Picture Book Herstories of Great American Women Cookbook Writers

Count on  Deborah Hopkinson, a distinguished author of children’s non-fiction, to take on the challenge of introducing two giants of American culinary herstory in picture book biographies.  Her subjects are Amelia Simmons, whose American Cookery (1796) was the first of its kind and Fanny Merritt Farmer (1857-1912), author of the best-selling Boston Cooking School Cookbook  (1896), which in various incarnations  reached a 13th edition in 1990.  Not having led adventurous lives, painted innovative artwork, made major advances in science, or written famous fictions, the two women had to be largely reinvented to be worthy of remembrance.

Fannie Merritt Farmer (1857-1915), the first to write recipes with precise quantities measured in standardized equipment in the Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), was a product of the domestic science movement.  She came from a well-educated Boston Unitarian family and was expected to attend college.  Those plans were upended by a paralytic stroke (or polio) she suffered at age sixteen.   She regained enough strength in her twenties to learn cooking and operate a boarding house known for its bill of fare out of her mother’s home.  Although mostly confined to a wheelchair by thirty, she still pursued a busy and successful career teaching, administering the Boston Cooking School, founding her own school, and improving nutrition and care of invalids.

Fanny in the Kitchen could have been the inspirational story of a physically challenged female icon, but Hopkinson chose instead to dream up a story revolving around the daughter of Mrs. Charles Shaw, Fannie’s employer of  who recommended she attend the Boston Cooking School. Fannie cooks like an angel, much to the dismay of Marcia Shaw, who feels she has been displaced as her pregnant mother’s helper.  Fannie, as realized by illustrator Nancy Carpenter, has the briskly efficient no-nonsense air (and turned-up nose) of Mary Poppins.  She is kind and attentive enough to see that Marcia likes being in the kitchen and wants to learn.  Marcia’s lessons give her the idea of writing everything down to make it easier to retain the art and science of cookery.  Her pupil’s mastery of cake baking coincides with her departure for new horizons.Almost no biographical information survives about Amelia Simmons beyond a few tidbits in the cookbook.  Hopkinson’s solution?  Admit up front that she’sl Inventing a credible backstory for the “American orphan” that is  a “revolutionary confection.”   It goes like this: her father perished in the war of independence and her mother died shortly thereafter of smallpox, leaving their daughter poor and friendly. The wives of the town elders decide that rather than making the municipality responsible for her maintenance, a family will take her in as a “bound girl,” presented by Hopkinson as a kind of mother’s helper rather than a contractual form of slavery.   Stalwart  Amelia walks into the Beans’ chaotic home, where two of the six boys take bites out of apples and toss them aside like colonial Ramona Quimbys.   Without missing a beat, she takes over household management from their overwhelmed mother.

This is a cheerier and more palatable take on Miss Simmons’ slightly sour explanation of her qualifications for writing American Cookery.  Being “reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics,” she possesses “the more general and universal knowledge” a female needs to be of service to her employer, the “Lady of fashion and fortune.”  Simmons’ advice that an orphan in service must maintain a character for strict virtue, coded language for the unpleasant reality that she will have no protectors to forestall the unwanted advances of the master or his son is given a pass by Hopkinson,

She does, however, assume that Amelia Simmons intended to rise above her gallingly low social position.   Having learned to read by helping one of the little Beans with his letters,  when asked by Mrs. Bean how she might assist her,  Amelia replies that she wants to master the art of American cooking so she can share it with her fellow citizens.  But first she has to build upon a foundation upon English recipes, then advance to variations using American ingredients like winter squash, molasses, and corn meal, testing them on the hungry Bean family.   A successful afternoon tea where the town ladies sample Amelia’s divine cakes and strawberry preserve, leads to an invitation to bake a cake as a gift for display on the occasion of George Washington’s inauguration.  That “plucky patriot” Amelia outdoes herself by producing thirteen cakes, one for each of the new states, lavishly decorated with gilt.  Our first president pronounces his slice “Delicious.”

Of course, there is not a word of truth in this pretty tale of the new nation.  There is nothing distinctively American about Amelia’s independence cake, whose recipe is very close to almost any English recipe for  a yeast-raised great cake, with its huge quantities of flour, butter, eggs, brandy and “plumbs”—raisins, currants, and citron.  If Hopkinson had slipped in more nuggets from American Cookery—Amelia’s praise of shad, her suggestion that raising rabbits was a sure money-maker, her distaste for garlic, her recipes for what looks like a good old pot pie, a Christmas butter cookie flavored with ground coriander seed, or candying watermelon rind as a substitute for citron—there wouldn’t have been much of a story, however mouthwatering such details might be to the adult reader with a fine palate.

At times these two picture book biographies seem to be turning back the clock, even though there is never even a whisper of a suggestion that homemaking is the only path for girls– or ought to be. They do, I think, suggest to young readers that the kitchen was a site of empowerment for women in previous centuries and that ought to be remembered and honored as such, even if producing light, delicate biscuits will never be in one’s skill set.  This model of female advancement has not yet outlived its usefulness, but rather morphed in surprising ways in the twenty-first century.  Last week the New York Times Food Section ran an article about Arab women, their careers outside the home stymied, who have found an alternative calling demonstrating home cooking on YouTube food channels.  Pleased and surprised to win millions of subscribers and earn respectable incomes, they find great satisfaction teaching others the secrets of  making delicious food.

Santa Claus Saves Christmas  Again!

Classic Santa Stout courtesy of Coke.

No cultural icon seems to be safe from scrutiny in these critical times.  Over the last few years, two authors have created picture books showing little readers that there’s room for improvement in Santa Land.  Is this driven by data showing that kids don’t like him roly-poly, generous, and jolly?  That they aren’t in awe of the one-man international parcel delivery service powered by reindeer that Amazon Prime has yet to beat? No, it’s his size, which is laid to the door of poor food choices at meals and snacks.  A mature elf who eats a plate of cookies at even a fraction of the houses visited on Christmas Eve is going to put on weight without regular exercise..

The stories offer different solutions to the same dilemma: can Santa lose weight in time for the Christmas Eve run?  Ralph Packard tries to make The North Pole Goes on a Diet (2017) a low-key, inspirational story about controlling weight through mindful eating and regular activity.

Vigilant Timmy the Elf. Ralph Packard. The North Pole Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Tracy Egan. [U.S.A.: no publisher], c.2017.

One year some of the North Pole gang noticed that everybody had gotten plump, sluggish and grumpy.  Six months later Mrs. Claus tells Santa sorrowfully that his red suit can’t be let out: it is either lose weight or have a bigger suit made.

Santa on the scale.

Being an enlightened employer, Santa has a doctor, nurse, dentist, and vet up to the Pole to evaluate the team’s overall health.  The news isn’t good, but everybody takes the pledge to get fit and trim by the twenty-fourth.  Poor Santa has the most trouble finding a form of exercise he can stick with.  After failing with jazzerecise, yoga, the stationary bike, and weight-lifting, he settles into a daily hour-long walk with the dogs.  He gets into the old suit, the workshop hums with energy and good cheer, and everyone looks forward to the Welcome Home banquet on Christmas Day.  Professional losers may click their tongues at food as a reward for shedding weight as counterproductive: the loser has to substitute new ones.

The diverse North Pole team around the dinner table enjoying a healthy low-fat, high-fiber meal.

Before and after the North Pole diet…

Gently fat-shaming a beloved imaginary character to demonstrate that change is possible may be a positive strategy, but it’s not without problems. Yes, it’s good to emphasize that walking is a fine form of exercise, and yes, it’s sensible to admit that it’s hard to follow an exercise program.  But these are grown-up problems and grown-ups are not the audience for this picture book.  The author proceeded on the risky assumption that four- to eight-year-old were going to be engaged by this situation set in the North Pole.

No one in Packard’s ackowledgments noticed that at the beginning none of the characters  were drawn as visibly overweight and at the end they are unchanged after a six-month diet  Some kids will giggle at what is probably an oversight in continuity on the illustrator’s part, but there will be children so sensitive about body image that may read it as an indication that people can be overweight even though if they don’t look heavy.   They may see this anxiety reflected in themselves when they look in the mirror or at themselves in photos.  Even putting younger obese children on a diet is extremely complicated–they are still growing and haven’t developed like the degree of self-control the process takes.

Charlene Christie. Santa Claus Goes on a Diet. Illustrated by Peipei. [U.S.] ChristieSolutions, c.2012.

After stuffing himself for the first ten months of the year with Mrs. Claus’s excellent cakes, cookies and cupcakes, Santa discovers that not only can’t he get into his red suit, he doesn’t fit in the sleigh.  Mrs. Claus admits her baking has been a factor in this crisis, but quickly conjures up a no-carbs diet menu for the next sixty days: three French hen eggs and veggies for breakfast, cream of mistletoe soup for lunch, and pickled turkey legs with cranberry cider for dinner (seems cruel not to vary it a jot for all those weeks).  For exercise, Santa chases Dasher the reindeer around the yard for a hour.

Thanks, but I won’t be needing that suit after all!

He makes his goal with twelve days to spare and rewards Mrs. Claus for her cleverness with a kiss under the mistletoe, not a celebratory sweetie.  The plot is much simpler than the one in The North Pole, but the focus is squarely on Santa’s perseverance in the face of  privations, which is the right kind of silly for the picture book crowd (a comment by Christie’s son is often the springboard for a new book).  You can hear a four-year-old shriek “Yeeeeew,” at the idea of mistletoe cooked up in soup or  laugh at the ridiculous spectacle of Santa’s belly flopping while he runs after Dasher.  And the reward for this effort is not a bowl of fruit, but the pleasure of achieving a goal with the help of someone else who has your back.

As children’s book writers,Packard and Christie would probably be quite happy to designated as values educators, and the market (insofar as it can be determined on Amazon, who sells the books) has validated Christie as a successful one in the verified customer reviews.  One person notes that  “in my son’s words ‘he loved this  because Santa never gave up and ate his vegetables and because Mrs. Clause helped him.’”   Another customer touched on the difficulty of writing about the subject for children:

Diet books often give me pause as they can feed into self-esteem problems while denying the goodness of the body, no matter what the physique is. This one, thankfully, is innocent enough, even accepting Santa in the end if he fails his diet (tailor made an extra-big suit, just in case). In fact, the story, promotes good healthy habits and is funny...

A third, who tried this book on the strength of her niece’s enjoyment of another Christie picture book, was not disappointed: “This was a hit with both my 3 year old niece and my 11 year old daughter who read it to her. I recommend reading both children’s book by this author. Looking forward for more books to come. “   And more have come in the form of translations into Spanish, French, and German, and Kindle downloads.

The North Pole Goes on a Diet, on the other hand, seems not to have found an audience, in spite of its author’s good intentions. He names his avocation as  an animal rescue volunteer and thanks his two dog-children.   Perhaps he should have kept his eye on the child, instead of the dogs….