Category Archives: Classics

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.

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

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

 

Tomi Ungerer: The Menswear Collection

We were re-reading Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers (1963) the other day. I never get tired of the story’s sinister fairytale feel; the color palette of black and midnight blue; or Ungerer’s use of the word “blunderbuss.”

p5But I realized something new this time around. Those voluminous cloaks and bell-shaped hats are very Yohji Yamamoto.

Yohji Yamamoto Fall-Winter 2012

Discovered: The Meat Pie from Danny, Champion of the World!

Roald Dahl understood the power of food, and not just of the purely sugary sort (i.e. chocolate churned by waterfall, edible blades of grass, Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delights). The whole plot of The Fantastic Mr. Fox basically builds up to the magnificent subterranean feast of chickens, ducks, smoked hams and bacon. In the BFG, the “disgusterous” snozzcumbers — filthing, coarse, knobbly and tasting of frogskins — are so vividy described you can practically smell their fishy stench. And in Matilda, when Miss Honey serves Matilda tea, brown bread and margarine on an upturned box, that does it; the two are bonded for life.

meat-pie-dannyIn all of Dahl’s books, the food moment that made its biggest impression on me comes in chapter 10 of Danny the Champion of the World. After a long and harrowing night involving a rescue of his father from a pit surrounded by armed guards, a kind local doctor gives Danny a package wrapped in wax paper.

I began to unwrap the waxed paper from around the doctor’s present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world. It was covered all over, top, sides, and bottom, with rich golden pastry. I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge. I started to eat it in my fingers, standing up. It was a cold meat pie. The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard-boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places. The taste was absolutely fabulous. When I had finished the first slide I cut another and ate that, too. God bless Doctor Spencer, I thought.”

A cold meat pie — with hard-boiled eggs inside, buried like treasures! The image haunts me to this day, even though I realize that it probably sat in your stomach like a giant brick of Spam. Continue reading

A Dream Vacation a la Roald Dahl

Fjord_OsloI have to admit, it was Hugh Jackman who turned me on to what has become my favorite Roald Dahl book. A few years ago Jackman told InStyle (where I was working at the time) that he was so taken with Dahl’s 1984 memoir Boy: Tales of Childhood and the description of the Norwegian islands where Dahl spent summers as a youth that he was planning a vacation there with his own children. (See the page here.)

boycover1 I eventually got hold of the memoir and all I have to say is: Hugh, I’ve never quite understood your appeal, I don’t care about X-Men, and you could not pay me to sit through Les Mis — but you are so on the money about Boy! The book covers Dahl’s years from ages 7 to 20, much of it focusing on his terrifying experiences at English boarding schools. The book is hilarious, dark and poetic all at once.

S & L were practically screaming with excitement when I read them the parts about Dahl’s boyhood pranks (one involving a dead mouse and a candy shop owner) and the whippings he endured at the hands of his school’s headmaster. But like my friend Hugh, the chapter of Boy I love best is “The Magic Island,” in which Dahl describes the summers he, his Norwegian mother and his five siblings Continue reading

Rhyme and Reason and Steven Meisel

I was thinking about The Phantom Tollbooth today after seeing the trailer for the upcoming documentary about the book (which by the way looks awesome). I was looking at the Jules Feiffer illustrations and when I came to the portrait of the waifish, lank-haired princess duo Rhyme and Reason in their drapey slipdresses …

RhymeReasonthey reminded me of these two!

LindaKristenMeisel

Linda Evangelista and Kristen McMenamy photographed by Steven Meisel for Vogue (October 1992)