I cannot remember if I was given a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy as child because I liked to read or because I was a fat kid. Wilder’s 9-book Little House series was published between 1932 and 1943; it has since sold thousands of copies. Wilder’s books have been the inspiration for television shows, movies, plays, and even cookbooks, but I have only ever read Farmer Boy. I remember very little about the story itself – plot, setting, conflict – nothing. I didn’t even remember the boy’s name – it’s Almanzo, thanks Google. What I did remember, however, was the food. Almanzo ate his farmer-boy face off.
“He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth. He looked at the fat roast goose, the drumsticks sticking up, and the edges of dressing curling out… He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly, and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melted butter trickling down it. He looked at the heal of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips. He swallowed hard and tried not to look anymore. He couldn’t help seeing the fried apples’n’onions, and the candied carrots. He couldn’t help gazing at the triangles of pie, waiting by his plate; the spicy pumpkin pie, the melting cream pie, the rich, dark mince oozing from between the mince pie’s flaky crusts.”
This is the precursor to food porn. It’s your grandparents’ gastro-smut. It might be why Chef Boyardee is banned in most libraries.
Dazzling descriptions of food and drink are seen throughout the history of fiction, at all reading levels. From the town of Chewandswallow in Judi Barrett’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs to the grilling techniques in Homer’s Iliad, food is discussed, oftentimes, with great detail. Would it be dumb to say that food is prevalent in literature because everybody eats? Maybe. But not everybody eats the same things.
Sometimes, I think about what life as a picky eater would be like. Ignoring all dietary restrictions here … why do people eat buttered noodles when actual sauces are available? How can somebody prefer mashed potatoes without gravy? No dressing on a salad, are you serious? I don’t need to put cheese on everything, but c’mon, there are actually people that prefer a hamburger without cheese! Do these people hate tasty things? They are your taste “buds” for a reason. You should be nice to your pals. I have wondered before if people who, like my adult brother, only eat plain-cheese pizza, that is to say pizza with no toppings, enjoy plain-cheese pizza more than I enjoy all other pizza. I’ve eaten pizza with hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, pizza with buffalo chicken and blue cheese and celery, pizza with pepperoni lathered in sriracha-honey, “Greek pizza” with lamb and tzatziki, “Mexican pizza” with beans and tortilla chips, breakfast pizza with eggs and bacon, and dessert pizza with Oreo crusts. On a random episode of Scooby-Doo, Scooby and Shaggy order a gumball and peanut butter pizza – I would have eaten it. So many different pizzas with, hopefully, many more to come. How can anybody, like my brother, only eat one kind?!?
My brother and his wife just had their second child in 2 years. It is with these children in mind, that I find myself thinking of food in books, specifically children’s books. One cannot think about children’s books involving food without bringing up (ignore the hyperbole for now) perhaps the greatest piece of fiction of the 20th century, Green Eggs and Ham.
Theodore Geisel, probably “Teddy G” to his close friends but “Dr. Suess” to us, wrote Green Eggs and Ham to win a bet with his publisher. The bet was whether or not Suess could write a book with 50 words or less. Here is every word listed alphabetically in Green Eggs and Ham: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you. (Insert popular Jeff Goldblum meme here.) Dr. Suess’s thrilling tale is one man’s metamorphic journey through a strange land with only the redundant trickster, Sam, to guide him. Together, Sam and our nameless hero face off against a rodent with a mortgage, nautical quadrupeds, and a locomotive with a gross misunderstanding of where train tracks are supposed to go. By the end of the story our picky protagonist has been convinced to leave his comfort zone and try some outlandish food. He finds out that he actually likes green eggs and ham.
Green Eggs and Ham is just a story for children. But it is an archetypal story; the kind that can be found (just like tasty food!) throughout the world. It’s supposed to encourage children to try new things, make new friends, take chances – preferably not on trains with a fox riding shotgun – but chances all the same. This is a lesson some of us have forgotten upon entering adulthood. People grow up and think they know what they like, so why try anything new? Imagine being 15 and thinking, “Hmmm, I’ve been around for a bit, I know enough.” Outrageous right? What’s so different about 30? Or 60? Or 90? I was picking on my brother earlier, but I have absolutely no fear that my nieces will be brought up experiencing a variety of food, art, and culture. I do, however, have family members who would tell you that your chicken over “rice” was delicious or perhaps they enjoyed some of that berry “sorbet” for dessert; they would, of course, wrinkle their noses if they heard words like “quinoa,” or “açaí.” Hell, they would probably wrinkle their noses at “rice” and “sorbet.” Is it weird that I am reminded of parent’s lying to their children?
It’s not hard. Accepting different and unfamiliar foods into your life will go a long way towards accepting different and unfamiliar ideas, people, and culture into your life. If you need a better lesson feel free to reread Green Eggs and Ham, I’d wager you know all 50 words contained within. Meanwhile, I’ll be hanging with Almanzo, I heard he knows the best way to get to the town of Chewandswallow – today’s forecast calls for a hamburger storm. Napkins required; umbrellas optional.
MIKE FERRIN is a co-founder and co-editor of 86 Logic. Born just outside of Chicago, he now lives and works in Astoria, Queens. Mike has spent time at just about every job possible in the service industry and though it’s been years since he hung up his chef coat, his heart has never strayed far from his back-of-house roots. His enthusiasm for sausage is unmatched. He has no doubts, that if God exists, his fingers must surely be made of bratwursts. His thumbs would dispense mustard – God’s thumbs not Mike’s.