“We’ll Eat You Up — We Love You So!” Why Children’s Cookbooks Matter

By Leigh BennettNovember 26, 2015

“We’ll Eat You Up — We Love You So!” Why Children’s Cookbooks Matter

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another. His mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

— Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)


MAX MISBEHAVES, so his mother sends him to bed without supper, spurring the wild journey on which he embarks for the remainder of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. But have you ever wondered what dinner Max was not served? We are never told. What we do know is that his appetite for adventure leads him to a realm beyond the confines of his bedroom and beyond his own control. We know, too, that the Wild Things echo his desire to devour — “We’ll eat you up — we love you so,” they chant. Max becomes the king of the Wild Things before he determines that the whole enterprise — ruling a kingdom all alone — is exhausting. So Max sends the Wild Things to bed without supper, and travels back from whence he came “and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.” What we learn from Max and the Wild Things is that nothing quite quenches our cravings like adventure and a good hot meal.

Everywhere in children’s literature characters beset by hunger (of one kind or another) search for satiation near and far, and more often than not, food catalyzes their quests. A ravenous larva eats his way to transformation; a kleptomaniac bunny steals off with mouthfuls of fresh fruit and veg; a young boy finds shelter in an oversized tree fruit. What do these scenarios have in common? Food. Story. Children. Love. As Sendak shows, storytelling can make voracious, insatiable, wild things of us all. Why not? The mind works in concert with the stomach. Sendak reminds us that children are mischievous creatures with precarious, tenacious, and turbulent tastes. Refined? No. Fickle? Yes. In an age inundated by information and distraction, it’s no wonder we find little time or patience to feed our children well, let alone read well to them.

Children’s books have always provided a foray into the deliciously imaginative minds of their inventors, whether in picture books (The Very Hungry Caterpillar, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Green Eggs and Ham, Blueberries for Sal, In the Night Kitchen) or in chapter books and novels (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Alice in Wonderland, Freckle Juice). The best of these books are confections in themselves. Children’s book characters, great and small, are plagued by hunger, literal and figurative, physical and emotional — their appetites are for sweets, for acceptance, for destruction, for knowledge, for adventure, for understanding, and at last, for home.

While food in children’s literature pervades cultural and culinary criticism, very little has been said about the supplementary cookbooks based on these original texts — of which there are many. In “Delicious Supplements: Literary Cookbooks as Additives to Children’s Texts,” Jodie Slothower and Jan Susina note this deficit and make it their project to fill the void. Their article is highly informed, academic in nature; it picks up where Susan Leonardi’s groundbreaking 1989 PMLA article “Recipes for Reading” leaves off. In laying the groundwork for future studies on the subject, the authors echo Leonardi’s claim that all cookbooks are “embedded narratives” extending the idea to children’s books, specifically, and to their supplementary cookbooks: “Cookbooks that are linked to children’s texts converse between original text and the cookbook, author and reader, recipe and creator, and various readership communities.” Slothower and Susina offer a neat hierarchy of cookbooks ranging from those “primarily capitalizing on the original books to those that distinctly enhance and further the primary texts.” In fact, this reader used their categories as a guide for her own exploration of the subject. Yet, while I certainly enjoyed some of the cookbooks I read more than others, I hesitated when the authors dismissed certain texts as “lightweight confections for the original books’ fans that function like a form of literary junk food, somewhat enjoyable and familiar, but hardly nutritious and rarely enlightening.”

Literature, like food, takes many forms — from the highly nutritious staples of a healthy diet (the canonical or classic) to overly processed, prepackaged junk foods (bestsellers or popular literature). But as with food, literature must account for all occasions, moods, and tastes. To relegate food (or literature) to a pecking order is to dismiss the fact that reading, like eating, is different for us all. There is, I believe, a time for a Little Debbie and a time for a fresh heirloom tomato salad, one for Kobe beef and another for Big Macs, just as there are moments when only Tolstoy and Proust will satisfy us, and others when we yearn for Patterson and Steel. Each of the texts I discuss below, no matter how “lightweight” or “capitalizing,” deserves a place in your kitchen, or better yet, in your library beside their parent text. Years of eating, reading, and teaching have taught me that every activity that begs a child to envision a world beyond the narratives she is sometimes spoon-fed is an opportunity for her to see the text in a new light.


Eating, Reading, and Children

Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably.

—C.S. Lewis

How will a cookbook based on a children’s book get my child to eat? This can be about as easy as getting him to read a chapter of Charlotte’s Web. Why would he when beyond the table or the page are video games to play, friends to tweet, statuses to update, SpongeBob to watch? Yet, countless studies have shown that the child who eats well and reads well performs better in school, has an increased life expectancy, and gets excited by what she is reading and eating. Not surprisingly, eating and reading are similar processes — involving taste, temperament, time, and nourishment — of the body and mind respectively. What eating does for our stomachs, reading does for our soul. Moreover, food and narrative, regardless of culture, are historical bedfellows. In their introduction to Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook for Young Readers and Eaters, Jane Yolen with her daughter, Heidi E. Y. Stemple, explain:

From the earliest days of stories, when hunters came home from the hunt to tell of their exploits around the campfires while gnawing on a leg of beast, to the era of kings in castles listening to the storyteller at the royal dinner feast, to the time of TV dinners when whole families gathered to eat and watch movies together, stories and eating have been close companions. But there is something more — and it is about the powerful ties between stories and recipes. Both are changeable, suiting the need of the maker and consumer.

Survival and storytelling have long been intertwined, although the notion that food is narrative has most recently resurfaced in our modern culture with the advent of celebrity chefs, food porn, and gastro-obsession: enjoyments primarily reserved for the wealthy. The gastro-revolution has spurned an increase in designer books marketed to the foodie parents of foodie babies. It used to be that food was a scene-setting device in children’s literature or used to substantiate a culture or a secondary lesson. Now, food is the single subject and lesson of these texts, and rightfully so! Such titles attest to the popularity of food in children’s literature, as many of them are best-selling. But do they make food popular for children? Consider the creations in Little Foodie: Baby Food Recipes for Babies and Toddlers with Taste: “Bambino Caprese,” “Sunshine Finger Salad + Golden Beets + Oranges,” “Warm Honey + Goat Cheese Apple Dip,” or “Curried Egg Finger Sandwiches + Mango Chutney.” The gorgeously designed text sells for a song, but consider the grocery list! As with any luxury, these things come at a price. Food continues to be of celebratory and narrative importance to those who can afford it; to the rest of us it’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So how do we reestablish the tradition between narrative and eating at a reasonable price?

In his landmark text on the importance of reading to children, The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease says, “When we read to a child, we’re sending a pleasure message to the child’s brain. You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure.” By habituating children to the sensory thrill of books — the taste, the texture, the smell — we spark an initial desire in them to read and to continue reading throughout life. They become, in effect, lifelong readers. Frequently, though, reading has become a negative activity for children:

There are, however, displeasures associated with reading and school. The learning experience can be tedious or boring, threatening, and often without meaning — endless hours of work sheets, intensive phonics instruction, and unconnected test questions. If a child seldom experiences the pleasures of reading but increasingly meets its displeasures, then the natural reaction will be withdrawal.

You may never get your pea-hating youngster to fall in love with peas, but you may very well instill in him a sense of pleasure, wonder, and experimentation in the practice. And reading, like eating, takes practice. Trelease’s advice to creating active, lifelong readers extends to eaters too. He advises that we encourage involvement — ask the child to help turn the pages, to choose the book, to explore it with you. What better way to explore reading and eating than through a recipe based on a child’s favorite book?


Why Cookbooks?

In fiction, food is an aspect of world-building; like setting, appearance, and dialogue, it resonates historically, culturally, and sensorially. What, you may ask, does a Snozzcumber taste like? Is it as juicy and seedy as the cucumbers in McGregor’s garden? Wouldn’t mosquitoes’ toes be too small for frying? These questions and more are answered in Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes. Do green eggs and ham taste like scrambled eggs and bacon? Or are they greener and hammier? See the Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook. What did Little Red Riding Hood pack in her basket that fateful day she set out for grandma’s? Pack your own basket by following Jane Yolen’s recipe for “Little Red Riding Hood’s Picnic Basket of Goodies.” Is the mush in Goodnight Moon a real dish? Turn to page 21 of The Little House Cookbook to find out. Children’s stories have long satisfied the finickiest of readers — adults and children alike — and now, with a little help from their supplementary cookbooks, they can also satiate the pickiest eaters.

But more than the food is the activity of preparing it. Cookbooks are exploratory and interactive by nature, not passive reads; their recipes require practice, participation, and performance. Cookbooks ask us to get out of our chairs and do something — engage in a process whose product is meant to bring amusement, joy, love, and community to the table. Beyond that, as embedded narratives, the best cookbooks ask us to return to our roots in storytelling and story-hearing; they remind us that every food entails a narrative, and that the best narratives include food.


Story Extending Cookbooks

Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes, compiled by his wife Felicity Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake, is the kind of cookbook — bizarre, inventive, over-the-top — any child familiar with Dahl’s stories would eat up. The deliciously disgusting recipes in this thin volume are taken from a handful of Dahl’s most renowned stories — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Twits, Matilda, and The BFG to name a few — and the foods serve as delicious counterparts to Dahl’s whimsical narratives: Scrambled Dregs, Stickjaw for Talkative Parents, Willy Wonka’s Nutty Crunch Surprise, Hot Ice Cream for Cold Days. After reading the chapter on “Frobscottle and Whizzpoppers” in The BFG, what child wouldn’t delight in experiencing a frothy Frobscottle, as Sophie did? The pale green drink may have fizzled in the wrong direction but, Sophie says, “it was sweet and refreshing. It tasted of vanilla and cream, with just the faintest trace of raspberries on the edge of the flavour. And the bubbles were wonderful.” With the help of Josie Fison’s recipes (and willing adults), children can now discover the fabulous refreshment for themselves, among other delights. And if you complete the recipes too quickly, as I imagine you might, move on to Even More Revolting Recipes and Completely Revolting Recipes.

While Revolting Recipes turns real food items into quirky concoctions that transport us to fantastical worlds (if you wondered, a Snozzcumber is, in fact, a cucumber stuffed with pickley, peppery tuna, sprinkled with popcorn and poppy seeds), The Little House Cookbook by Barbara Walker conveys us to a real time and a real place: the 19th-century frontier kitchen of Laura Ingalls Wilder. These simple recipes of basic foodstuffs are in direct contrast to the outrageous combinations found in Revolting Recipes. This was a time when provisions were sparse, when produce was hand-grown (if at all), and when food was a gift from nature. Berries picked, fish caught in rivers, bread rendered from home-kneaded wheat, and barnyard meats a scarcity. In contrast to our contemporary supermarket, super-consumptive society, starvation was a real fear for the Ingalls Wilder families; they made due with what they had. Walker’s beautifully historical text combines illustrations from Garth Williams to produce a unique relic in culinary tourism. Walker is a writer and an admirer of the Little House series; she is not a historian or professional chef. Yet through research, attention to detail, and a clear passion for the subject, she manages to convey not only a time and place but also an unmatched artifact of culinary time travel.

In her foreword, Walker explains that her passion for the Little House books is one shared by her family, particularly by her daughter Anna:

If the results were not always rewarding, the process was, and that is partly the reason for this book. Cooking was for Laura a social experience and an apprenticeship. By cooking with her elders, she learned something about food, something about work, and something about human communion. Cooking remains one of the few household activities that adults and children or older and younger children can share in modern urban life. This book is a gesture of sharing.

Indeed, what Walker shares here is bigger than a basket of recipes. It is a study in a way of life — a tome of historical and culinary importance, one that any fan of the Little House books will relish, but one that should likely be shared with all children.

Other texts, such as Laura Numeroff’s Mouse Cookies & More: A Treasury, offer a collection of DIYs for the curious reader. What I like about Numeroff’s compendium is what I likewise admire in Alice Eats: A Wonderland Cookbook. Both texts combine story and recipe into a single volume. While the Little House Cookbook and Revolting Recipes rely on the reader’s familiarity with the stories on which they are based, Numeroff and her illustrator Felicia Bond provide those stories for us. The same is true of Pierre A. Lamielle and Julie Van Rosendaal, who intersperse the text of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland with original illustrations and recipes inspired by each chapter. Thus, a mere mention of orange marmalade in Chapter One prompts a recipe for “Bittersweet Marmalade,” or the delicate cakes “beautifully marked in currants” that cause Alice to enlarge to gigantic proportions become a recipe for “‘Eat Me’ Cakes with Blackcurrant Icing.”

Similarly, Numeroff’s book is an anthology of her early stories, including the series-starter If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Each picture book is presented in its entirety (including original formatting and illustrations) followed by several songs, recipes, and activities for the active reader or classroom. Though none of the recipes (or activities) are particularly groundbreaking in a culinary or educational sense, they do offer a way for parent, teacher, older sibling, or adult to connect with a child beyond the page. The stories are brought to life by the tactile activities offered. The child can make tangible meaning of what she has heard — Alice’s fabulous travels or the Mouse’s excited journey — by getting her real hands dirty in the real world.


Food Enhancing Cookbooks

Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook for Young Readers and Eaters by famed children’s book author Jane Yolen combines unique rewritings of old tales with historical anecdotes, simple recipes (concocted by Stemple), and whimsical illustrations by Philippe Béha. Each section includes a unique re-rendering of a classic “fairy tale,” be it Jewish, European, Chinese, or Middle Eastern, and recipes easy enough for a child to make (with the help of her adult, of course). None of the recipes will rock the culinary world — basic potato salad, porridge, deviled eggs, corn chowder, or sweet-smelling cinnamon bread — but this is an advantage, not a drawback. These are foods you can make with your child on a Tuesday night after soccer practice or in the morning before school. The real innovation comes in the coupling of story with recipe, and in the historical marginalia throughout. Here, story informs eating. It asks the reader to enjoy a meal not because of expensive or strange ingredients, but because of the story attached.

“Stone Soup” was of particular interest to this reader, whose familiarity with the tale came from the 1948 Caldecott Honor picture book by Marcia Brown. Yolen’s version tells of a poor Portuguese monk. His requests for his neighbors’ help are repeatedly denied, until he conjures a simple plan: ask for a pot. When the neighbor asks what he will do with the pot, he says he will make stone soup. In disbelief that soup could be made from a stone, she offers additional ingredients. Soon, the neighbors join her and the monk is overwhelmed by all sorts of spices and vegetables until “there was enough soup for the entire village and, when he left to go on his way, the monk gave them the stone as a token of his gratitude,” declaring “this stone will always make a good soup as long as you work on it together.” The recipe for stone soup? Just as you might have imagined: a healthy veggie stew with a stone hidden at its base.

The Winnie-the-Pooh Cookbook, Grandpa’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs Cookbook, and Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook share one thing in common besides their fanciful parent texts: their focus is on food over narrative. That’s not to say that story is neglected, as each one begs a familiarity with the original for complete appreciation; it is to say, however, that none require, necessarily, knowledge of their parent texts to understand the recipes included. These are the kinds of cookbooks that Slothower and Susina might relegate to the “literary junk food” category. Not this reader. While the authors may have underscored culinary value over literary (Winnie-the-Pooh), or sacrificed both to marketability (Green Eggs and Cloudy), in the end what children will get from them is simple: the story is fun, hence the food is too!

In Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook (or Recipes Inspired by Dr. Seuss), author Georgeanne Brennan does something the other two do not: she makes frequent and consistent links between the parent texts and the recipes she concocts. Some of those connections may seem forced, such as Cat’s Mac and Cheese or Jed’s Bed of Shrimp. The original books barely reference the dishes — Cat only mentions macaroni in The Cat’s Quizzer (none with cheese), and the Jedd from Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book is described as sleeping on a bed of pompoms “he grows on his head.” No note of shrimp. But the majority of the recipes work in collaboration with their originals: Flapjack Flapper’s Flapjacks (Oh Say Can You Say?), Yot in the Pot (There’s a Wocket in My Pocket), Who-Roast-Beast (How the Grinch Stole Christmas), and of course, the titular Green Eggs and Ham (Green Eggs and Ham). Each recipe is prefaced by a quotation from the title that inspires it and a unique Seuss drawing.

Grandpa’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs Cookbook, compiled by the authors of the original text, Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett, is a flimsier version of the Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook. This spiral-bound volume of 24 meals and one drink recipe includes such fare as Spaghetti Twister with a Tomato Tornado, Hamburger Heading For Earth, Broccoli Tree Salad. Well, you get the point. Basically, the Barrett and Barrett team assemble all the staples of a typical American family dinner into one cookbook, tack on fancy, meteorological titles, and call it a day. Groundbreaking and innovative? No. But will it get your child to eat? Ron Barrett’s delightful drawings help to pull the reader/chef away from the pedestrian recipes and into a world where “Strawberry Tallcake” isn’t just a shortcake, it’s a 70-foot building outside your window; and maybe Snowy Mashed Potatoes with Sunrise is what you’d expect — mashed potatoes and butter — but have you ever seen a mashed potato snowman? So the food isn’t adventurous, but the adventure in food is.

The Winnie-the-Pooh Cookbook, inspired by A.A. Milne’s classics, is, as you guessed, a compendium of honey-coated treats: Honey Hot Chocolate, Honey Milk Punch, Honey Toffee Apples, Honey Toffee Pennies, Colored Honey, Pink Honey Marmalade Frosting, Marmalade on a Honeycomb. Of the 58 recipes included in this volume, nearly half use honey (as the main ingredient or in the title). There is even a section called “Honey Sauces.” Surprising? No. Humdrum? Perhaps. But this darling, neatly bound little treasury will transport you to the early Milne with its classic illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. Author Virginia Ellison’s stipulation only sweetens the pot: “recipes using honey appear in this book only a little less often than Pooh eats or talks about it. The other recipes are for some of his friends, such as Piglet, Eeyore, and Christopher Robin. Mainly, they’re for you.” And indeed they are.


Eat, Read, Love.

Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar lays the groundwork in simple illustrations and language for what we need to do for our children — make them hungry again — hungry to eat, hungry to read, hungry for more. The little larva, born at night, experiences hunger the instant he experiences sunlight. And every moment afterward only enlarges his hunger until he becomes a beautiful, beatific creature.

This is what we should be inspiring in our children — a hunger for the page and for the plate. Together, these activities nourish the mind, body, and soul. They offer adventure and exploration of cultures past, present, and future, near and far. They can be exact and scientific, historical or imagined; they can be chaotic, contradictory, and experimentory; but in combination — a joining of text and taste, fiction and flavor — they have the power to enact a transformation as brilliant as a butterfly.

Food is community building; so is literature. But, most of all, food is narrative — when combined with story, it allows us to connect to our roots, creating, as Walker says in her introduction to The Little House Cookbook,

connections among the food on the table, the grain in the field, and the cow in the pasture. Between the food on the table and the sweat of someone’s brow. Between the winter and dried apples, the summer and tomatoes, the autumn and fresh sausage. Between the labors of the pioneers and the abundance we enjoy today. Between children and their elders. Between the preparation of a meal and the experience of love.


Leigh Bennett recently completed her MFA in Fiction at Bennington College. Her words can be found in CutbankVestal ReviewThe Critical FlamedecomP, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Leigh Bennett recently completed her MFA in Fiction at Bennington College. She lives in Boston where her students inspire her to teach writing and literature at Massasoit Community College. Her words can be found in Cutbank, Vestal Review, The Critical Flame, decomP, and elsewhere.


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