Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Food in literature. children's books.

I grew up, as I have said before, in a Chinese household, and my introduction to American (or I suppose, British as well) food came from two places - the school cafeteria (with its pale, chemical-laden imitation of real food), and children's books. I would pore over the Little House on the Prairie books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, imagine those smoked meats hung over a fire of green wood chips inside a hollow tree trunk, of the groaning tables filled with platters of ham and apples'n'onions and mashed potatoes and pie, and little boys who ate and ate and never seemed to feel full. I would eat my bowls of white rice and tofu and steamed fish with ginger and scallions and dream about potatoes roasting amongst glowing coals or hot biscuits or griddle cakes dripping with butter and syrup or home-fried chicken. In my house pancakes were made from Bisquick and were only for occasional weekend mornings.

Then there were the Betsy-Tacy books. I can't find my copy, but I remember how each girl's father would fill a plate with whatever they were having for dinner, and they would run up the hill to a bench overlooking the town and eat their supper, trading bits of whatever the other one liked best. There would be hot chocolate on cold days, and picnics on grassy hills on warm days. I remember how one of them was shy and scared and didn't want to go back to school, and the woman who ran the sweet shop gave them chocolate buttons to eat. Ice cream was a rare treat, a luxury. Food was the fantasy, not frilled dresses with bows or horse-drawn carriages, but hot biscuits and butter and sweet little iced cakes.

In books by English writers, children had porridge for breakfast (well, I did too - oatmeal with brown sugar and milk, which I learned how to eat properly from one of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, a sprinkling of sugar for sweetness, just enough milk to cool the surface, getting a little bit of each layer in every bite - warm oatmeal, sweet sugar, cool milk). It was afternoon tea that I dreamt about, with crumpets dripping butter and hot scones and homemade preserves. I would make do with English muffins, buttered and then toasted, with glasses of milk or juice or mugs of hot chocolate.

Later Gourmet Magazine would replace the children's books. The fantasies became real places, restaurants and shops and recipes that made those glossily photographed dishes seem possible, attainable. I began to read cookbooks as though they were stories; much later I would read something by Laurie Colwin where she said that cookbooks were even better than novels, because they cut out all the bits about human relationships and real life and just went straight to the food. (Which I am not entirely sure that I agree with). But I see now that my obsession with food began with those stories I read as a child, with pig slaughters deep in the woods and endless holiday feasts with cousins you only saw once a year, with picnics on rolling green hillsides and tea on the banks of twinkling canals.

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