Inanimate and oddly shaped edible objects, vegetables star in far fewer stories for children than anything with legs, antennae, feathers or fur. In honor of the Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve dug up a handful of interesting vege-tales, one new, one old and twice retold. Gratins and buttery purees are not the inevitable ends of a gigantic vegetable, so their stories can be relished by meat-eaters and vegetarians.
“Die Ruebentante” –or Aunty Root–is a story I’ve wanted to feature in a post for a long time. Its creator, Max Froelich, seems to be unknown except for the work he published in Heim der Jugend: Ein Jahrbuch fuer Kinder und Eltern (1905). It is a cautionary tale in two frames about a generously proportioned lady turnip of a certain age, who goes for a walk in her slippers on a moonlit night. In the dark she trips over two potatoes and tumbles down into the mud, unaware that the moon has witnessed the whole ridiculous episode. The moral? No midnight strolls for root vegetables with spindly legs and tiny feet shod in slippers.
For a vegetable of stupendous girth and length that inspires shock, awe, and veneration, see Vladimir Radunsky’s The Mighty Asparagus (2004), a picture book for three- to eight-year-olds. As the recipient of a New York Times’ Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award, the judges must not have thought it very likely that parents would have to fend off questions like, “Why does a giant asparagus make the little king nervous?” or “Why does queen hug the asparagus?” or “Why does the princess want to eat the yucky asparagus?” On the other hand, all the nudge-nudge, wink, winks will be over the children’s heads, but will help keep the adult reader awake. Likewise the good-natured liberties taken with the paintings of Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Perugino, and several other Renaissance artists … Here is the fold-out plate showing the full grandeur of the asparagus.
The Mighty Asparagus is, of course, a fractured version of the venerable folk tale of the turnip and Brian Alderson’s telling illustrated by Fritz Wegner is one of the most enjoyable of the many versions. A poor farmer finds himself the proud cultivator of the most prodigious, round, unblemished specimen ever seen in those parts. Such a “right champion turnip” can only be fit for a king, so once the farmer and his family manage to pull it out of the ground and heave it onto a wagon, off they go to the castle. The king is so impressed with this “most champion turnip” that he fills the farmer’s cart full of gold.Now when the rich squire gets wind of his neighbor’s good luck, he is so consumed with jealousy that he must take the finest horse in his stable, who is worth more than a thousand turnips, and present it to the king, confident of receiving an even bigger and better reward. The squire gets his money’s worth in turnips all right, as the new owner of the right champion vegetable.
With badgers in bright Russian folklorist costumes, Jan Brett gives her picture book of “The Turnip” a new twist. By eliminating the greedy resentful neighbor, she focuses instead on the communal effort of pulling the turnip out of the frozen field. The successful conclusion of this Herculean labor is celebrated with singing and dancing.
Taking a hint from Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, Mother Badger grabs her griddle and gets down to making a mountain of turnip pancakes to warm everyone up. It seems unlikely that a savory Chinese or Korean turnip pancake was on the menu, so I like to imagine that she whipped up a kind of latkes, made from half grated potato and half grated turnip, which would taste equally good with butter and syrup or sour cream and smoked fish. If you are still feeling hungry after Thursday’s overindulgence, there are recipes for either kind of turnip pancake on the Internet.