Andra ponders the demise of the food fetish in children’s books

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Kids these days just aren’t hungry enough. Wedges of fruitcake, ginger beer, fresh butter and eggs, jam sandwiches, sausages – none of these stir the reader the way they used to in the heyday of The Famous Five.

I think one of the successes of Harry Potter is the nostalgic updating of boarding school type food treats.

My children are cooking these holidays. They’ve been told that if they want to eat something, they’re going to have to cook it themselves. I used to cook sweets and puddings and pies and slices. As a child, I made jam and toffee and fudge and ices.

We’ve had a couple of experiments, some choc chip cookies, sorbet and shepherds’ pie and they’re bored. They can buy better and they’re prepared to wait me out.

I believe this trend has been reflected in modern children’s literature. Harry Potter is the only series I’ve read recently that gave me a full feeling in my stomach. Where are the endless dishes of mushrooms and cider from The Hobbit? The picnics and fry-ups from The Wind in the Willows? The tea parties of Alice and Wonderland?

potter feast

This post originally appeared at andragy.

32 thoughts on “Andra ponders the demise of the food fetish in children’s books

  1. What a good open-ended question.

    I’ve got a personal theory about food in childrens’ literature which I’m sure I’m simply swiftying from a long-ago forgotten academic article. Before the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s and the accompanying prosperity that increased the value of Western children and allowed an identifiable Youth Culture to come into existence, children existed with rather fewer of the resources on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Forget self-actualisation and self-esteem—the barely-disguised payloads of happy-clappy post-1970s kidlit—all you needed to satisfy the imaginations of prewar young people was a temporary release from beating, salvation from violent death, and a big fryup.

    The current-day reader of young adult fiction gets quite enough pies and chips on their own; as you’ve said, Enid Blyton’s constant cakes-and-tea get no immediate recognition for Today’s Youth. Alice is an interesting case, the tea-parties she attends aren’t really about the food (after all, there’s a dormouse in the teapot) but show Alice utterly at odds with a fickle, violent, arbitrary universe of nonsensical rules. Not, I argue, an unusual thing for a child growing up in the first part of the twentieth century.

    IMO the feasting scenes in JK Rowling’s books are notable for their absurdity (Pumpkin juice! Every Flavour Beans! Butter beer!) than for lavishness.

    Shorter version: there seem to be children! On my lawn!

  2. Continuing…

    Shepherd’s pie is another good example of the phenomenon. I never learned to appreciate shepherd’s pie until as an adult I realised that I could cook an enormous one to feed a bunch of people, buy a case of cheap beer, and still have change from two $20 notes (in late-90s early -00s money). At which point it became *delicious*.

    …Of course my lifestyle at that point was far from anything you’d want to print in a children’s book.

  3. Shepherd’s Pie never loses it’s appeal. My kids love it. It goes beautifully with tomato sauce which is compulsory for all their meals. Even icecream.

    I love the Potter pic Zoe’s added to post. They are SO … “WTF?”

    I think the movie captures an OT magical abundance in meals, which as Liam points out, may only be memorable to the extent in which they are fanciful.

    The pic says it all. Surrounded by such abundance, magic and luxury, oh the joy of youth to be expressing such disdain!

    Thank heavens for Master Chef. The kids are critiqueing each other’s presentation and planning a red wine jus with steak for our next meal. With chips and sauce, of course.

  4. I was talking about this today over lunch with friends, who suggested that the crop of overly PC “message” kids books like “Jayden has a nut allergy”* might be to blame.

    Silliness aside, the problem of scarcity is such a striking contrast to the problems of anaphylaxis/intolerances – once there was plenty, what kind of danger could food have in a Blyton childhood?

    * Not a real book. So far as I know.

  5. I always wanted to know how the kids in The Children of Willow Farm got a twist of salt in a hankerchief from the farm to their picnic spot without ending up with salt everywhere. Must be a long lost skill.

  6. what kind of danger could food have in a Blyton childhood?

    In a Blyton story, not a lot.
    In a Roald Dahl book, everyone had to be *very* careful what they ate: greedy fat food-loving people tended to die horrible deaths. Isn’t Charlie and the Chocolate Factory an extended cautionary tale against over-the-top indulgence?

  7. Mmmm, virtuous crust-hoarding. Refuse as its own reward. You know, I think there’s an element of class in this as well.

    Enid Blyton wrote the Famous Five explicitly as members of a certain class; and that had to be shown somehow, in a way that I think goes by us when we read it today. Using Dahl as an example, in Matilda, there’s a scene where Matilda realises how poor Miss Honey is because she eats “margarine instead of butter”. I remember reading that when I was a kid and being very confused by the description; we had margarine in our house, and weren’t poor—it just kept longer in the fridge. So what was going on?

    I think by the time I was born food in children’s literature had lost a lot of its power to signify class, and wealth and poverty. It’s notable in Harry Potter that nobody, even the impoverished Weasleys, eats particularly badly or goes without (though JKR makes a laboured effort at complicating it by introducing the food slave-economy of house-elves) and wealth and privilege amongst wizards are shown by their crass behaviour, not their consumption.

  8. Margerine! My grandmother wouldn’t touch margerine after her horrendous World War 2 deprivations, being forced to eat oily orange gloop pretending to be butter.

    Even living in Christchurch, New Zealand where butter was always rock solid, she wouldn’t touch margerine. When I was about 8 she visited us in Aust and we sneakily unwrapped a block of margerine and served it up in the butter dish.

    Then snickered whenever she talked about how lovely and soft Australian butter was. Having said that. I hate margerine too. Butter is always better.

  9. I always loved the picnics in The Famous Five and The Children of Willow Farm. I didn’t realised that they had become a thing of the past. How sad.

  10. The deprivation thing makes sense. ‘Lashings of ginger beer’ is paradisiac in a time when the sugar you needed to ferment it is hard to come by. But golly, Liam’s made it sound so dashed scholarly that I can barely think!

    For me as a kid those stories impressed me as those other magical kids had a measure of control over food and its consumption – my household did not place great value on cooking well and only ever ate margarine.

    I was also pretty keen to taste such exotic-sounding things as pound cake, spotted dick and proper cordials. Which brings me to another point altogether – the value of food as an expression of culture, not just class. The Famous Five was about a particular Britishness and HP is too.

  11. I know, Dr Sister. Jesus, listen to me, I sound like Phillip f&*king Adams.

    The Famous Five was about a particular Britishness and HP is too.

    Yes indeed. The kind of archetypal Britishness that is to actual Britain as Neighbours and Home & Away is to actual Australia.


  12. Yes, but that’s not the point when one is defining oneself. I wonder how much of the Famous Five/Harry Potter food thing is inserted as straightforward differentiation from the monolithic American consumer culture – perhaps it was nostalgic even then?

    Alas, in a post about nostalgia for food writing in children’s lit I have brought myself to the conclusion that the very food writing of which we speak is, in fact nostalgia. This is a philosophical technique known as chasing one’s tail …

  13. Yes, but that’s not the point when one is defining oneself.

    Agreed. But is it nostalgia or a radical idealism about identity?

    The Famous Five certainly seemed to exist out of time and space for this reader. Smugglers on the coast of England in the twentieth century? Blyton might as well have written in Vikings, or Zulu warriors, or space aliens. Or Americans.

    As I said, the food that the kids eat in Blyton’s books was there to achieve a shock of recognition for her readers, as something they might not have directly experienced in their own lives, but that they certainly would have understood as a concept. I wonder what people will say in half a decade’s time about our children’s literature?

  14. Good point. Aren’t food and nostalgia synonomous! Otherwise, it is simply fuel.

    As in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, we are more involved in the production of the meaning of food than the production of the food.

  15. I had an unhealthy obsession with Enid Blyton and especially loved the food- even at 8 years old. I’m still not entirely sure what orange pop tastes like (orangina?) and I’ve never had potted tongue sandwiches gosh dang.

    I also loved the descriptions of midnight feasts in those Girls Own Annuals. Such *naughty* decadence with treacle tarts in the upper 6th dorms ooo er!

    Can’t say much about children’s food in the 21st C… I’ll let you know when I have some… I was a fussy bugger. I had to have tomato sauce with everything too! My poor mum! Now we swap recipes.

  16. I feel bad throwing television into this, but have just noticed that Playschool is always full of food – especially elaborate picnics, that my daughter loves to recreate – which makes me more confused about the apparent absence of this theme in modern children’s literature. It is an element that she really gravitates towards.

  17. Nor do the Harry Potter teens have mobile phones, text, or watch television or refer to console games – more evidence of the nostalgia link?

    Jane Brocket has written a book called “Cherry cake and ginger beer” – discussion of food and recipes in childrens lit – Blyton, Milly-Molly-Mandy, Anne of Green Gables and so on. Lovely read for foodies.

  18. ahh, i remember loving potted tongue and whitebait pancakes (but that’s NZ for you). it’s the twist of salt mentioned earlier that has always eluded me, is what was it for?

    did all food come needing extra salt back then? or was farm butter unsalted? if it was seven little australians, it might be for the damper, but geez i just don’t know about enid blyton!

  19. Everything needs salt Andra.

    I’d imagine they sprinkled some on their hard-boiled eggs, which kindly old farmer Oswald Fitzchicken gave them for finding his runaway hens safe and sound in the old abandoned shack down by the riverbank. But what were those two coarse-mannered men doing there, in their big black town car, talking loudly about something dastardly or other?

  20. omg you are enid blyton!

    I read a lot of children’s fiction (because i have children and i love it) but I can’t remember recently reading books that mention food except as a joke or plot device.

    But who can forget louisa may alcott’s winter apples! And oranges in the xmas stocking.

    TV is a different kettle of fish (lol) whether it’s playschool or masterchef! All my children have loved making play picnics and pretend cooking, but when it comes to dinner time, they are nothing but critical.

  21. Speaking in a very unanalytical and low-brow tone:
    today’s kids have basically fucked their palates by the age of seven (a-la Jesuit teaching) with so much salt and sugar and grease that trying to impress them with British nostalgia menus just doesn’t work. Believe me, my partner tries it all the time. Yorkshire Pud can’t compete with hash browns. When icecreams and sour worms are on tap, who cares about treacle tart? I’m not giving up, but I’m looking for simpler flavours to try and get my child excited about food, even if all those nostalgia foods float my boat…

  22. But kids’ palates can be re-trained. I was diagnosed with a pretty serious health problem 3 years ago which has meant I’ve been forced to switch to a very low salt diet (frankly my salt intake was pretty low anyway). This means as I do 95% percent of the cooking I control the salt factor – which has plummeted. Now when the husband and kids eat away from home they really notice the high salt content in other people’s or processed food (and don’t like it).

    AD, the daily sugar and grease and salt in most people’s diets is my hobby horse. I call it “birthday party” food – what we as children only had on special occasions is now every day for some people.
    I watch in horrified (silent) amazement as a 26 y.o. in my workplace drinks 1.25 cola, eats maccas or baker’s delight refined flour crap, chocolate bars, potato chips EVERY SINGLE DAY.
    I don’t doubt the obesity and diabetes stats that we keep hearing about.

  23. good post andra, thanks.

    Christy -‘but have just noticed that Playschool is always full of food’

    Not only Play School, Dorathy the Dinosaur is always having rosy tea, and Anthony is obsessed with food, and who could forget the sollem Paul Hester singing Fruit salad.

    I think that i may have been watching too much kids tv.

    Yo Gabba Gabba has ‘A party in my tummy’ and others. Sesame St, has Hoopers Store where there is food for every monster and worm.

    Most of these references are about healthy eating and don’t come near the joy of food that Andra has illustrated. The only one i can think of that comes close at the mo is ‘grandfather in my pocket’ where the characters gorge on sponge fingers, pinapple sundaes and a multitude of chocolate options. oh and Trotro loves to eat every piece of fruit on the tree/bush.

  24. Sorry i strayed ot there.

    It might be worth remembering that all that lush food, as Liam points out, was something to aspire to for plenty of readers, but were also a counterpoint to stories and rhymes that had plenty of hunger etc.

    “there was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
    she had so many children she didn’t know what to do,
    she gave them some broth without any bread;
    she whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.’

  25. Having read through all of this, I’m still laughing at “Jayden has a nut allergy” and really think somebody should write it. It’d be the first in a series: “Mylynda is lactose intolerant”, “No additives for Alysun”…

    Mindy – I always pictured the “screw” of salt as being in a tighly wound up scrap of grease-proof paper.

    Just goes to show how much food stands out for me: one of the things I remember most clearly from Little Women is the apple turnovers the girls had to keep their hands warm.

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