Thanksgiving Special! 5 Yummiest Food Moments from Children’s Books

all-of-a-kind-family-table

All-of-a-Kind Family did for Jewish-American cuisine what the Little House books did for pioneer cooking.

I grew up in a household where we didn’t give food much thought. We didn’t make pilgrimages to particular restaurants or rhapsodize about long-deceased relatives’ signature dishes. I don’t have aromatic memories of cozy cooking lessons with my mother, peppered with life advice. For my parents, practical-minded immigrants from Korea, the purpose of food was wholly unromantic: you ate so you wouldn’t be hungry.

The idea that food was more than something to fill your stomach came to me through books. There would be a moment in a novel where the characters ate some exotic (or exotic to me, at least), delicious-sounding morsel and I’d become entranced. I’m not just talking about the roasted pig’s tail and the green pumpkin pie from the Little House books. Or the cold meat pie from Danny the Champion of the World. Those books were just the start.

1) The mulligan stew from The Boxcar Children

boxcar_stewWhen we first meet the plucky orphans, all they have to eat are a couple of loaves of bread. But as their fortunes improve, they go from eating just bread, to bread and milk, to bread, milk, “fine yellow cheese” and wild blueberries. Each humble new addition to their pantry is an occasion for celebration. And when scrappy 12-year-old chef Jessie manages to cook a stew from some scrounged up carrots, onions and turnips and a piece of dried meat, it signifies that the boxcar has become a true home.

Jessie cut the tops off the vegetables and washed them in the brook. “I’ll put them in after the meat has cooked awhile,” she said. Soon the water began to boil, and the stew began to smell good. Watch sat down and looked at it. He sniffed hungrily at it and barked and barked. The children sat around the fireplace, eating bread and milk. Now and then Jessie stirred the stew with a big spoon. “It will make a good meal,” said Henry.

2) The goat’s milk cheese in Heidi 

Heidi_cheeseThese days a lot of people will tell you that that dairy (like wheat) is the devil. But Heidi seems awfully healthy. The only food her iracible, goat-herding grandfather seems to feed her is bread with toasted cheese, but it’s magical stuff.

As the pot began to sing, he put a large piece of cheese on a toasting fork and moved it to and fro in front of the fire until it became golden yellow all over. She ate her bread and cheese, which tasted delicious, and every now and then she took a drink. She looked as happy and contented as anyone could be.

And the bubbly, fresh milk! Heidi declares it “the best milk I’ve ever drunk” and guzzles it by the mugful. (It’s always a mug, never a glass.)

Clara had never tasted goat’s milk, and she sniffed at it uncertainly, but when she saw how quickly Heidi was emptying her mug, she began to drink too, and thought the milk tasted as sweet and spicy as if it had sugar and cinnamon in it. “Tomorrow we shall drink two mugfuls,” said Uncle Alp.

Toward the end of the book, the clean mountain air and all-dairy diet even cures Heidi’s sickly city friend, Clara.

3) The roasted chickpeas in All-of-a-Kind Family

All-of-a-Kind-Family-marketTo this day anything I know about gefilte fish, hamentashen or teiglach I learned not from my Jewish in-laws but from author Sydney Taylor. It’s hard to choose just one food moment from this series, as all five of the All-of-a-Kind Family books are filled with mouthwatering descriptions of meals. But the first book has a vivid chapter where Mama takes the girls food shopping at the Rivington Street market. The road is choked with pushcart peddlers and “the delicious odor of sour pickles mingled with the smell of sauerkraut and pickled tomatoes and watermelon rind.” Each girl gets to spend a penny on a treat; Sarah chooses the roasted chickpeas:

Everyone watched as he fished out the peas. First he took a small square of white paper from a little compartment on one side of the oven. He twirled the paper about his fingers to form the shape of a cone and then skillfully twisted the pointed end so that the container would not fall apart. He lifted the wagon cover on one side revealing a large white enamel pot. The steam from the pot blew its hot breath in the little girls’ faces so they stepped back a bit while the peas were ladled out with a big soup spoon. The wagon cover was dropped back into place and the paper cup handed over to Sarah. The peas were spicy with pepper and salt, and how good they were!

When I first read this, I didn’t have the faintest idea what a chickpea even was. But I was mesmerized.

4) The toasted bread with butter and sugar in The Great Brain

breat-brain-bread-butter-sugarMy brother and I were obsessed with The Great Brain series, which was set in a small town in Utah in the 1890s. All that mysterious tension between the Gentiles vs the Mormons and the boys constantly telling each other “I’ll whip you good!” (these kids were always beating each other to a pulp) was utterly fascinating. I was also struck by how simple yet delicious all the food always sounded. Mamma was always cooking and baking, and the three boys were constantly “gorging themselves” on fried chicken, roast beef sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, and pie. But this description of the toasted bread, butter and sugar was the ultimate:

Mamma made fresh bread that day. If there was anything my two brothers liked the most, it was to take the heel of a fresh-baked loaf of bread, smother it with butter and sugar, and then put it in the oven until the sugar turned brown. It was better than candy. I entered the bedroom with a heel of bread covered with butter and toasted sugar.

“I thought I’d have a little snack before going out to play,” I said as I waved the heel of bread back and forth so they could smell it. Then I took a bite out of it. “Boy is this delicious. Don’t you wish you could have a bite?”

My brother and I would often try to replicate this treat using a heel of store-bought “French Bread” from the supermarket, but it never came out the way we imagined it should.

5) The beaver family’s fish dinner in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

beavers-lion-witch-wardrobeThat enchanted Turkish Delight (“each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious”) is what sets the plot in action. But it’s the earthy, peasant-y feast of fresh trout and boiled potatoes served by the Beavers that is the book’s crowning food moment. Mr. Beaver cuts a hole in the ice, whisks out some still-wriggling trout, and then brings it inside to Mrs. Beaver:

Just as the frying-pan was nicely hissing, Peter and Mr. Beaver came in with the fish which Mr. Beaver had already opened with his knife and cleaned out in the open air. You can think how good the new-caught fish smelled while they were frying and how the hungry children longed for them to be done and how very much hungrier still they had become before Mr. Beaver said, “Now we’re nearly ready.” Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range while Lucy was helping Mrs. Beaver to dish up the trout … There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr. Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought — and I agree with them — that there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago.”

Mind you, the meal concludes with a “gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot” and it’s all served up in a cozy beaver’s den where there are “hams and strings of onions hanging from the roof,” and strung along the walls are “gum boots and oilskins and hatchets, and pairs of shears and spades and trowels and things for carrying mortar in and fishing-rods and fishing-nets.” In short, it feels like the prototype for every Brooklyn restaurant serving farm-to-table food.

Dearest readers: What are some of your favorite references to food from children’s books? (Harriet the Spy’s tomato sandwiches and egg creams? Rat and Mole’s picnic in Wind in the Willows?) Click on “leave a reply” and share in the comments!

 

Quite Possibly the Coolest Author Photo to Have Ever Appeared in a Kids’ Book

Found it in a vintage copy of Crictor (1958). Love how Ungerer‘s slouching and squinting, hands in his pockets like he’s just about to pull out a pack of cigs. That jacket looks like something Helmut Lang would copy 30 years later.
Tomi UngererYou never see kids’ author/illustrator portraits like this anymore.

Double Fudge: A Novel for Adults

Double FudgeDouble Fudge has no sex scenes and not even a single stuffed bra. But the fifth installation in Judy Blume’s Fudge series has something grownups can appreciate: A realistic view of what it’s like trying to raise three kids in Manhattan on a not-astronomical income.

Blume has never hesitated to spell out the Hatcher family’s precise economic situation. In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, we learn that the family lives in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom on 25 W. 68th St, where Fudge sleeps in the converted den. Throughout the series, money and real estate are the engines that drive the plots (Fudgie’s antics aside). In Fourth Grade Nothing, Peter’s dad, who works in advertising, is fired from the Juicy-O account after he makes the mistake of inviting his boss for an overnight visit; later, Peter’s dad only allows Fudge to appear in the Toddle Bike commercial because he can’t afford to lose another account. In Superfudge, baby Tootsie is born and the family temporarily decamps to Princeton, NJ, where Peter’s dad, apparently having a mid-career crisis, attempts to write a book; we also learn that Peter’s mom, a dental hygenist, dreams of going back to school for art history. In Fudge-a-Mania, the family must share a cramped summer house with Sheila’s family because neither can afford to rent their own houses.

The Hatcher family is said to live at 25 W. 68th St

Double Fudge was published a full three decades after Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and the city Blume portrays has the distinct feeling of a boom-era New York. Peter’s friend’s dad, the formerly struggling artist Frank Fargo, is at a career high, and moves to a big loft in SoHo. Frank’s paintings, Peter realizes, are now too expensive for the Hatchers to afford.  And then there’s Fudgie’s new friend, six-year-old Richie Potter. Richie is a child of privilege and a masterful underminer. When Fudge and Peter’s mom tells Richie she’s a dental hygenist, he informs her, “One of my grandpas is a very famous neurosurgeon.” When the mom tells Richie they don’t have a cook, he says, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were poor.” Later he tells the family about his own mother: “She’s a designer. You can get clothes with her name on it.” There is also his discussion of their summer house (clearly in the Hamptons). “We have a house at the beach. Do you? … Our house is on the ocean side but we keep our boat at the bay.” We’ve all met a Richie Potter — maybe our kids have even gone to school with one — and we all want to slap him.

In the midst of all this, Blume introduces the characters of Howie Hatcher and his family, whose defiantly bohemian lifestyle is a direct repudiation to the New York City rat race. These Hatchers live in Hawaii, home-school their daughters (the “Natural Beauties”) and distain television. But they are insufferable, moralizing mooches who turn out to be weak and hypocritical.

My kids loved Double Fudge, as they loved every one of the Fudge books. They snickered at Richie Rich, howled at the “Natural Beauties” and practically cheered when the overbearing relatives finally moved on. But by the end of Double Fudge, I must say I felt a little bit sad. Their mom has stopped talking about getting that art history degree and the family is still sharing the one bathroom. (What will happen when Tootsie gets potty trained?)

I can only hope that Judy Blume pulls out another Fudge book in a couple of years. In this one, an elderly neighbor in their building could die and leave the family her classic six, which the Hatchers combine with their apartment. That’s the New York dream, right?

Let’s Read about Sex

BreastsIn my daughter’s third-grade class this spring, Friday mornings were devoted to the study of Human Growth and Development, a.k.a. sex ed. As a warm-up to each week’s discussion, her teachers would haul out a huge pile of books about sex and puberty –  several of them with detailed anatomical drawings — and let the kids dive in during morning arrival. You have NEVER seen such focused eight and nine year olds; on these days, instead of idly chatting by their cubbies the kids would scramble into the meeting area and gather around the volumes like a pack of hungry animals. There they’d huddle in groups, goggle-eyed and totally silent save for the occasional chorus of “Gr-ooosss!”  (And then we parents doing the drop-off would look at each other and mouth “Oh … my … god.”)

Fittingly, many of these book titles ended with question marks. There was one called Where Did I Come From? and another titled What’s the Big Secret?. On the slightly more panic-y side, you had What’s Happening to Me? and, for the boys, What’s Going on Down There?

Dr. Ruth Talks to KidsInstead of a typical textbook, the class used It’s So Amazing (1999) by Robie H. Harris, which covers reproductive anatomy, reproduction and puberty in a comic-book style format. It’s a good choice for third graders — not too Nickelodeon, not too New England Journal of Medicine. That said, I couldn’t help but find myself drawn to the quirkier books in the pile.  I mean, there was Dr. Ruth Westheimer smiling up at me, ready to explain masturbation to the younger generation [Dr. Ruth Talks To Kids: Where You Came From, How Your Body Changes, and What Sex Is All About (1998)].

I soon became mildly obsessed with finding more examples of oddball kids’ sex ed books and spent an inordinate amount of time in the library near Dewey Decimal section 612.6. Here are a few of my discoveries:

1) How You Were Born by Joanna Cole (1984 version)

how you were born - coverThe creator of the Magic School Bus series, Joanna Cole is also the author of this classic book for preschoolers. The 1993 revised edition in full color is what you’lll find on Amazon, but my library still had a copy of the original version, illustrated with black-and-white photos. The prose is soft and fuzzy, and the images are (for the most part) mild, with an emphasis on cute baby shots. But there are definitely a few yowza moments.

For instance, you don’t find this one in the revised edition:

"How You Were Born" by Joanna ColeThe tube socks say it all, right?

2. Breasts by Genichiro Yagyu (1999)

Breasts - coverThis book, translated from the Japanese, will remind you of those modern Japanese classics, Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi and The Gas We Pass by Shinta Cho (all part of the same series, My Body Science). Like those books, the illustrations here have a charming, primitive quality and the text — what little there is of it — doesn’t shy from a deadpan joke or two.

Breasts - feeding

Breasts - sumo

The My Body Science series has been translated into multiple languages. Here’s the Spanish version of Breasts:

tetas-cover

3) What’s Happening to Me? by Peter Mayle and Arthur Robins (1977)

what's-happening-coverIf I had grown up in a less Puritanical household, this is the book that I might have read as a kid growing up in the late 70s. It was evidently a huge hit when it came out, and it’s still in print (“over 1,000,000 copies sold!”). But I never laid eyes on it until this year, when a friend told me that he and his sister had loved it as kids. The illustrations have a very groovy Schoolhouse Rock vibe. The text is chatty and matter-of-fact (sex is compared to jumping rope; an orgasm is described  as a sneeze). And I love the fact that it was written by Peter Mayle, he of the ubiquitous 90s novel, A Year in Provence.

Negative-Archive0291-620x609Check out the wide world of women’s breasts:

What's Happening to Me? BreastsFascinating. Boys’ wet dreams in the 70s starred the Breck shampoo girl!

 What wet dreams look like, according to "What's Happening to Me?"

 

 

Because Not Everyone Loves Clifford

clifford-1The Clifford the Big Red Dog books may be considered classics, but they’ve never done much for me. The plotlines tend toward the preachy, the illustrations are crude (what is with Emily Elizabeth’s zombie eyes?), and that cheery little Birdwell Island strikes me as the kind of place where way too many people know your business. A few days ago when I was watching an old Louis C.K. special I was thrilled to see the (big red) comedian let loose a two-and-a-half-minute rant against Clifford.

Worth watching if you haven’t seen it:

An infinitely better book about a little girl with a pet dog the size of a house is The Lonesome Puppy (2008), the only children’s book by the great Japanese artist Yoshimoto Nara. In his story, the premise is that the gigantic canine is neglected and overlooked because nobody even realizes he’s a dog; he finally finds a friend in a feisty, moon-eyed little girl (one of Nara’s signature cute-fierce characters). The tale has a poetic spareness and the artwork is, of course, ravishing.

The-Lonesome-Puppy

Lonesome-Puppy-4Coincidentally, Pace Gallery recently had a fantastic exhibition of Nara’s new paintings and cast bronze sculptures. It closed June 29 but you can see all the images here.

Was Summer Ever This Perfect?

summerRiding bikes, eating ice cream, swimming in a lake, fishing, catching butterflies … this is how the two kids in the Beginner Books classic Summer, by Alice Low (1963), spend their hot-weather days. I dare any parent to read this book and not be overcome with nostalgia and longing for a simpler time. Did these kids go to a day camp that cost their stressed-out parents $4,000 for six weeks? Did they beg and plead for the Minecraft Pocket Edition for iPhone because they’re the only ones of all their friends “forced” to play the free version? Did they properly coat themselves with broad spectrum water-resistant sunscreen? For that matter, did these two kids even own a pair of shoes?

I’ve decided we should revisit this book at the start of every summer. These kids are so  happy — even with only two choices of ice cream flavors:

They are so happy. And there are only two choices of ice cream flavors.

Check out their diving board at the swimming hole. It’s a wooden plank and some rocks:

summer-swimOnce again: no shoes:

summer-butterfly

summer-fireflyThe last spread of Summer never fails to get me. After the two kids run around catching fireflies, they flag down a passing farmer in a field who gives them a moonlit ride home on his horse-pulled wagon. It’s all so idyllic.

Er, where are their PARENTS, you ask?

summer-hayrideAbsolutely nowhere. Suddenly you realize: these kids have been totally out there by themselves, finding their own fun at their own pace. Which is, in the end, what makes this book so captivating.  The Charlie Brown-type absence of parents is also what makes this book so unrealistic in 2013. So no, we’re not going to let S & L jump into some stranger’s horse cart after sundown. But maybe they’ll have a better appreciation for a lazy day outside with a homemade fishing pole.

Reading level note: Summer is one of the Beginner Books that’s not by Dr. Seuss but has the Cat in the Hat on the spine (a la Are You My Mother? and The Best Nest). It’s a lovely read-aloud for toddlers, and now that my son — who just finished kindergarten — is just getting the hang of decoding, it’s a good level for an early reader (think Frog and Toad, but with rhymes).

 

If Amelia Bedelia Were a Chanel Client

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Amelia Bedelia, the bumbling, literal-minded housekeeper whose exceptional baked goods constantly save her from getting canned. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Amelia character (she’s a little too much of a Gilligan, if you know what I mean) but I’ve always admired her uniform.

amelia_bedeliaIf Zooey Deschanel ever does take on the role of Amelia [see genius BookRiot post], this Chanel look has her name all over it.

Chanel RTW – Fall 2009

If Your Son Sleeps With a Light Saber

I would not go as far as to say that Star Wars is sacred in our household. But let’s just put it this way. I never made the slightest effort to keep S and L from the truth about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. But I was PISSED when someone told them that Darth Vader was Luke’s father.

Star Wars coverAt any rate, now that the kids have seen the first couple films (Episodes IV and V, that is) I’ve been looking for some good Star Wars books. Most bookstores have the usual: the Clone War novelizations, the ubiquitous Lego Star Wars almanac, the sticker books. But in our school library I found exactly what I was hoping for: a chapter book adaptation that faithfully retells the plot of the 1977 movie in easy language, scene by scene, with tons of color stills. This 1985 adaptation by Larry Weinberg is part of a now defunct series from Random House called Step-Up Movie Adventures. It’s perfect, because even a really obsessed seven-year-old most likely misses some plot points from the film. But this book spells out everything — for instance, Ben’s last moment:

Just then Obi-Wan Kenobi turned his head. He seemed to be looking straight at Luke. A smile was on his face. This was Vader’s chance. With the speed of light he slashed at Ben. The blow should have cut the old man in half. It sliced right through his robe. But the Jedi was gone … Luke thought he heard a voice whispering in his ear. Ben’s voice. “Run, Luke,” it said. “Run!”

Star Wars spread Star Wars spread - LukeAlthough the book is out of print, there seem to be plenty of inexpensive copies available online. And it’s got to be better than this:

Jabba

 

 

What Would Half-Pint Do?

With its crushing mortgage payments, hailstorms and diptheria outbreak, The First Four Years has got to be the grimmest book of the Little House series. (What nine-year-old wants to meet spunky little Laura as a stressed-out mom?) But thanks to this contribution from my longtime colleague and fellow-children’s books obsessive, Rory Evans, I have  come to see Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book in a whole new light. Thanks, Rory!

200px-TheFirstFourYearsHOW EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT BEING A PARENT I LEARNED FROM THE FIRST FOUR YEARS 

ON THE HONEYMOON BEING OVER
In February Laura’s 19th birthday came. Manly’s 29th was just a week later so they made one celebration for both…It wasn’t much of a celebration, just a large birthday cake for the two of them, and a little extra pains were taken in the cooking and arranging of the simple meal of bread, meat, and vegetables.

ON CAR SEATS
Laura had been at home so long, she wanted to go for a sleigh ride to see Ma and Pa. Could they take the baby out safely? They were sure they could. Some blankets were put to warming the stove. Manly drove the cutter close to the door and made a little warm nest of them in the shelter of the dashboard. Rose was wrapped in her own little warm blankets…and tucked tightly in among the blankets in the cutter. Then away they went.… Several times Laura put her hand in among the blankets and touched Rose’s face to be sure that she was warm and that there was air beneath the veil.

The First Four Years - RoseON INFERTILITY OPTIONS
Mr. and Mrs. Boast lived by themselves on their farm. They had no children of their own… When at last the visit was over and Mr. Boast was standing by the buggy…he finally said in a queer voice, “If you let me take the baby in to Ellie for her to keep, you may take the best horse out of my stable and lead it home…You folks can have another baby, and we can’t. We never can. Manly gathered up the reins, and Laura said with a little gasp, “oh, no! No! Drive on, Manly!” As they drove away, she hugged Rose tightly; but she was sorry for Mr.
Boast…

ON HIRING A NANNY
A friendly, stray Saint Bernard, a huge, black dog, had come to the house and been adopted…[He] seemed to think his special job was to watch over Rose, and wherever she was, there he would be curled around her or sitting close to her… Laura and Manly both liked to stay out in the sunny hayfield, and leaving Rose asleep with the big dog watching
over her…

ON BABY MONITORS
It was quiet and there was nothing to do after supper when Rose was put to bed…she slept soundly for hours. So Laura and Manly came to saddling the ponies and riding them on the road before the house, on the run for half a mile south and back, then around the…house, a pause to see that Rose was still sleeping, and a half mile run north and
back for another look at Rose.

ON THE 99 PERCENT
As the days passed bringing no [ruinous] hailstorm, Laura found herself thinking, Everything will even up in the end; the rich have their ice in the summer but the poor get theirs in the winter. When she caught herself at it, she would laugh with a nervous catch in her throat. She must not allow herself to be under such strain. But if only they could …sell this crop…Just to be free of debt and have …money to use for themselves would make everything so much easier….

ON HAVING IT ALL
It was a busy summer for Laura, what with the housework, caring for Rose, and helping Manly whenever he needed her. But she didn’t mind doing it all, for Manly was recovering the use of his hands and feet.

ON HATING IT ALL
How could she ever keep up the daily work…there was so much to be done and only herself to do it. She hated the farm and the stock and the smelly lambs, the cooking of food and the dirty dishes. Oh, she hated it all, and especially the debts that must be paid whether she could work or not. [But Laura would] be darned she’d go down and stay down and howl about it.

–Rory Evans

The First Four Years

 

Winning Numbers: Two Books About Math to Love (Seriously)

Maybe you’ve never been a “math person.” Maybe you only recently learned that googolplex is not the name of the Google cafeteria. Maybe when you’re out to lunch with friends you sit quietly when the check comes, hoping someone else will calculate how much you owe. But that doesn’t mean your six-year-old isn’t fascinated by numbers.

How Much is a Million by David M. Schwartz, illustrated by Steven Kellogg

“If a goldfish bowl were big enough for a million goldfish … it would be large enough to hold a whale.” – How Much is a Million?

At the beginning of kindergarten I bought my son How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz, originally published in 1985. The book is considered a classic — you see it now with a 20th Anniversary Edition banner — but it didn’t exist when I was in elementary school. Though this is a book I thought L. would tolerate at best, he was captivated from the first reading. Schwartz manages to put numbers like million, billion and trillion in concrete terms that speak to five, six and seven year-olds perfectly. For instance: A million Continue reading