Food occupies our minds a lot this time of year—to gather around, to give away, to serve to strangers at the Salvation Army, to stuff into ourselves at the Thanksgiving table. What better time to round up a selection of cookbooks inspired by children’s classics—good for reading and munching.
Fairy Tale Feasts is a actually two books in one: collection of folk and fairy tales retold by Jane Yolen, plus go-along-with recipes. Both stories and recipes are arranged by meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus soups and desserts). Some of the stories are very familiar, such as Cinderella (pumpkin tartlets), Little Red Riding Hood (a picnic basket of goodies), and Jack and the Beanstalk (Magic party beans—“No humans were harmed in the making of this recipe!”). Some are not so familiar, drawn from African, Asian, and Near-Eastern traditions, e.g. “Hodja Borrows a Pot” (with Hodja’s Kebabs and Cucumber yogurt salad) and “The Magic Cave” (Goat Cheese Sandwiches). Most of the recipes are fairly simple and basic, compiled with kids in mind, but a few venture into experienced-cook’s territory, like yeast-rising cinnamon bread.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book to me is that Jane Yolen doesn’t just tell the story; she examines its origins, tells alternative versions, and analyzes the story type according to the Aarne-Thompson Index. I didn’t even know what that was: it’s “a system of grouping stories (mostly European tales) by reference numbers according to their themes.” I’ll have to look up this Aarne-Thompson Index sometime. Younger kids probably won’t care whether the story originates in Ireland or Italy, but they’ll enjoy the telling, and the tasting.
Is anybody up for a little smackerel? Or is it about time for elevenses? “This may be—and probably is—the only cookbook in the world with interchangeable recipes. If you like something very much for breakfast or as a smackerel, there’s no reason why you may not have it for lunch or tea or supper another day.” Indeed, but it does help if you like honey, because the recipes are honey-heavy. And there are a lot of recipes, because this is pretty much a straight-up cookbook. A quote from a Pooh story decorates each page, or double-page spread, and the original Shepard illustrations set the mood.
Recipes are arranged by meals and special occasions, such as “Elevenses & Teas” and “Provisions for Picnics & Expotitions.” Pooh devotees will be excited to find the recipe for “Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,/ A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly./ Ask me a riddle and I reply:/ Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.” (It’s basically a quiche.) Some of the recipes are not for beginners, and may be frustrating to inexperienced cooks. I would put Birthday Cake 2, which calls for separating eggs and beating the whites, in this category. But others, such as “Mastershalum-Leaf Sandwiches” (did you know you could eat nasturtium leaves?) are easy enough, provided you can persuade your kids to try it. There are enough kid-friendly favorites to avoid the fate of one beloved character:
What shall we do about poor little Tigger?
If he never eats nothing he’ll never get bigger.
“When I was a young fellow,” writes Brian Jacques in the Introduction, “food was short because of World War II.” He recalls reading cookbooks for pleasure, but some of the adventure stories he read were less satisfying. “It really annoyed me when I’d come to a passage where somebody ate a marvelous feast. Afterward, the hero would ride off on his white stallion, thanking the king for the wonderful dinner. Wait! What did it taste like? What did it look like? How was it made? Did he really enjoy it?” That’s why, when he started writing stories about the mice of Redwall Abbey, which of course became very popular, he included food. No generic namby-pamby “wonderful dinners” for him—readers young and old were treated to the homely as well as the heroic in the pages of the Redwall series. Which includes food.
After a poem about kitchen safety from Skipper of Otters (“Attention! Hearken and pay heed!/ This is something you must read”), we get down to business. The cookbook is divided into Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, each section beginning with a gentle poem appreciative of that season’s special charms. Each section also features a story that includes familiar characters and centers around a particular occasion—with its food. Since most of the characters are herbivorous, meat is not on the menu. Also, American dibbuns (children) may not be quite ready to stand up and cheer about dishes with names like “Mole’s Favourite Deeper’n’Ever Turnip’n’Tater’n’Beetroot Pie.” And some are scarcely pronounceable, much less cheer-worthy: “Rubbadeedubb Pudd”?
But if I understand correctly, most if not all of these dishes are mentioned in the Redwall books, so fans of the series will be delighted to find out how they’re made, and maybe even try a few. Beautifully illustrated, the cookbook is a celebration of simple joys like family and community, story and song. And of course, food.
Not just the grandma of children’s literature cookbooks, it’s also a sourcebook of frontier living and Ingalls/Wilder lore. After an introductory chapter about “Food in the Little Houses,” we next tour “The Cook’s Domain” (log cabin kitchens) and “Staples From the Country Store” (what came bottled, bagged, or canned). The recipes start in the staples chapter, and they’re heavy on the two staples that fueled the frontier: beans and cornmeal. More recipes follow in “Foods from the Woods, Wilds, and Waters,” “Foods From Tilled Fields,” “Foods From Gardens and Orchards,” “Foods From the Barnyard,” and finally, “Thirst Quenchers and Treats.” Every recipe was developed from dishes mentioned in the Little House books. In fact, the author explains in her introduction that Laura’s famous gingerbread recipe is not included because it belongs to her later life at Rocky Ridge Farm.
We forget how difficult food was to come by in those days, and how often Laura and her sisters had to go hungry. Winter wasn’t just a chilling time; it was often a starving time. All the more reason to appreciate the hard work and thrifty ways that built this land of plenty, and give thanks– not only for the blessings of the present but also the perseverance of the past.
And speaking of giving thanks, you might want to try Ma’s pumpkin pie next Thursday:
Stewed Pumpkin, 2 cups
9” unbaked pie crust
Brown sugar, 2/3 cup
Rich milk or half & half, 1 ¼ cups
Salt, a pinch
Maple flavoring, 1 teaspoon (to stand in for Ma’s maple sugar)
Ground cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger—a pinch of whatever you have
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In the bowl beat the eggs well, then beat in the brown sugar, milk, salt, maple flavoring, spices, and pumpkin. Pour this into the pie shell and place it on the center oven rack to bake for ten minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 and continue to bake until the crust is brown and the pumpkin custard is firm (a knife inserted should come out clean and dry). This will take about 50 minutes in all. Cool but do not chill before serving.
If your appetite for cookbooks is insatiable, be sure and catch Emily’s post onRaold Dahl’s Revolting Recipes. And I’m really excited about the Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook, which goes on sale December 5! Imagine the tagline on that one: “Recipes to Kill For!”