Sunday, April 27, 2008

My favourite food moments in children's literature

In a truly self-indulgent series of posts, I'm combining two of my favourite things in life: food and children's literature. I was recently thinking about one of my favourite foodie scenes in a Roald Dahl book (Fantastic Mr Fox) and I realized that food in children's books is all about adventure. It always leads somewhere exciting. What a lovely way to think of food.

So, without further ado, I present the first in a series of my top ten setting-off-on-an-adventure food moments in children's literature. Some are lengthy (sorry!), whilst some are just a little indicator of the magic of the book.

10. Grimble by Clement Freud

Grimble, a sort of obscure book (now out of print) originally from 1968 (I have the 1974 Puffin edition), is a children's book almost entirely about food. It is hilarious, as you can possibly tell from the above illustration (I think I may have done that to a pot once or twice!). The author, Clement Freud, is a well-known British radio personality and former MP, now known for his appearances on the BBC radio program 'Just a Minute,' and is the grandson of Sigmund Freud and the brother of Lucien Freud, the famous artist. Pretty impressive! The 1974 edition of Grimble is illustrated by the amazing Quentin Blake, whom most people associate with Roald Dahl's books.

The story of Grimble is a strange one: Grimble's delinquent and distracted parents have flown to Peru, leaving him to fend for himself for a week with an oven-full of sandwiches. Unfortunately, he melts the sandwiches together into a runny puddle on the first day, and thus has to go through a list left to him by his parents of emergency contacts, all of whom seem not to be home, but have left notes on various foods he can make himself. Thus begin Grimble's food adventures:

"This is a story about a boy called Grimble who was about ten. You may think it is silly to say someone is about ten, but Grimble had rather odd parents, who were very vague and seldom got anything completely right.

For instance, he did not have his birthday on a fixed day like other children: every now and then his father and mother would buy a cake, put some candles on top of it, and say, 'Congratulations Grimble. Today you are about seven,' or, 'Yesterday you were about eight and a half but the cake shop was closed.' Of course there were disadvantages to having parents like that – like being called Grimble which made everyone say, 'What is your real name?' and he had to say, 'My real name is Grimble.'

Grimble's father was something to do with going away, and his mother was a housewife by profession who liked to be with her husband whenever possible. Grimble went to school. Usually, when he left home in the morning, his parents were still asleep and there would be a note at the bottom of the stairs saying, enclosed please find ten p. for your breakfast. As 10p is not very nourishing he used to take the money to a shop and get a glass of ginger beer, some broken pieces of meringue and a slice of streaky bacon. And at school he got lunch; that was the orderly part of his life. Shepherd's pie or sausages and mashed potatoes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; and on Fridays, fish fingers. This was followed by chocolate spodge – which is a mixture between chocolate sponge and chocolate sludge, and does not taste of anything very much except custard – which the school cook poured over everything."

Eventually Grimble learns to cook all manner of foods, from Jamaican coconut tart to mayonnaise to trifle, from all manner of instructions – a railway signal book ("He opened The Signalman's Manual and looked under C, and it had a chapter on couplings, and one on coal for engines, and a long one on clockwork, and right at the bottom of the page there was a little heading Chocolate Sauce. He was really very lucky"); green ink on squashed-fly biscuit; and an army manual about eggs.

The book's eclectic characters, interesting descriptions of food and cookery ("He looked in the book under T. There were seven pages about tapioca and then a chapter on trifles. 'This is a good thing to eat,' said the book. 'My trifle is a mixture of fruit and cream and cake and jam and jelly and sugar and almonds and if you like custard, custard'") and general oddness make it very endearing.

A little of the wit of the book comes through in the back and front covers of the '74 edition:

I would heartily recommend Grimble (check it out on Amazon), and Grimble's various attempts to cook come in as number ten on my list of favourite food moments in children's literature! Nine more to come soon. Can you guess what they might be? Do share your own!


moyrad said...

This is such a great topic. Children are always so excited about food - eating and cooking. People always talk about the little moments in literature where food is mentioned but never talk about them in children's literature. I wonder how many of our own ideas about food are formed from these moments in our favourite childhood books. I can't wait to see/read all the other moments.

Leeeeesha said...

Laura, your endless food and literary knowledge always astounds me! I love the way you're able to pull out tidbits from various sources and make them interesting, surprising, and relevant.

Thinking about how children see food as an adventure makes me recall a moment from my own childhood when I was certain I'd created cottage cheese, and was so thoroughly proud of the achievement. Well, in reality, I had just been foolishly playing around and mixing together random ingredients in a bowl - milk along with some other incompatible substances - and accidentally concocted a lumpy curdled substance akin to cottage cheese. Unfortunately, my mom strongly advised me not to eat it, so I was a bit deflated by that.

But I think it's that sense of joy in purely experimenting with food that is so precious about being a child. It's really not about the finished product, but about seeing how ingredients can be transformed into something completely new.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura,
Have you read the adult books by Michael Bond (creator of Paddington Bear)? They are a series dating back many years and have fictional character Monsieur Pamplemousse in the titles. He is a food critic who reviews restaurants (a la Michelin) and something always happens to create a mystery to solve. They are easy, quick, lighthearted, humourous and fun to read. And naturally have lots of food in the stories. Michael Bond is an amazing author as he is in his 80s and still writing.

Meg said...

I definitely want to read this Laura. Looks like Grimble's a very brave boy!

Can't wait for the rest of the series, maybe it will spark some memories. I've never really considered whether any of my reading as a kid contributed to my love of cooking. I always give my mom complete credit...

Laura said...

Hurrah! I'm so excited about responses to my foodie children's lit post! Thanks so much everyone.

Michelle, I too wonder whether my love of food was shaped (in part) by my love of reading. Hmm. Perhaps Charlie & the Chocolate Factory?

Alisha, thank you for your lovely compliments. I love your story of the substance akin to cottage cheese, and the way you worded it - poetic! I can almost picture the look on your face when your mom told you not to eat it.

GB - I looked up Michael Bond's Monsieur Pamplemousse books at Chapters and they look hilarious. Paddington Bear is a great one for food - he always seems to get himself into a complete mess (whilst simultaneously destroying his surroundings). And of course, his favourite food is marmalade!

Meg, I heartily recommend Grimble, if you ever feel like laughing out loud (or being weirdly inspired). I don't suggest putting a week's worth of sandwiches in the oven, though. Perhaps you could whip up a week's worth of ice cream instead!

Thanks again everyone.