The holidays are almost upon us, and no matter what you celebrate this season, you can bet there will be food involved. Beyond simple sustenance, what and how we eat play an important role in our relationships with others. This month’s National Geographic, which focuses on food, emphasizes “the power of a meal to forge relationships, bury anger, provoke laughter.” Likewise, when presented in literature, food is often a symbol of communion between characters, communities, and even cultures. As Thomas C. Foster writes in his book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, “…breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace, since if you’re breaking bread you’re not breaking heads.”
Several middle-grade books feature food and meals in ways that create bonds between characters and cultures. Some even include recipes for parents, teachers, and librarians, who may want to join with their own children or students by reading, cooking, and eating together during this holiday season—or any time of year.
In Sharon Creech’s Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, twelve-year-old Rosie has had a falling out with her best friend, Bailey, who is sight impaired. The story begins in the kitchen as Granny and Rosie slice carrots, onions, mushrooms, and celery and simultaneously swap stories about their lives. Granny tells about the best friend she left in Italy. And Rosie explains how Bailey is angry with her for learning Braille. By the end of Part One, Rosie realizes Bailey’s anger stemmed from the fact that reading Braille was his special talent. Rosie then brings soup over to Bailey’s house as a peace offering. In Part Two, the recipe for friendship and bonding includes homemade cavatelli, tomato sauce, and meatballs. As Granny, Rosie, and Bailey mix the ingredients, jealousies are revealed and life lessons are learned. Exact measurements aren’t listed in the book, but it’s clear that Granny Torrelli’s instructions for making soup and pasta are surefire recipes for reconciliation between Rosie and Bailey.
In Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School, eleven-year-old David Greenberg is having a rough time. When the story opens, his mother has already moved to another state. After that, his best friend abandons him, a bully targets him, and his pet hamster dies. Still, the one constant in his life is his grandmother. She’s always there to comfort him, not only with words, but also with her kugel, blintzes, and famous apple cake. And, although there are awkward family dinners in David’s house and in his friend Sophie’s house, as well, the close connection between food and friendship is apparent when David eats two pieces of Sophie’s strawberry-rhubarb pie and slips the third piece in his pocket. At the end of the book, Gephart includes the recipe for Bubbe’s Jewish Apple Cake—sure to comfort the characters at your table.
Rose Kent’s Kimchi and Calamari demonstrates the deep connection between food and culture when Joseph Calderaro, who was adopted from Korea by an Italian family, begins researching his background for a school essay assignment. But how can a calamari-eating, cannoli-loving fourteen-year-old find his Korean identity when there’s no information about his personal heritage anywhere? One way is to lie about it, which he does. But another way is to embrace his ancestral culture over dinner with a neighboring Korean family. Joseph bonds with them over sticky rice, bulgogi, and kimchi. As he comes to accept the fusion of his Korean origin and his Italian upbringing, he proudly describes himself as, “One hunk of Joseph slapped between a slice of Italian bread and a mound of Korean sticky rice.” Finally, he has the topic for his essay: “Joseph the Ethnic Sandwich.” While the book doesn’t contain the directions for cooking kimchi or calamari, plenty of mouth-watering Korean and Italian recipes are available on the Internet for hungry readers.
Dumpling Days is Grace Lin’s third novel about Pacy Lin. In this one, Pacy travels to Taiwan for a month for her grandmother’s birthday celebration. And while it’s sometimes difficult for Pacy to navigate her new surroundings, peach buns, soup dumplings, and other delicacies definitely have the power to bridge the gap between cultures. A recipe for Chinese Dumplings can be found at the end of the book.
Other middle-grade novels about food:
The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaeffer—recipes for tea, sandwiches, and scones are included in the book.
All Four Stars by Tara Dairman—recipes can be found on the author’s webpage under Extras.
Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath—recipes are included at the end of chapters.
If you have a favorite middle-grade novel with food and/or recipes, feel free to serve it up in the comments section. In the meantime, happy reading and eating!
Dorian Cirrone is the author of several books and short stories for children. Her middle-grade novel, The First Last Day, will be out from S&S/Aladdin in May 2016. She blogs about reading and writing at doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/. Hop on over for writing tips and occasional giveaways.