Pigmade Cupcakes and Giant Sweet Potatoes: Lessons from Today's Culinary Children's Books
Thinking back to our childhoods (and yes we're dating ourselves), we realize that many of our ideas about food came from our favorite children's books. From Dr. Seuss we learned to avoid eggs that had gone green; thanks to A Wrinkle in Time, we were brave enough to try liverwurst and cream cheese sandwiches; and most importantly, from Eloise we learned the all important room service philosophy, "Charge it please and thank you very much."
To better understand today's crop of culinary kids, we decided to take a look at some recent food focused picture books to see what lessons America's children are gleaning from those glossy pages.
By Serge Bloch
This stylish book, which marries vibrant food photography with humorous pen and ink sketches, begins "My mother always says, 'You are what you eat.' So I'm very careful about what I put on my plate." What sounds like the set up for a tale of childhood anorexia, quickly becomes a charming trip through various food related idioms as the main character, a young picky eater, learns to "use his noodle" and to stop "eating like a bird." During a visit to his buddy Oliver's house, the protagonist dreads eating the tofu dogs that Oliver's "health nut" mother (pictured as a fussily dressed woman with a giant walnut for a noggin) has prepared for lunch, but in an effort not to be rude, Mr. Picky acts like a "tough cookie" and braves the soy wieners. Surprise, surprise, our hero finds he has a palate for more than just macaroni, and later that night, pleases his own mother by trying a little bit of everything at dinner.
Lesson Learned: Trying new foods is fun! After all, tofu can be scary but kids cannot live on macaroni alone.
The Gigantic Sweet Potato
By Dianne de Las Casas; Illustrations by Marita Gentry
Based on a classic Russian folktale about a giant turnip (what, you don't know that one?) and illustrated with cheerful watercolors, this homey picture book recounts the tale of Ma Farmer, who despite a bountiful garden full of tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, and corn, has no yams on hand when struck with a mean craving for sweet potato pie. For this uber-locavore, only a homegrown sweet potato will do, so Ma Farmer buys the root vegetable at the market and cultivates it in a jar of water before planting it lovingly in her garden. But when it comes time to harvest her prized veggie, the stubborn sweet potato won't budge, so she has to enlist the help of Pa Farmer and a menagerie of farmyard animals from Bessie Cow to Ralphie Dog to tiny Lily Mouse. Together, they manage to unearth what turns out to be a truly gigantic sweet potato, and thanks to good cooperation, each earns a big slice of pie.
Lessons Learned: It takes a village to raise a sweet potato. Even the most killer cravings can be put off, and it's worth the wait for the good stuff. If you write a fun book about sweet potatoes, you're practically guaranteed a positive book jacket blurb from the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission.
By Jessica Souhami
Piglet invites his friends to a picnic by the river and asks each to bring his favorite food to share. But like any potluck host, this piggy soon experiences some serious food anxiety as he nervously counts the growing number of guests (including two frogs, a dog, and a murder of crows) and the small portions they've each brought. That tension only grows as the reader lifts the book's flaps to reveal the animals' contributions, each more disgusting than the next - four bunches of grass from the sheep, two stinky hunks of cheese from the mouse, and nine slimy worms from the birds. In the end, it's only the affable host who has prepared a universally appealing spread, twelve perfect cupcakes. And so each of the animals sticks to what he has brought and everyone gets a cupcake, except Piglet who gets three.
Lessons Learned: There's no accounting for taste, but everyone likes a cupcake. When having a potluck, always be sure to invite a good baker.
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