The part of my non-cook life that is most problematic is the part about being a mother. Not feeling confident around food and cooking—those powerful means of comfort and nurturing—has definitely put me at a deficit. Since efforts to learn to cook have failed and stabs at attitude readjustment have languished, I have turned to compensation. There you go. I’m admitting it. Compensation is the name of the game! What is the most reliable alternate source of comfort and nurturing I offer my children, not including hugs and kisses? Books.
Reading to my children has been a locus of coziness and sharing from the very beginning. And for about three years in there when the boys were both still really young, reading aloud was also almost the only way I could hope to sit down, because my boys were each the kind of toddlers, and then preschoolers, one had to chase. Otherwise, disaster! And actually, there was often disaster even when I chased them, since like many children one must chase, they were fast. So the reading, as you can clearly see, was a containment strategy. The three of us would all pile into the orange armchair in the kitchen with a stack of library books, and I’d get that happy confident feeling of doing a good job being a mother. This is what I imagine it must feel like to cook and serve a healthy delicious meal and have your family sit down together and actually eat and enjoy it. If only I could accomplish making dinner the way I can accomplish reading Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (see below).
Yet there is hope, because I believe with all my heart in the nutritional value of books. And this brings me to the extra-special nutritional value of books about food. Maybe it’s a leap. Maybe it’s wishful compensation, and maybe I am sort of a magical-literalist in my thinking, but I have an idea that combining the loving experience of being read to with the subject matter of food creates an essential nutrient: a magic secret ingredient to help my children be and grow. What is it called? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a little of whatever is in stone soup.
Fellow parent and caregiver non-cooks, it may seem like a stretch, but I, personally, am determined to overcome my non-cook inadequacies and willy-nilly nourish my children after all. I’ll do anything. Anything except cooking. Ha ha! It’s true that I lean away from my weakness. Indeed, I bend over backward. Join me in these acrobatic feats of not cooking!
Following is a brief list of highly nutritive books featuring food. They are all A-list favorites. These are books for young kids, ages three or four to six or seven, which I feel, if read with abandon, can give our children the nameless magic secret ingredient mentioned above. Maybe it’s a special form of love?
by Kate Banks; illustrated by Peter Sis
Alfred A. Knopf; 1988
A wild story unfolds as a boy finds words in his alphabet soup that shape and spur on the narrative. The great Peter Sis illustrates, and the book is far from conventional fare. Especially nice for non-cook parents who like the alphabet.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
Pickles to Pittsburgh
by Judi Barrett; illustrated by Ron Barrett
Atheneum Books; 1978/1997
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs introduces readers to the tiny town of Chewandswallow, where food comes to the residents like weather from the sky. All is well until the weather starts to get crazy and the food majorly oversize. The people must leave Chewandswallow and, unfortunately, learn to shop for and cook their own food. Some 20 years after the publication of Cloudy, the Barrett team followed with a sequel: Pickles to Pittsburgh tells the story of what became of Chewandswallow, and the system they use there for exporting outsize food to help feed the world. Major wish fulfillment for non-cooks.
by Tomie de Paola
Simon & Schuster; 1975
When Big Anthony messes with Strega Nona’s magic pasta pot, only Strega Nona herself can prevent unlimited pasta from overrunning the whole town. The best of the best. What we non-cooks would do for a magic pasta pot! I wonder if it could cook anything else?
by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers
Arthur A. Levine Books; 1999
Actually, this isn’t at all a book about food; it’s a book about feelings. However, it is illustrated with photographs of fruits and vegetables, especially peppers. From the authors’ note about the art: “To create these sculptures, markets throughout the New York metropolitan area were plumbed for expressive produce.” A very good jumping off point to ask questions about how we feel about food….
The Carrot Seed
by Ruth Krauss; illustrated by Crockett Johnson
HarperCollins Publishers; 1945
A little boy plants a carrot seed and cares for it over time in spite of his entire family declaring that “it won’t come up.” The story is economically accomplished with 12 illustrations and in just 10 sentences. It is the most no-nonsense book in the universe about belief. It is also the most no-nonsense book about carrots.
by Carol Diggory Shields; illustrated by Doreen Gay-Kassel
Handprint Books; 2002
The foods in the refrigerator bust out to have a party, then get into a messy scuffle when the tuna fish insults the garlic. Clever food jokes and excellent rhyming rule the day, as in: “The rice got steamed and popped the corn; ‘chill out, you guys,’ the ice cubes warned.” Clean up happens under threat from the very stern potatoes from the vegetable drawer, and all is resolved by morning. This one is my boys’ favorite.
by Marjorie Priceman
Borzoi Books; 1994
With greatest aplomb, a girl travels around the world using very creative transportation to gather the ingredients to make an apple pie, and then does so, and then shares the pie with her friends. The book includes a recipe for the pie, instructions on how to host an apple-tasting party, and a world map. Truly one of the most charming books ever, on any subject, and pretty tempting—apple pie baking-wise—for even the confirmed non-cook.
In the Night Kitchen
by Maurice Sendak
Here is the raucous story of Mickey and his encounter with the bakers in the night kitchen, in which Mickey narrowly escapes being baked into the cake and goes on to heroically add milk to the batter in his own way. Somehow both an argument for and a cautionary tale against encouraging children to help in the kitchen. Definitely an argument for the greatness of Mickey.
by Karen Wallace; illustrated by Jon Berkeley
Dial Books; 1999
When Baby Scarlette is born, her parents are sure that she will do something wonderful. That, and the tips of her fingers were a fresh, vibrant green. Scarlette winds up creating a castle grown of magically large vegetables for the family to live in, and in spite of the pro-vegetable propaganda—or perhaps because of it—this is a beautiful and enchanting book.
Each of these books is available in the East Hampton or Hampton Library collections, or at any East End library through interlibrary loan. Or you might find them among the home libraries of friends.
Evan Harris writes, and sometimes cooks, in East Hampton. She blogs at pickygrouchynon-cook.com.