The first food I remember reading about as a child was Rat’s breakneck inventory of his picnic basket in The Wind in the Willows:
That list stuck with me, so much so that when I first encountered ginger beer as an adult I was elated. It was every bit as tasty as I’d always imagined it would be (though I still haven’t summoned up the nerve to try cold tongue).
Another of my favorite food-packed children’s books was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, the childhood story of Wilder’s husband, Almanzo. One of Almanzo’s Sunday lunches – to name just one of many meals in the book – includes a chicken pie with “dark meat and white meat sliding from the bones,” a thick crust, and gravy; baked beans topped with “a quivering slice of salt pork”; pickled beets, fresh-baked bread, and two kinds of pie. After facing privation and short rations in her own childhood and early in her marriage, Wilder must have relished heaping the young Almanzo’s plate with such bounty.
There are even more lavish spreads in Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, published in England in 1945. At a time when many English children were subsisting on a wartime diet of powdered milk, dried eggs and Spam, Goudge served up a literary breakfast of “home-cured ham, brown boiled eggs, coffee, tea, new-baked bread, honey, cream with a thick yellow crust on it, freshly churned butter, and milk so new that it was still warm and frothing.” A later children’s writer, Brian Jacques, often described the elaborate mouth-watering banquets that feature in his Redwall series as a response to the food rationing and austerity of his childhood in 1940s Liverpool. At Jacques’s Redwall Abbey, mice and badgers, squirrels, moles and hares feast on salads and soups, scones and cakes with buttercream icing, jams and jellies, nuts and cheese and fruit, all washed down with an assortment of beverages and all described in loving detail. Writing about delicious food, it seems, is nourishing not just to readers, but to writers as well.
More than that: the feasts we read about as children can affect the way we think about food, write about food, and read about food when we grow up. J.K. Rowling has said that one of her favorite books as a child was The Little White Horse. It’s surely no coincidence that the feasts she created for Hogwarts are every bit as mouthwatering as the ones Elizabeth Goudge had written about several decades earlier. Google “best food scenes in novels” and as often as not you will find Farmer Boy, the Harry Potter series, and “anything by Brian Jacques” side-by-side with adult novels such as The Time Traveler’s Wife and Like Water for Chocolate. And think how many cookbooks, blogs, special events, and websites devoted to re-creating meals in novels have appeared in the past few years, including a whole slew of them for the Little House books, Redwall, Harry Potter, and other childhood favorites such as Bread and Jam for Frances. The connection between page and plate is an intimate one – and like many other things, I believe, it can often be traced to childhood.
What goes into the best food writing for children? A list of things to eat can’t be just a list, after all, or no one would remember it once the book was closed and put away, let alone for years afterward. Rhythm plays a part, and repetition, and sometimes – though not always – lyrical description. Sometimes, too, the author uses a splendid meal as a way of showing readers that the characters’ circumstances have changed for the better. Mole’s joyous response to Rat’s picnic is just part of his excitement at having emerged from underground and discovered the Riverbank. Elizabeth Goudge’s orphaned heroine Maria expects the worst when she and her dyspeptic governess arrive at their new home with Maria’s cousin, but that first delightful breakfast tells them (and us) that everything will turn out all right. Compared with his miserable fare at the Dursleys’, Harry’s first welcoming feast at Hogwarts is, well, magical.
Of course all successful food lists in children’s books name things that readers would enjoy eating, right? Not necessarily. The inimitable E.B. White managed to turn this rule upside down more than once in Charlotte’s Web. Here’s one of the lunches Lurvy pours into Wilbur’s pig-trough: “…skim milk, wheat middlings, leftover pancakes, half a doughnut, the rind of a summer squash, two pieces of stale toast, a third of a gingersnap, a fish tail, one orange peel, several noodles from a noodle soup, the scum off a cup of cocoa, an ancient jelly roll, a strip of paper from the lining of the garbage pail, and a spoonful of raspberry jello.” I don’t mean to suggest that these menu items are appetizing, but against all odds they do have a certain appeal. Wilbur’s food (or “food”) is so alluring to Wilbur himself that we’re drawn into his enjoyment of it in spite of ourselves. Seen through Wilbur’s eyes – almost literally, since he revels in having his food poured over his head – a blob of cocoa scum is a savory delight. Goudge, Grahame, Wilder, Rowling: all of them masters of the literary feast. Yet only E.B. White could make the contents of a slop bucket palatable. Some pig. Some writer!
What literary feasts do you remember from your childhood? Have you ever tried to re-create a dish or a meal you read about in a book? Do you have a favorite food scene from an adult novel?