new series with my husband [Timothy Busfield] and our friend Ken Olin came down. He was about to celebrate a major birthday, and I asked him what I should give him. He said, “I just want your fried chicken dinner.” That’s the easiest gift I could give anybody!
Q: Speaking of significant birthdays, you recently celebrated one of those yourself, right?
A: I did. I just turned 50 fantastic years old. I am so enjoying the age I am. Now, I always enjoyed the age I was, except when I was an adolescent, when I wished I was older.
But to be 50 and to be healthy and to be working on a new series with the man that I love — and to have this book coming out, is fantastic. I feel this kind of sense of being centered in my life.
The thing that’s been magic for me is that we moved out of L.A. We moved to a small town in Michigan. Howell, Michigan. Part of that was I just couldn’t handle the pressure of L.A. anymore. But also I have reached a stage in my life where I can say, “I don’t care.”
I want to be healthy, but I don’t want to be forced to be a size 2. I love that my forehead moves and my eyes are my own.
This is who I am.
The irony: I’m working more now than when I was fighting it — the aging process, that is.
Q: With this cookbook — and with your acting background — have you ever thought about doing a TV cooking show?
A: Actually, [husband] Tim is trying to talk me into doing that now. Who knows? It would certainly be a lot of fun. Who knows if it would go, or if anyone would watch it. I am going to pop in and do Steve Harvey’s show and do a little cooking with Steve in Chicago. That will be my first foray.
Basically, every Sunday at our house was a cooking show, just without a camera!
Q: What are your thoughts about Our Town?
A: When we made the decision to move to Michigan, shortly thereafter, Tim got a job executive producing a short-lived series called “Mind Games,” last year. We had a townhouse in Lincoln Park near the zoo, so Tim would be there during the week and I would come down a lot. And, boy, there was some great food to be eaten in Chicago! Aside from the fact that we were there during last winter’s polar vortex, I loved it.
Q: Of course, the things you wrote about “Little House on the Prairie” included some heartwarming memories of Michael Landon, who played your father on the series. At this point — so many years later, and many years since his death — what are your thoughts about him today?
A: He had a tremendous impact on my life — as did the whole show. Just being part of that cast and crew and being around him was so important as it really was the most formative time of my life. I was 9 years old when it started and 19 when it ended. How could it not be? But beyond that, I was lucky enough to work with a man who appreciated children and with whom I had an extremely special connection. My oldest son is named Michael. That says a lot, doesn’t it?
Q: Having been a child star — and then transitioned to an adult actress — what advice would you give to kids wanting to act? What advice would you give to their parents?
A: Oh boy, it’s so different now. When I was coming up into my teen years and dating and hanging with somewhat of a fast crowd, there was paparazzi around, and we knew to avoid them.
But now, everyone with a phone is a paparazzo. There is no privacy. Every other day now we’re watching somebody spontaneously combust in the media glare. There’s Lindsay Lohan, we’ve got Amanda Bynes, we’ve got Justin Bieber, and it goes on and on. It’s just horrendous. If I had to give advice, my instincts tell me I’d tell parents, “Don’t start you kid until they’re out of high school.” That might not be practical, but that’s how I feel.
Let them have a childhood. Let them do school plays and things like that.