For multiple reasons, I have lately needed to mull over what I consider a "foodie book". Not only for kids but adults too. So food is mentioned, does that make it a foodie book? How much food needs to be talked about before it crosses that line? Here are some ideas I came up with:
1. If it's a "body issue" book, it's not a foodie book. A colleague suggested Feed Me: Writers Dish about Food, Eating, Weight, and Body Image as a foodie book. Now, I haven't read the book (yet), but I'm incredibly skeptical. The reviews mention overeating, bulimia, not fitting into clothes, and the stringent size requirements for flight attendants...these don't suggest foodie book to me. I equate these sorts of subjects with self-help, psychology, cultural studies...
2. There should be satisfying food descriptions. I want to hear the fat sizzle, I want to hear the crackle of the baguette, and I expect to have my hunger awakened while reading. If you can't do that...well, then why are you writing about food?
3. A food writer needs to be well-read. You need to know your Ruth Reichl, your MFK Fisher, your Julia Child, your Michael Ruhlman. Children's literature enthusiasts say the same thing to aspiring children's authors: read, read, read. So authors for "foodie books for kids" need to be doubly well-studied. And I'm pretty stringent on this one because you can tell a children's author masquerading as a food writer from a mile away - they don't get the sensual nature of food and you can tell immediately. You can't just plug food into a plot and expect it to perform for you.
4. For foodie-books-for-kids, the writing really needs to be accessible and completely lacking in pretension. You don't want to scare kids (and/or parents) away with all kinds of fancy cooking terms and elaborate dishes. There should be a sense of fun, exploration, and discovery: a sense of wonder. It's essential to keep your audience in mind.
Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis by Robbin Gourley (Clarion, 2009)exemplifies these ideas. I don't know much about Edna Lewis, and I still feel like I want to do some further research after reading this book. Born in 1916, Edna Lewis grew up in Virginia and became a famous chef when she grew up, working in northern and southern cities. As you can imagine, it was uncommon for a woman to be a chef at that time, and even more strange for an African-American woman to rise to such a position. Lewis was advocating the farm-to-table philosophy way before it became the fashion, and she also wrote four cookbooks in her life, celebrating Southern regional cooking.
Using rich text and folk-style art, Gourley tells the brief story of Lewis' childhood in Virginia. The art has a wildness to it that captures the natural surroundings, and the celebration of the seasons in the story is glorious. It begins with Edna and her sister running out to the fields to pick the first wild strawberries of the season and Mama tells them they'll need to "outrun the rabbits to get all the berries." Isn't that wonderful imagery? I can't not quote from the text extensively because it's just so lovely:
Edna follows Daddy behind the plow, pressing her bare feet into the soft, just-turned earth. The plow tosses up roots from the nearby sassafras trees, each piece a prize in Edna's hands. Edna says, "I'll make hot tea from the roots and sweeten it with milk and molasses."
There is a revelry in the seasons and the fruit it gives: strawberries, salad greens, cherries, peaches, corn, beans, and more. While the family is harvesting the farm's fruit, they talk about the wonderful things they'll make with it and in such a way that will make readers long for sunny summer days on a farm. It avoids being preachy or pedantic and, instead, the reader feels like they're a guest at the party.
Robbin Gourley is a food writer and "a student of Southern cooking"; she has written and illustrated two cookbooks, Cakewalk (Doubleday, 1994) and Sugar Pie & Jelly Roll (Algonquin, 2000). This absolutely comes through in her writing - there is an appreciation and celebration of the farm, the food, and the seasons that I don't think a non-cook could capture.
And lest this all become too serious, the story is a child's dream: climbing ladders to get into trees, racing rabbits, blackberries staining lips and teeth blue, licking honey right off the comb...I don't know about you but I would have gone nuts for this as a kid!
The almost-ending is perfect: as snow begins to fall outside, Edna considers the cellar full of canned corn, jarred tomatoes, and pickles. She declares that "you can never have too much summer." Indeed.