Books For Growing Foodies
As a cooking teacher, many people assume I got my start as a wee tiny child, probably peeling potatoes at my mother’s knee, or learning my grandmother’s matzah ball secrets. The truth couldn’t be farther from these sweet tales! It’s true that I did help out in the kitchen periodically, but I don’t remember taking much joy in the tasks I was given, and I didn’t start cooking on my own until late into high school.
No, readers, before I was a cook, I was an eater.
And before I was an eater, I was a reader (well, a listener-of-books-read-to-me.)
The first memories I have of being excited about food (well, excited in a larger way than the simple excitement of being hungry and eating) all sprang from the pages of children’s books. These weren’t necessarily children’s books about food – some of them had a single illustration or passing description that I latched onto and savored. ♦♦♦
Goodnight Moon – the bedtime classic – was in the regular rotation at my house, a book I would “read” for myself as a toddler in addition to requesting it at bedtime. The whole story was pretty great, as I recall, but I lived for the pages that mentioned the bowl full of mush. The simple grayscale illustration, the generous bowl of billowy, cloudy porridge – it looked perfect, food distilled to its essence. It led to my lifelong affinity for cream of wheat, which still tastes as soothing as the pages of that book.
As I grew older, my parents filled my bookshelves with books from as many different cultures as a middle class white family could find in the suburban bookstores of the 1980s, and I fell in love with Ashley Bryan’s Turtle Knows Your Name. A brightly illustrated Caribbean folk tale, this title features the dish fungi, a cornmeal-based staple served with fish. My family never made fungi, but my familiarity with the story led me to look up the dish years later.
Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona was also a food-influential favorite. I remember begging my mother – just once – if we could make many many boxes of spaghetti until it flowed out of the pot, as it does in the book.
These were just a few of the books that laid the groundwork for my life as a cook and “good eater,” but the one that really cemented my love of food had to be Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy. The odd book in her Little House series – and the only one about her husband, Almanzo – Farmer Boy is page after page of rich food descriptions. It seems like every single chapter includes a multi-paragraph ode to the johnny-cakes, apple pies and roasted hams of Wilder’s childhood. I read this book until the spine cracked, practically drooling on the pages.
Years later, as a young adult living in a large community, Almanzo’s story came back to guide me one night, as I pondered how to inexpensively feed a hungry crowd. A line from the book kept coming back to me – about his favorite food, apples and onions, fried together. I’d never heard of such a dish, but the concept intrigued me, so I sliced some and fried them – as Almanzo’s mother would’ve done – in my cast-iron pan. Following other flavors I remembered from the book, I added thyme, pepper, and the New York Cheddar cheese that would’ve been a staple in the Wilder house. The apples and onions caramelized beautifully; the cheese bubbled and crisped on top.
Today’s kids have more and even better options when it comes to food-rich children’s books than even I did. Don’t underestimate the power of the repetitive storytelling when it comes to piquing a kid’s interest in food.
And maybe – just maybe – if your child asks you to make an endlessly overflowing pot of spaghetti, they just might get their wish.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dane writes poems and cooks food in Northampton, MA. When she isn’t engaged in one of her semiannual 30-poems-in-30-days sprints, she teaches people how to feed themselves tasty things at the Julia Poppins School of Cooking. Julia Poppins School of Cooking promotes food literacy through fun, confidence-building, hands-on cooking lessons in the Northampton area.