My son loves food. It goes well beyond simple sustenance, whether he’s chomping on a shiny gumball fresh from the machine, slurping an ice cream cone as it melts over his hand, or even — weirdly — wolfing down bowl after bowl of tuna casserole. He loves that casserole: sometimes we have to take it away so he doesn’t end up writhing on the floor, legs up, moaning that he’s too full. I think there are lots of kids like him — kids whose pleasure in food is deep and abiding and real, more lasting than their transitory pleasure in video games or Pokemon or the latest Hero-Click.
I like food, too, but I know the kind of indulgence Nick desires (but rarely accomplishes) will hurt me, so I deny myself sometimes — or at least set limits so I don’t end up moaning on the floor with him. And when I must set those limits I like to read about food instead, food other people eat, food in the context of story: I want to know how people eat, and why, and when. (I read cookbooks, too, but in this kind of mood they only taunt me with their perfection.) In the books I love, I encounter fresh hot bread with sweet butter, hot apple pie steaming with tart juicy apples, sweet soft ice cream, and the happy kids who eat them.
Children’s authors know about kids and food. Primal appetites animate picture books, easy-readers, and novels alike. Think of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Bread and Jam for Frances, even Where the Wild Things Are. Or, for older kids, the Harry Potter books — J.K. Rowling’s depictions of food, particularly the delights of wizard sweets, are one of her signal contributions to literature, if you ask me. Hot food, cold food, sweet and sour, it’s all there.
I’ve heard it said that food is the sex of children’s books, in fact, the medium through which we feel comfortable exploring desire and its fulfillment. And while I don’t really read too many books with overt sex scenes (I teach and study Victorian literature, after all), I can and do recall in loving detail some of the food scenes in the children’s literature I love. And, yes, the scenes can be about the arousal of desire.
Rat takes Mole on a picnic early in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, for example, in which the litany of food as it comes out of the hamper sends Mole into a frenzy of anticipatory pleasure that nearly knocks him out of the boat. I don’t remember much discussion of them actually eating the meal — it’s all about the anticipation, I think. Desire aroused may be more interesting than desire satisfied, even for kids.
The scene between Mole and Rat strikes me, in memory, as a somewhat rare one in that there’s no mother involved. Not surprisingly, much of the food in children’s literature is provided by mothers or mother-figures: Mrs. Beaver, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, feeds the four human children a memorable meal of fresh-caught fish and marmalade roll their first evening in Narnia. The meal itself would not have satisfied my child self (marmalade was one of the few foods nastier than fish in my book), but reading about it told me all I needed to know about Mrs. and Mr. Beaver: they are warm, loving, good providers in every way. That Edmund, the traitor, prefers the White Witch’s sickly-sweet candy to their real food is the first sign (the Beavers even recognize it) of his separation from his siblings. These scenes, though, are less about the exploration of desire (though Edmund’s greedy desire is his downfall): in the Narnia books and many realist novels as well, food provides a shorthand for assessing character and establishing safety. Ma, in the Little House books (and Almanzo Wilder’s mother as well) provides warm and filling meals in the cold and sometimes hungry winters. I used to read over and over again about Almanzo’s favorite meal of fried apples and onions, or the bread with butter spread all the way to the crusts. Abundance. Safety. Love. They are all there in those meals.
It’s not only mothers who provide those meals: in Rosemary Wells’ lovely picture book, Island Light, the boy and his dad (both bunnies) make apple pancakes together and then eat gingerbread in bed. Island Light is one of a trilogy (Voyage to the Bunny Planet) in which food plays a central role: the first tomato soup of one book is echoed in the “toasted tangerines” of Moss Pillows, and in all three books a very realistic nasty meal (the worst is the cold liver chili in Moss Pillows) is redeemed by a fantasy meal providing comfort and love. The point in these books , I think, is that parental love endures and we understand it especially through the nurturing presence of food.
Sometimes — perhaps like the parents in the Bunny Planet books — I get tired of cooking for my family. I love to cook, really, but at the end of summer, when the weather is still hot even though school has started and the leaves are starting to turn, I tire of cold salads, of barbecue, of yet another quick pasta dish. I begin to long for casseroles, slow-cooked stews, cakes and breads and pies — but I can’t bear to turn on the oven, nor even really to plan ahead to make dinner. It’s then, especially, that I want to turn to fiction, though it won’t put a meal on the table. The mothers preparing the food in my favorite children’s books are indefatigable. Did Ma ever tell Pa she just didn’t feel like making johnny cake again? The lunch Frances’s mother packs for her at the end of Bread and Jam for Frances just makes me feel inadequate. Lobster salad sandwiches? My kids wouldn’t eat them anyway.
And there, finally, is the rub: how do picky eaters and the delights of the table coexist? Other than the fabulous Bread and Jam for Frances, in which the clever badger-parents defeat their daughter’s pickiness by indulging it (a tactic I must confess I have never been brave enough to try), I can’t think of picky eaters in the children’s literature I love. Harriet the Spy gets a little obsessive about her tomato sandwiches, it’s true, but the other meals go fine. So the fantasy of food in children’s literature is, I think, just that: a fantasy, of a world in which all the food is good, the mothers love to make it, and the kids love to eat it.
I want to live in that fantasy, too.