I’ve spent twenty years obsessed with food in literature. It started with picture books. As a kid I spent way too much time staring at the intricate illustrations of cake from The Teddy Bears’ Picnic. I think that’s a universal thing – kids are obsessed with food because it’s one of the few luxuries that they are aware of. They don’t have access to other pleasures and vices, and very little control of their lives. I remember how important it was to pick a birthday cake or a special treat from the store. From Bread and Jam for Frances to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, books that featured food front and center were my favorites. That did not change as I got older. For my year-end evaluation in fifth grade I asked my mom if I could read aloud the Afric Queen passage from Johnny Tremain. “…here he had seen maids roasting innumerable small squabs, each stuffed with fragrant dressings and wrapped in bacon. And he had seen pastries- apple, mince, pumpkin, plum tarts- coming out of the brick oven…”
Maybe some people get over their love of food and/or literary descriptions of food as they grow up, but if Dinah Fried’s 2014 book Fictitious Dishes if any indicator, there are plenty of adults who still sigh deeply over an excellent description of food. A good meal can be very memorable, and a good author knows how to pivot an important scene around a meal – like when Maxim peels his tangerine and asks the narrator to marry him in Rebecca, when Jenny finds out about William over tea in Written in my Own Heart’s Blood. Diana Wynn Jones’ description of crumpets in The House of Many Ways when the King visits Charmain was so irresistible and memorable it forced me to finally hunt them down to try.
This isn’t a definitive list of yummy – children’s books are famous for their buttered scones and miniature tea parties so I know I’m barely scratching the surface. But these are a few of my favorite delicious children’s books, chock-full of delectable passages.
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)
If we’re talking about formative experiences, The Little White Horse was JK Rowling’s favorite book as a girl. If you take the time to read it, you’ll definitely see the influence it had on Harry Potter. I wasn’t actually a young child when I first read it – I was a teenager. But still, I reacted to it with the exuberance of an eleven year old. Maria Merryweather is a ward who moves to Moonacre Manor to live with sight-unseen with her uncle. Moonacre has massive grounds, a view of the sea, and a magical biscuit box. It’s every little girl’s dream. Goudge does not bother to explain how the magic works in The Little White Horse. It’s very old magic and very British, a little creepy and with no rule book. But the best part of the novel is the food. There are lengthy descriptions of meals, along with dozens of other little mentions of biscuits and cocoa. It’s perfect.
“There were lots of other kinds of cakes, of course, and every possible sort of sugar biscuit and iced bun, and all the different kinds of sandwiches that it is possible to think of, and dishes of candied cherries and crystallized ginger and sugared almonds and chocolates. And there were jellies and creams and syllabubs and ices, and hot coffee and iced coffee, and tea and lemonade and sherbets, and mulled claret and champagne.”
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1933)
The Little House series is known for the cozy depictions of Pioneer life, but Farmer Boy takes the literal cake. It’s the story of Almanzo Wilder, growing up on a large and well-off farm in upstate New York. Unlike the stories of Laura Ingalls, who spends half the series without enough to eat, Farmer Boy is characterized by lengthy description of harvests and family meals. There is a lot of warmth in Farmer Boy, which covers two harvest cycles. Almanzo’s life is not easy – he rises every day before 5am to do chores, even though he’s only eight years old at the book’s beginning. But Almanzo’s life is filled with so much deliciousness and charm it’s hard not to wish as a kid that you had his life. One of the biggest takeaways from Farmer Boy is stacked pancakes. My mom used to make us stacked pancakes for dinner sometimes – if my dad wasn’t going to be home till late, if she’d forgotten to defrost meat. And on Shrove Tuesday our pancake dinner was always Almanzo’s stacked pancakes.
“Ten pancakes cooked on the smoking griddle, and as fast as they were done Mother added another cake to each stack and buttered it lavishly and covered it with maple sugar. Butter and sugar melted together and soaked the fluffy pancakes and dripped all down their crisp edges. That was stacked pancakes. Almanzo liked them better than any other kind of pancakes.”
Hope was Here by Joan Bauer (2000)
The ultimate food book, Hope was Here is the story of a teenage girl who works at a diner in Brooklyn with her aunt. The diner goes out of business suddenly, and they have to move across the country for a new start. It’s a very sweet coming of age story, perfect for ages 10+. The touch of romance and adult themes make it a great gateway book for kids into the realm of YA. And the food mentions never end. From pork chops to sizzling bacon to taco salads. It’s got everything, plus that charming small town ambiance. Joan Bauer is known for her love of food – Close to Famous is about a cupcake bakery and Squashed is about a competitive pumpkin farmer. Most of her books were written in the 90’s, so they’ve become dated quite quickly due to the lack of cell phones and internet in her stories. But somehow that has also has made them timeless.
“I touched the boarded-up window. I had invented a sandwich here when I was 15- The Keep Hoping. It had layers of smoked turkey, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and chopped salad greens with red wine vinaigrette on a sour-dough roll. People ordered it like mad too, because hope is something that everyone needs.”
Betsy-Tacy go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace (1943)
All of the Betsy-Tacy books are filled with delicious early 20th century Americana feasts, but the fourth book of the series is my favorite for food quotes. Betsy-Tacy is a thirteen book semi-autobiographical series by Maud Hart Lovelace with stories spanning from 1898 till the beginning of WWI. It is a comfortable and delightful series, which grows with the characters from Betsy’s fifth birthday through the first years of her marriage. Betsy-Tacy go Downtown is set during Betsy’s middle-school years, as she and her friends discover trashy dime novels and take their first ride in an automobile. Its an absolutely gorgeous series, best read slowly as a kid, so you can grow up alongside Betsy and her friends. They were favorites of my mom’s, favorites of mine, and if I have any say in it, my daughters will be raised on them as well.
“Eating at Bierbauer’s Bakery was almost as fun as reading before the fire. It was warm in the bakery, and there was a delicious smell. Betsy bought a bologna sandwich, made of thick slices of freshly baked bread. She had a glass of milk too, and ice cream for dessert. She decided that she wouldn’t always have ice cream for dessert. Sometimes she would have jelly roll. It looked so good inside the counter.”
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary (1981)
Ramona is an iconic children’s character – one that all kids love and all mothers dread. She shows up in several of Beverly Cleary’s novels, in a frozen timeline where she is five in Henry Higgins in 1950, and then still young in Beezus and Ramona in 1955, and then somehow only eight years old by 1981. There are never any dates in Cleary’s books, and though technology changes slightly throughout the series, the frozen America that Ramona lives in is part of what gives the books such charm. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 has some of the most memorable food scenes out of the series, including when Ramona and her sister Beezus try to make dinner for their parents, and the Whopperburger scene. It a great kids book, comfortable and warm, and filled with stories that any eight-year-old can relate to – no matter if they were eight in 1980 or in 2016.
“The sisters went into the kitchen, shut the door, and opened the refrigerator. A package of chicken thighs.” said Beezus with a groan. “A package of frozen peas. And yoghurt, one carton of plain and one of banana. There must have been a special on yoghurt.” She closed the refrigerator and reached for a cookbook.”
Apparently foody literature has always been a big deal to me, and these titles have some of those influential meals. Apart from their deliciousness though, these books are also five solid children’s books with great writing and long legacies that still give me the warm fuzzies. What are some of the books from your childhood that still give you that cozy, comfortable feeling? Leave a comment with your favorites!
Sarah V Diehl