Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 26, 2014

Sharing the Table in Children’s Literature

When my class recently read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I brought in two small boxes of Turkish Delight, because I remember first reading that novel and wondering what the candy that Edmund craved enough to endanger his siblings tasted like. It’s a defining moment when Edmund first accepts the candy, which one student thought of as a step up from gummy bears, from the White Witch, just as the brown eggs, lightly boiled, buttered toast, and sugar-topped cake that the faun prepares for Lucy in his snug home makes her a citizen of Narnia. When Lucy returns with Susan and Peter to find Mr. Tumnus’s house ravaged, she thinks of that shared food and knows that scared as she is, she can’t turn back. She owes that faun, and will do whatever she can to save him. Lucy, Susan, and Peter becomes allies with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver over fresh trout, potatoes, sticky marmalade rolls, and tea. The fact that Edmund can eat and disappear signals us to how dangerously he might betray them.

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When someone suggested to C.S. Lewis that he used food because he couldn’t write about sex in his books for children, he told them, No, he just really liked food. Meals and treats can be tricks or pacts, depending on how they’re doled out. Perhaps we first meet this motif in fairy tales. Hansel and Gretel get in a predicament because the family is starving. They first trail bread crumbs, then are lured by a candy house. Another fall is caused by Rapunzel’s father stealing rampion, a sort of lettuce, from the garden of a neighbor, and trades in his daughter to save himself and his wife. In Snow White, one bite from the witch’s poisoned apple turns the plot.

Food and fire can devastate, but perhaps more often stand for home, safety and love. Good and food is separated by a letter, as I realized when I mis-typed it. Peter Rabbit starts out with a warning about his father ending up in Mrs. McGregor’s pie.  Peter journeys forth regardless and feasts on lettuces, French beans, and radishes before being discovered by the farmer with a hoe. He escapes, but his mother gives him only a table-spoonful of chamomile tea for supper, while Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotttontail get bread, milk, and blackberries.

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We just read Mary Poppins with its gingerbread with stars, plum cakes, wholemeal scones, tapioca, sherbet, and licorice offering times of togetherness and delight, maybe most particularly when the tea table is in the air under the ceiling, combining those images of flight – the arrival on the umbrella, the conversations with stars – with what’s homey. We read Peter Pan, where the hero who won’t grow up blurs the real and make-believe so much that he can eat imaginary food and get fat, though in this play-turned-book, sewing and tidying are more metaphors for lulls between adventures than eating.

Next we’re moving on to books for slightly older readers. In The Secret Garden, the fresh milk and rolls with currants that Martha and Dickon’s mother, Mrs. Sowerby, sends Mary and Colin to eat secretly, so their renewed appetites won’t be guessed, is almost as healing as the garden. Little Women starts out with Christmas, and the four sisters decide to pack their delicious breakfast of muffins, buckwheat cakes, and cream into a basket to give to those who are needier. There’s never such bounty in The Hunger Games, for food is scarce where Katniss lives. But we learn of her sisterly love, as fierce as what we find among Jo, Amy, Meg, and Beth, when Katniss barters a goat her little sister can care for and make cheese. And that burned bread, which we’re never quite sure is an accident or pure gift from the baker’s son, plays a big role.

Now I’m getting hungry. What are your favorite meals in children’s books?

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Responses

  1. I confess to a food fondness in books, too. Every September the first we make pumpkin pasties and thinking longingly of the bright red train we aren’t on. In November we make November cakes (from The Scorpio Races). One of my kids shares CS Lewis’s birthday, so we’re usually full up on sugar that day, but occasionally we make Turkish delight (but without the rose water–eurgh!). We’ve made saffron bread, a family recipe from RJ Anderson, as we’ve enjoyed her British faerie books. I think food in books makes a pact with the reader, too–sort of a portal activity that is real that the book people share. So I confess to keeping my eye out for good book foods we can try. Now we just need a good lembas recipe… 😉

    • Rose, that is so wonderful — your family activities, and food as a pact with a reader. I did find recipes for Turkish Delight, but couldn’t bring myself to make it as I just don’t like it (the students who do like it get to take the extra home!) But can you tell me the pumpkin pasties and bright red train allusion?

      • Harry Potter. They eat pumpkin pasties on the Hogwarts Express on the way to school every year. (There is a LOT of food in Harry Potter!)

        • Of course, I’m embarrassed! I guess I was focused on the candy. And you’re right about all the food!

          • Well, there’s some pretty strange food in HP, too, that DOESN’T sound appetizing to me! 🙂

    • Rose, it’s not actually a lembas recipe, but it’s for biscotti that are strangely filling and keep a long time, hence the new name, LEMBASCOTTI:

      Lembascotti

      1 ⅔ c. flour
      ½ t. baking soda (gives it that open crunch)
      ¼ t. salt
      2 large eggs
      2 t. brandy, whiskey or liqueur (or additional vanilla)
      1 t. vanilla
      ¾ c. sugar

      Preheat oven to 350º F.

      Mix first three dry ingredients together in a bowl. If you’re feeling wild, you can also add a half cup of dried fruit and/or some nuts and/or some chocolate chips.

      Mix remaining ingredients in another bowl. Add the wet stuff to the dry stuff and mix that up nice. It will be thick. (And sticky – KRF.) Dump that dough onto a parchment-covered sheet (or one with a Silpat) and pat the dough into a “chubby log” (yes, this phrase came straight from Julia Child, and makes me snort with laughter) about 12″ long. Bake for 35 minutes.

      Take it out of the oven and cool for at least 10 minutes. Use a bread knife to cut the long into ½” slices. You can slice the “log” at an angle for longer biscotti, or straight across for shorter ones.

      Put the slices on their sides on a cooling rack, then put the rack onto the baking sheet and put the entire thing back into the oven for 10-15 minutes, until the edges start to gold up a little. (I do not put the very ends of the log back into the oven – they tend to be crunchy already, and make a nice treat for the baker. KRF) Then they are good and yummy. They will keep for a week if you wrap them airtight. (Say, in Mallorn leaves. KRF)

      • Ooh, I’ll have to try that, Kelly! I recently moved to North Dakota aka Norway, and they sell this stuff in the grocery store called lefsa. It’s like potato-based tortillas or something. I have a hard time remembering the word, though, and half the time I just call it lembas. 🙂

      • I like that we’re sharing recipes here! Kelly, I still have your nice recipe for pumpkin butter.

  2. umm…I have to go have a snack now…

  3. For me, it’s the first time Mary (in The Secret Garden) comes in from skipping rope and she’s so hungry she gobbles up the breakfast she’d always whined about before. Also, pretty much every picnic in Enid Blyton’s FIVE series, where they always had “slabs” of cake.

    • Yes, and the skipping rope is a gift from Mrs. Sowerby, using Martha’s wages, too. I love her stockings becoming less wrinkled on her fattening-up legs. Then Mary telling Colin that one muffin at breakfast is enough for a boy who is going to die, but not one who is going to live.

  4. Love all the food in the Harry Potter books – so many fun-sounding treats, including butterbeer and pumpkin pasties and very British sounding treats like spotted dick and treacle and such. I really liked all the food references in the LOTR books, too – the hobbits with their mushroom mania and many different mealtimes (we occasionally have “second breakfast” around here, too).

    I feel like many of my favorite meals in children’s books involve tea: Peter Rabbit with his chamomile tea, Alice at her tea party, and more that I’m not placing properly – my head is still a bit of a muddle from the recent move. This figures, since tea is so important to me in every day life, I suppose, and has pleasant associations from my own childhood.

    I really must read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, especially in light of your food analysis.

    • I like when “tea” is another word for “early supper,” which sounds so much more enchanting. Little Women has some nice tea exchanges, though really the UK books are better with their additions of scones and clotted cream. One of my British students wrote about a picture book she fondly recalled titled something like Tea with Mr. Tiger, which has its Alice-in-Wonderland-esque moments.

      • The Tiger Who Came to Tea! Truly one of the best picture books of all time. I’ve lost count of how many copies we’ve given as gifts. The author, Judith Kerr, is now in her 90s, but I heard her speak in 2012. May we all age so well!

        • Amy, thank you for providing the correct title, the author, and another hard-to-ignore recommendation. My student wrote of this with much fondness seeping through her analysis, but it’s nice to know of more enchantment. It sounds like quite something to have heard the author speak. I will look for it now!

  5. Growing up, with the food mentioned in so many of our read alouds, My children and I always cooked some of the food, books you mentioned, plus Tolkien and the Little House books. There is a picture book my granddaughter and I read titled Sun Bread, & we made the recipe accompanying it-a terrific beginning opportunity for us. The book is delightful, as is your post Jeannine. Your class must be heavenly!

    • So wonderful you cooked some of these things with your children and granddaughter! Laura (and Rose) Wilder wrote so well about food that I’d want things I didn’t even know what they were — green pumpkin or vinegar pies — or, very momentarily, wish for a pig to butcher. But stuck to biscuits and corn cakes.

  6. How I wish I was taking your class . . . it would be so heavenly to relax with children’s books and engage in great discussions. My degree work at Hollins went too fast! But I’m reminded of the classes that I’ve taught where students have brought in food from the books we were studying, or from their childhood or region.

    My favorite food children’s book? The Wind in the Willows–that picnic between Mole and Ratty. The first picnic my husband and I went on, I packed some of those foods and read that chapter in the book to him. Also, the way Grahame described the food: “toast that talked.”

    • Oh, that Wind in the Willows inspired picnic with your husband brought tears to my eyes. This must be in the Candice and Frank movie. Perfection.

  7. What good comments and observations. I taught How to WRITE Children’s Literature at UNC For a number of years.now have students publishing! Rewarding. My novel which won the $10,000 Malice Domestic prize has a note to my academic cellmates that Doing it at the Dixie Dew has the Two things WB Yeats said were worthy topics for literature; sex and death. And a third one; food! Love to send you an Advance Readers Copy. The hardback won’t be out until May from St.Martin’s. What’s your postal address? I like your posting!

    From: Views from a Window Seat <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: Views from a Window Seat <comment+rgk3s_jvp3om47b0_6a6z_8@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Wed, 26 Mar 2014 15:11:06 +0000 To: Ruth Moose <rumoo@email.unc.edu> Subject: [New post] Sharing the Table in Childrens Literature

    jeannineatkins posted: “When my class recently read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I brought in two small boxes of Turkish Delight, because I remember first reading that novel and wondering what the candy that Edmund craved enough to endanger his siblings tasted like. It”

    • Congratulations on students who are publishing, and the Malice Domestic prize. Wonderful! I’m not really much of a mystery reader, so while it’s so kind of you to offer to send me an ARC, I’ll say no, thanks. But thank you for the thought — and reading this!

  8. Superbly delicious post! Loved all your descriptions and references. I also like the attic scene in A Little Princess when the Indian servant next door sets a magical table. 🙂

    • I’ve been feeling it’s been a very long time since I read A Little Princess. But now you’ve made me hungry, or curious — I’ve forgotten a magical table in that delightful book.

  9. If you talk about eating as a contract, nothing tops Persephone’s consumption of 6 pomegranate seeds, which consigned her to the underworld for half of every year thereafter.

    • Jenn, that is perfect. Though it makes me crazy — six seeds! And also as the hero’s journeys — call to adventure, initiation, and return — we saw enacted and resisted in Peter Pan. Mary Poppins believes she’s above such nonsense, though she does fly in and leave on the winds…

  10. Lovely to read this post and all the responses. I’m partial to Ratty and Mole’s picnic, too – and think of it when I’m by the rivers in Oxford (especially when punting!). I’m reading Farmer Boy to Sweetpea, and we’re enjoying the lavish description of what Almanzo eats. Every chapter makes us hungry.

    • I’m happy Sweetpea likes Farmer Boy, which may be the most food-filled of the Little House books? Surely someone has made a study. And hope you glimpse Ratty and Mole along the river with their baskets!

  11. I tried reading some of “The Witch, the Lion, and the Wardrobe” with my sixth grade Sunday school class years ago, and I made Turkish Delight. Did not turn out well, especially since I didn’t actually know what Turkish Delight was. I also had trouble getting the spiritual aspect in the book that I’d thought would be there. One of the kids in the class, whose mother was the Sunday school director, had to help me out. One of my favorite foods in a children’s book is a cake described in “Little Women.” A bouquet of flowers was placed in the center somehow. When I was a girl, I tried to copy the cake by cutting a hole in the center of a two-layer cake, lining it with aluminum foil, and sticking some spring flowers in it I’d picked. It was for my mother for Mother’s Day.

    • Gail, you were truly the best Sunday school teacher and daughter. It was something to try to make Turkish Delight even when not knowing the Jello-ish sort of thing you were aiming for: I didn’t have the heart for that just knowing I didn’t like the stuff. And I think readers probably get more from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when allegory doesn’t rise enough to trip them. Aslan should just be cool, not necessarily a spiritual leader.

      I love your cake, probably more than the not-Barbie doll I stuck in the middle of one for my daughter for her third birthday, a Cinderella cake. I don’t remember the floral one but will watch for it on my next Little Women re-reading (it’s on the syllabus in two weeks). Thanks to the internet, I now have a recipe for pickled limes, but on the same basis as Turkish Delight — I can’t imagine me or anyone else being as addicted or even as interested as Amy — I think I’ll pass on making that.


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