In those blue hours just before a summer sunset my two-year-old self laid her head against her father's chest and settled into the bedtime ritual: storytime. It wasn't always an idyllic world -- I can't bear to conjure Dumbo's plunge into the ring of fire, the maniacal clowns, and his Mom's madness. But the next story from the stack on my bedside table could send a terrified toddler straight off to Dreamland, if it contained some good eating, and so many of my books were about food.
I suppose they weren’t. Not really. The bunnies in The Tawny Scrawny Lion might have been making points about pacifism, but what I remember is the carrot stew. Peter Rabbit risked his cottontail to terrorize McGregor’s organic garden, and the Two Bad Mice trashed a mini-mansion when they discovered that the ham in the dolly's dining room was a plaster cast. Pooh had honey. But my real hero was Little Black Sambo, the kid who turned tigers into butter -- golden vortex of melted butter, just perfect for the pancakes Daddy flipped on Saturday mornings.
The story hour with Daddy didn't last long; learning to read came early and I 've spent the rest of my life turning the pages way past bedtime. I can't remember the plot points of Heidi, but I sure remember Grandfather's raclette. Louisa May Alcott promoted "honest" food, and dress reform too, in Eight Cousins -- Rose the Heiress baked bread before she was permitted to explore the decadence of cake. (Oh, for her skating outfit –the one with the scandalous trousers!) I still shudder at the memory of the maggoty biscuit aboard HMS Bounty; to this day it seems worse than a bloody back bared to the cat-o-nine-tails. Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian could have rewritten history had they shared a short stack, swimming in melted tigers.
I licked frosting from the beater of Mummy's Mixmaster, but my mary janes had mentally made their way to the stove before I could reach its knobs. Like sex when I was twelve (Frank Slaughter's Doctor's Wives and Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner) and bird watching when I turned forty, I knew I wanted to cook because books told me it was important. I understood this long before my first visit from the Tooth Fairy.
I can't remember the title -- can't remember a single recipe -- but I'm pretty sure I ordered my first cookbook through the Scholastic Book Club, as a budding third grade foodie in Gatineau, Quebec. (Things have changed, but when I was eight, Gatineau's claims to fame were an enormous newsprint mill , managed by my father, and a Dairy Queen owned by Paul Anka's uncle.) I do remember a "Clean Kitchen Cook" sign-off sheet, on which we swore to submit to Mom for signoff after adventures with cupcakes. We pledged to wash every sticky frosting bowl, swab every dribble of lemonade from the linoleum, and stash the sifter into its appointed corner in the baking cabinet.
The book got lost in one of the moves my family made from one paper mill town to another. I own hundreds of cookbooks now, including a vintage Escoffier, a 1927 Fannie Farmer, and, inexplicably, two copies of Robert Farar Capon's The Supper of the Lamb. But I'd trade ten pounds of glossy photos and trendy ingredients for that smeary seminal volume -- my first cookbook, my very own cookbook, a cookbook written especially for kids.
I hadn't thought of that book -- let's call it Cooking for Clean Canadian Kiddies -- since I pulled on my first pair of hose, long enough ago that my mother had to explain the mechanics of a garter belt. Two years later I'd mastered pantyhose, eyeliner, and The Sunbeam Mixmaster Cookbook, and I watusied my way down the shelf to The Joy of Cooking. I felt as if I'd been handed a backstage pass to a Kinks concert or a summer internship at Seventeen. This was joy, all right, but it was something even headier -- it was power!
No more brownies and Jiffy Two-Egg Cakes for me. Absent my mother’s supervision, I could throw currants into a tomato sauce, fiddle with tiny logs of butter (Chicken Kiev) or sneak a sip of sherry (Mushrooms Under Glass). Even my brother liked the Country Captain and I realized why we always stocked onions in the avocado-green fridge: everything worth cooking started with runny eyes and a bloody thumb.
My cousin learned to cook in the ashram because the Maharishi had lots of followers and a limited supply of brown rice (Dr. Conover now ponders the reasons lab rats pack on the pounds.) His brother worked the line at the Keg and Cleaver through high school and college; the proceeds of his MBA are spent on professional ventilation for his six-burner Viking and two-week stints at private cooking schools in Tuscan villas. (July, 2006 -- yes, the whole month -- finds Cort in Catalonian villas and Paris hotels, dining through a wish list that would make anyone gnash his bicuspids.) My brother Ian, who made a mean plate of maple fudge before his eighth birthday, grew up and married Hilary, a hottie caterer -- he cooks for a living now. One friend made his bones cooking for roomies in Ann Arbor; another made dinner for his mother and brothers because Mom was tangled in tougher things. An Amish farm girl learns to cook because it's her job.
Irma and Marian
Irma Romabuer and her daughter, Marian Becker, taught me how to cook. These ladies, my teenybopper kitchen skills, and the on-call technical support from Mummy made my kiddy cookbook as redundant as my saddle shoes. What I didn't know then is that Irma Rombauer had written A Cookbook for Girls and Boys two years before my parents went on their first blind date. For a collector like me, the lure of a second-hand bookstore is as irresistible as the pull of the lotto machine to the six people ahead of me at the gas station. I spotted its pink and white gingham binding in a used bookstore last last winter, pulled a ten from my purse within six seconds, and skipped home to savor the childrens’ cookbook I should have owned! It fell open to Chicken.
The opening paragraphs didn’t waste time extolling the ease of the skinless boneless chicken breast, or suggest that a ten year-old could make his own McNuggets. The ten-year-old whose Dad had recently returned from Omaha Beach was made of sterner stuff! "To Clean a Chicken" didn't mean a quick cold shower and a patdown with a paper towel; Irma guided little Peggy Sue through decapitation, evisceration and gall bladder identification. She was warned to remember never forget to pull the stomach sac from the gizzard before proceeding to the first recipe in the section: Roast Chicken. I've never had to steel myself to perform a poultry post-mortem, but should it happen, I have a textbook set of procedures, elegantly written for the pre-teen pathologist.
The pages look like those in Mummy's Joy, with the same wide margins and neat columns. It's illustrated with charming black and white silhouette work, and garnished with historical gems like "In French the word means 'sofa.' So the sardine, cheese or tidbit used is resting on a sofa (in this case a small piece of bread.)" "Joseph Conrad, who wrote many fascinating novels of adventure, once said: 'Eating is a necessity, but it can be a pleasure.' " Or, from the vegetable chapter: "In England, however, the potato was not well known, and Shakespeare's audience thought it was uproariously funny to hear Sir John (Falstaff) cry from the stage: "Let the sky rain potatoes!" Michele Felice Corne was the first man to eat a tomato in the New England colonies, and there's a statue commemorating his valor in Newport, Rhode Island. Who knew? Maybe public education has gone to hell in a handbasket since Grandpa matriculated.
The menus read like mid-century school night classics. Peggy Sue is wrapped in her Mom's apron, (a riot of rickrack). Dad's beaming at his Princess, and the little kids, Dick, Sally and Jane squirm in their seats until Big Sis sets down the Pork Chops with Scalloped Potatoes, French Bread and Harvard Beets. "No Apple Crisp until you finish your beets!” (Thursday is Liver and Onions night -- I bet Dick dragged his feet returning from his Boy Scout meeting.) Cookbook for Girls and Boys is a real cookbook, with four hundred recipes, no dumbing-down, and zero concessions to cake mix, shortcuts, or Sloppy Joes. The publisher, (Bobbs Merrill) provided blank pages at the back of the book for "Your Own Recipes. " It's long-ago owner, Clara Gordon Harley, bothered to scribble only one: Plum Pudding, which begins with the instruction: "Chop one pound suet." In 1952, (year of the second edition) Daddy Gordon didn't swing by Baker's Square on Christmas Eve to pick up one French Silk, One Apple -- Clara was in the kitchen stirring up some Lemon Sauce.
I began to wonder if learning to cook is for most modern kids a chore as anachronistic as a paper route, or polishing the family shoes on Sunday night. After all, my friends and I weren't distracted by four seasons of interleague sports, a computer in the bedroom (with a clamoring buddy list) or baby-sitting our younger siblings until Mom got home after her busy day clerking for a Supreme. Mom and Dad don’t necessarily sit across from each other every night, making sure Brandon's eating his brussel sprouts and grilling li'l Kimberley about the wisdom of her belly ring. Heck, they probably haven't had time to check that the kids have washed their hands.
Tiffany and Tyler
Glum: That describes the four short shelves of cookbooks in my small-town library. The good ones I already own, the majority run to diet-of the-decade and a complete set of Jeff Smith. I was struck by the absence of any Kiddy Cookbooks, not even those devoted to the American Girls dolls -- heck I'd seen a notice announcing the formation of an American Girls Book Club on my way in! What, not even a copy of The Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cookbook, the one that sold enough boxes of Bisquick to reach to the moon and back (before, I might add, NASA got its act together.) I approached the reference librarian, a hearty lady with sensible shoes, baggy cardigan and masterful mien -- a dead ringer for my tenth grade English teacher, Elsie McPherson.
"Doesn't anyone publish cookbooks for children anymore? I checked over in Cookbooks and couldn't find a single one."
Elsie lifted a hand from her ergonomic mouse and set down her can of Red Bull with the other. "Kid's cookbooks? We've got hundreds!" She rattled off the Dewey range.
Feeling as if I'd forgotten to do my homework, I stared down at my shoes and said that I'd looked, I really had, and I couldn't find any. Elsie swung out of her chair and red-cheeked, I trailed her Reeboks to a corner in the children's section. She was right -- there were more cookbooks for little Madison than there were for her Mommy.
Elsie squatted and started stacking cookbooks on the floor for me. "Let's see, Emeril's book is really popular. And kids like gross recipe books like Roald Dahl’s. And this one, where you can make a cake look exactly like a litterbox." I peered over her woolly shoulder and yup, that cake sure did look like a litterbox garnished with Tootsie Roll turds. "And then there are the American Girls cookbooks of course. They're always checked out." I told her that I owned the Samantha cookbook, a relic of my daughter's long-ago fling with an American Girl. Then I started my own stack.
Samantha still sleeps in a box in the bedroom Honor abandoned ten years ago, but after I dumped my haul on the kitchen table, I checked for her cookbook in the bookcases -- nowhere to be found. Is it possible that Cooking with Samantha has made the move to Los Angeles and sits near the All-Clad, the 1975 Joy the ten Global knives and the sushi mats in my daughter's kitchen? I hope so -- an American girl's first cookbook.
I poured myself a martini and commenced to con the kiddy cookbooks. Hoo Boy: I'd set a high bar for these efforts. Yes, I'm a cook, a writer and a mother –- my heart gladdens when I hear the children of friends have that cooking jones: Brianna has baked her first brownies, and little Lucas drills out dolmades. I realized that I'd established a set of serious criteria – a book should equip Ethan with a working knowledge of stocks, salads and sauces. He should know how to spatchcock a chicken, and he should be armed with all he needs to trim an artichoke. But, fretting about the short attention span of kids who can surf the seductive web for all cooking advice they could ever need, I wanted the books to be alluring.
Many martinis later -- spread out over a span roughly equivalent to Spring Break -- I'd read Elsie's recommendations, scoped out the selection at the local Borders, and proceeded to checkout at Amazon with a couple of promising-looking candidates. Not one would get my vote for Student Body President, but it was sure an eclectic field. The only plank in every platform, pitched to all my children from Ashley to Zach was:
More student parking? Open lunch for freshman? Lifting the restriction on bongs as a Pottery Class project? Nope:
What were they smoking, those Boomer writers? They gave up granola before they'd retired their turntables and pulled down their Farrah posters. I’ve yet to meet a kid who’d rather drag out the rolled oats than nuke a piece of frozen pizza.
Slipping into full-fledged fogey mode, I understood my mother's sadness that I can't decline Latin nouns (or is it verbs? Cases?) My grandfather could recite Coleridge. I understood for the first time why my American Girl, my brilliant English major, hadn't read Jane Austen in high school or college -- no one had assigned it. Most of these books seem to destine a child to scrape through real cooking lessons the way I scraped Joseph Conrad. Tyler and Tiffany can make a smoothie from these books; they can whip up some nachos. But they won't know how to make a pot roast or a piecrust, or even an Apple Crisp.
If they turn to The Best Kids Cookbook (Sunset, 1992) they'll learn about the now-derided Food Pyramid, "Dawn to Dusk Granola" and "Halloween Orange Worms,” prepared from pureed apricots and gelatin. It's an earnest book that reminded me of a Health Class text, but cuter. Though it attempts to steer the cook onto the righteous lo-fat path -- way too many dishes call for Neufchatel cheese -- it does demonstrate sausage making, and tarnishes its healthful halo by including a lovely, lipid-laden recipe for Cheese Grits. Some kid must have liked it -- the pages had to be pried apart, they were so sticky.
The Math Chef (John Wiley and Sons, 1997) reads like the lesson plan of a well- meaning sixth grade teacher -- there are quizzes about computing the area of a pan of brownies, answer keys to the quizzes, lectures on the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales, and instructions on how to figure half of three quarters of a cup. (That last is useful, actually!) But oh my, it’s dreary; so dreary I almost yearned for cutesy names and day-glo illustrations. My quick scan of the curriculum revealed the only recipe asking for butter rather than margarine: inexplicably, Animal Crackers.
The Better Homes and Gardens New Junior Cookbook (1997) didn't rate a smear. It contains a scant fifty recipes, heavy on the store-bought tomato sauce: lasagna, pizza, tacos and their bubbly cheesy ilk. It's cheerful, it contains complete nutrition facts for every dish, and it won't tax the talents of your budding Batali – he's instructed to use a package of Ranch Dressing mix instead of olive oil and lemon juice.
Better Homes and Gardens also gave us the latchkey kid classic: After School Cooking (1987) It's bright, it's pretty, and all a hungry kid needed to grab before wasting a few hours with Mario Bros. was a package of frozen waffles! We have "Yo Go Waffles", the "Wonderful Wafflewich (peanut butter and bananas,) "Pie a la Mode Waffles" -- pie filling from a can and instant pudding mix. When Jason wanted to come down from his sugar high, he didn't need to worry about nicking his game thumb with a paring knife -- he whipped out the freezer corn muffins and a can of chili. Soups come from cans, hash browns from a bag, and salad dressing from the supermarket. This book will teach you more uses for canned crescent rolls than Escoffier had for demi-glace.
I felt myself slide into Concerned Parent Mode -- this wasn't teaching kids how to cook! These books were pushing a deadening after-school combination of homework, junk food and trips to the freezer. I kicked my hypothetical son off the computer, told him to go play outside, ride his bike, be a kid, maybe shoplift a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos from the Speedway. I opened my box from Amazon.
The Fanny Farmer Junior Cookbook (Joan Scobey, Little Brown 1993) can't be accused of being garish, cute or patronizing – it includes five recipes for homemade salad dressing! But, dearie me, it is so prim, from the chaste black and white illustrations to the recipes for Boiled New Potatoes, Microwaved Fish and Blueberry Muffins. Your daughter won't get into any trouble here, but she'll be as likely to love it as wear a Laura Ashley dress to the prom.
I turned with real hope to Marion Cunningham's Cooking With Children (Knopf, 1995.) The Grande Dame of authentic American food writing dedicates it to Evan and Judith Jones; with a gene pool like that, how could a hopeful child not learn to cook? In fact, this could be a useful volume for beginners of every age, with its basic repertoire, logical progression, careful instructions and realistic learning curve. Cunningham used her experience teaching cooking classes for children at a local community college, and it shows. She's devised a fifteen lesson master plan, each chapter building on skills taught in the ones before it: soup, salads, eggs, biscuits, meatloaf, popovers, bread, apple pie, roast chicken -- a kitchen canon.
Chapter Nine, Pasta is exemplary. She gives us a summer and a winter version of Tomato Sauce: "Tomatoes can be dressed differently in the summer and the winter, just like you." Praise be, she demonstrates a splendid mac and cheese, including "a basic white sauce, which will reveal the mysteries of thickening." (The prose style she uses with children makes me grate my teeth along with that cup of sharp cheddar cheese!)
Cunningham has done everything right in this book, and for all the right reasons. In her introduction she says, "Teaching children to cook, I think, is our greatest hope in recovering what we have lost. Those values we unconsciously learned and absorbed day after day as we shared meals together and exchanged conversation." Yes, all those lost things: Saturday morning pancakes, Sunday dinner, liver and onions on Thursday. I mourn their passing too, except for the liver..
It's a terrific book: why did it fall so flat for me? Maybe the lesson plan format, the lists of learning objectives for the little cook, the not-quite-good-enough illustrations, the rare photographs that look like family pictures snapped on Grandma's deck. The subtitle captures the tone of the book perfectly: "15 Lessons for Children, Age 7 and Up, Who really Want to Learn How to Cook." (Emphasis mine.) I felt as let down as I had when the high-minded Louisa May Alcott married Jo March off to that goody-goody German professor, instead of to the rich, dashing Laurie. It makes sense, it's the right thing to do, it's all for the best . . . but it made me yearn for some color, some romance. Some BAM!
Hannah and Liam
There's beaucoup bam in Emeril Lagasse's There's a Chef in My Soup, (Harper Collins, 2002) including a recipe for "Baby BAM" spice rub. Emeril's face beams from almost every page, the illustrations are bright, and the recipe names so damn cute I almost – almost -- wished for Cunningham's stern blue pencil. Have a Happy-Happy Club Sandwich, kiddies? Maybe a Notches Unknown PBJ? Care for a Ka-Bam Kabob? (Yup, the Crispy Crunchy Granola Munchies are yours for the asking: page 120.) But I soon took myself to task for being such a parental purist; these recipes sounded good! The instructions are clear, he's enthusiastic, and he's concerned about safety. (Maybe a little too concerned: he recommends that we cook our hamburgers well done -- can he really prefer his meat gray? Hah.) And Emeril’s a brand. Children know brands, and as sure as they know that Puma sneakers are cool again, they know that Emeril is everywhere.
Children watch Food TV, and Rachael Ray is the way cutest brand for the twelve-year-old lad who's perused her spread in his big brother's Maxim. Her Cooking Rocks! (Lake Isle Press 2004) is spiral bound , bright , bouncy and heavy on sugar-rush recipes . Rick Bayless’s Rick and Lanie’s Excellent Kitchen Adventures (Stewart Tabori and Chang, 2004) is a serious cookbook featuring recipes from their road trips in Mexico, Oklahoma, Morocco, Thailand and France, along with the Pedagogue Dad/Smartmouth Daughter back-and-forth that rings true.
Barbie: there's branding even Emeril can’t match. I thought of her when my Wolverine buddy told me a story. His five-year-old daughter is allowed, as a special treat, to stay up late on Wednesday night and watch Alton Brown with her Daddy. Just before Christmas, as he was putting her to bed after their quality time with FoodTV, she begged: "Please, please Papi, don't give me any Mr. Brown tapes for Christmas. I want a doll!" Iris, don't tell your father, but do I have a cookbook for you!
Barbie Fun to Cook (Dorling Kindersley, 2001). It’s a slim forty-eight pages of girlie fun, packing the same picture-heavy format DK used in the Anne Willan Look and Cook series ten years ago. Like Emeril in his cookbook, Barbie bubbles from every page in hers, but with better hair and cuter clothes. She and her multiracial Barbie buddies cook like girls, and why not? Their sleepover Nacho Nibbles are untainted by the leering lure of prepared food products, their Cute Cookies are very cute, and the Dippy Chicken requires marination, skewer-threading and a semi-authentic satay sauce. My mother once frowned at Barbie -- in fact I was the only girl in my school without one. But Mummy came to her senses and now bestows Barbie at every gift-giving opportunity, and her great-nieces love her. Now that Rachel and Lauren are a little older, I think she should send them each a copy of Barbie Fun to Cook for Christmas, along with Barbie's Dream Kitchen.
Barbie and Emeril gave this high-minded foodie Mom a reality check. Who cares if Barbie isn't discussing demi-glace with Skipper, or that Emeril is flogging a pint-sized line of cookware and tiny aprons? Maybe, like gas station coffee, granola has improved since Kent slung macrobiotic slush in the ashram. I know that there's a serious child who will follow Marion Cunningham's curriculum to the letter. Perhaps making pizza on a Bisquick crust, all by himself, will spur your son to buy a package of yeast some day and fool around with focaccia.
Of course you could bypass the Kiddy Cookbook genre entirely, and present her with Joy or Julia or Jean-Georges. The buddy who dished dinner to his brothers before his voice changed might have reached for Rachael Ray. But, oh the enchantment when I held in my chubby hands that long-ago cookbook that was written for me. My book, my recipes, my name on the flyleaf. Buy your kid a cookbook, any old cookbook -- his very own cookbook. Write his name on the flyleaf, and date the inscription. I bet you a bunch of Ka-Boom Kabobs that your child will organize an unscheduled trip to the supermarket before her next soccer practice -- in fact, you might just want to fire up Excel and make up your own Cleanup Checklist before you pull the minivan out of the driveway.
But when you put her on the plane for Purdue, and pack away her 4-H ribbons, discarded eyebrow rings and favorite Puffalumps, please cuddle her cookbook into a corner of the box. She'll want it someday.
July 17, 2006