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Books in the Home: The Joys of Cooking: Good Books About Good Food

How does a person learn to cook? My mother prepared family meals every evening. She didn’t involve us in the making of the meal, but she was my model of a home cook who knew the importance of ­families eating together. She relied on a 1940s edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer, who published the first edition in 1896. When my mother passed away, I gave that heirloom to my daughter, an excellent cook in her own right.

I began cooking when I had my first apartment in college, and my first “bible” was The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, a revision of the original by Marion Cunningham. It was still my favorite when my children were small and I was cooking for a young family. When I asked my kids, now in their thirties, what cookbooks they could remember from their childhoods, my daughter’s first response was Cunningham’s Cooking with Children: 15 Lessons for Children, Age 7 and Up, Who Really Want to Learn to Cook. And when they were teenagers, Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham was published and became a trusted resource for teens and older beginners. In fact, my wife, Robin Smith, mentioned this in a 2010 Horn Book column: “When my kids graduated, one of the first things they did was call my husband for recipes. Not me, of course. They knew better. They wanted to know how to make the dishes he had made for them, and the cookbook with the most dog-eared pages in our kitchen was Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham.” So, yes, Cunningham’s books are my first examples of good cookbooks for beginners. Why? Cunningham wrote clear, straightforward, easy-to-follow recipes. She wrote clearly, gracefully, and with a sense of humor. Her pages were uncluttered, and she never came across as condescending or cutesy in writing for young people.

The closest contemporary cookbook to Cunningham’s I’ve seen for young home chefs — though more for young teens than children — is Amber Kelley’s Cook with Amber. Amber is a teenager who started a YouTube channel when she was nine and later was the first ­winner of Food Network Star Kids. Her YouTube videos and this book are models of high enthusiasm, solid technique, and clear ­directions.

Another recommendation for this age level is The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs from America’s Test Kitchen, known for being a reliable brand from its books, magazines, and public television shows. This attractive volume emphasizes the kinds of food many kids like to eat: smoothies, pancakes and waffles, tacos, pizza. (There’s even a recipe for “the world’s easiest cookie.”) It also provides lessons on knife skills, baking basics, lettuce-shredding, and getting to know herbs. I’ve tried the quinoa with herbs, the pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese, and the pasta with quick tomato sauce and found the recipes to be easy to follow and tasty.

A useful and lively offering for younger beginning cooks is Cooking with Bear by Deborah Hodge, engagingly illustrated by Lisa Cinar. As a hybrid picture book/cookbook, it works well as a read-aloud, as listeners follow Bear gathering ingredients in the forest and cooking for friends. The fifteen appended recipes are clear, concise, and straightforward. And they are delicious! I don’t have any little forest animals to cook for at home, but I’ve made and enjoyed the wild strawberry smoothie and the honey-cinnamon applesauce for myself. And woven into Hodge’s main text are important lessons about eating seasonally and buying locally.


No list of cookbooks for children would be complete without the inclusion of two of my personal favorites, written by the incomparable mother of the farm-to-table movement, Alice Waters. Waters is the chef/owner of the famous Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse, which opened in 1971 and was a pioneer in its use of the freshest seasonal produce from local farmers. In the two hybrid illustrated books/cookbooks Fanny at Chez Panisse and Fanny in France, both illustrated with gorgeous watercolors, Waters writes in the voice of her young daughter, Fanny, who had the unusual experience of growing up in and around a world-famous restaurant with a chef for a mother. These volumes are engaging read-alouds in addition to being excellent cookbooks: with the first half of each book consisting of Fanny’s narrative (“Fanny’s Restaurant Stories”; “Fanny’s French Adventures”); the second half consisting of classic, clearly written recipes that follow solid fundamental cooking techniques. Waters’s The Art of Simple Food is my own favorite cookbook, which I use almost daily, and her two Fanny books sit with it right up on my top shelf of go-tos. I frequently turn to the Fanny books for slightly simplified versions of recipes in Simple Food — pasta with garlic and parsley, vinaigrette, peach crisp, guacamole, biscuits, and salade niçoise.

Another title of interest to young foodies is Waters’s Edible Schoolyard, about the program she created to get schoolchildren involved in creating gardens and growing, cooking, and sharing fresh food — a program that has caught on worldwide. This is an upbeat introduction to planting, growing, cooking, and sharing fresh vegetables, full of color photographs of children proudly holding lettuces, eggs, and pumpkins and then cooking meals with the produce they’ve grown; lessons and several recipes are appended. Waters effectively places cooking in the larger context of where food comes from and guides children toward cooking healthy, local produce by following simple, fundamental techniques.



In searching for good cookbooks for children, I also came across many children’s books that, while not focusing on recipes, celebrate the idea of cooking and introduce young people to its joys. Jacqueline Briggs Martin has written several titles that introduce kids to farmers and cooks from diverse backgrounds with similar missions, including three entries in the Food Heroes series: Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious, Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, and Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix. Will Allen, a former professional basketball player, runs urban farm projects in Milwaukee; Roy Choi, food-truck chef extraordinaire in Los Angeles, wants “outsiders, kids, teens, shufflers, and skateboarders to have food cooked with care, with love, with sohn-maash,” the love Korean cooks put into their food. Robbin Gourley’s Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie introduces readers to Edna Lewis, who grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a farming community founded in 1865 by her grandfather and others freed from slavery, and who promoted regional cooking with local produce long before it became trendy.

The great food writer Richard Olney once wrote that “the meaning of life lies in love and friendship, and…these qualities are best expressed at table.” That’s the spirit behind Oge Mora’s beautiful 2018 Caldecott Honor book Thank You, Omu!, one of my all-time favorite picture books. I love the cut-paper collage illustrations, and I love that Mora had her Nigerian grandmother’s cooking in mind when she wrote this story about how food brings people together — “the shop owner, the cab driver, the doctor, the actor, the lawyer, the dancer, the baker.” Everyone comes to partake of Omu’s “thick red stew,” until there’s none left for Omu. But everyone ends up giving back to the neighborhood’s grandmother figure, and by the conclusion of the story, Omu’s “heart was full of happiness and love.”


It seems that fewer families are sitting down together for supper nowadays, and if they are, the television is on or phones are out. Family members may be physically present, but their attention is elsewhere. Too many families are missing out on important things. It’s not just the meal that might have been prepared together; it’s the sense of family, being with one another, talking about everyone’s day and what’s going on in the world, and slowing down. And yet it also seems that more and more young people — inspired by online videos, television, cooking classes, and adults in their lives who do cook — want to learn to cook, and their cooking can bring ­families back to the table. The right cookbook can inspire young would-be cooks. And what I have discovered is that what makes a good cookbook for children is the same as for adults: engaging format, lack of clutter, lack of condescension toward beginners, clear writing, infectious enthusiasm, and, of course, good food.


Good Books About Good Food

The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018) by America’s Test Kitchen

Cooking with Children: 15 Lessons for Children, Age 7 and Up, Who Really Want to Learn to Cook (Knopf, 1995) by Marion Cunningham

Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham (Knopf, 1999) by Marion Cunningham

The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (Little, Brown, 1896) by Fannie Merritt Farmer

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (Knopf Doubleday, 1979) by Fannie Merritt Farmer, revised by Marion Cunningham

Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis (Clarion, 2008) by Robbin Gourley

Cooking with Bear: A Story and Recipes from the Forest (Groundwood, 2019) by Deborah Hodge; illus. by Lisa Cinar

Cook with Amber: Fun, Fresh Recipes to Get You in the Kitchen (Running, 2018) by Amber Kelley

Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious (Readers to Eaters, 2014) by Jacqueline Briggs Martin; illus. by Hayelin Choi

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix (Readers to Eaters, 2017) by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee; illus. by Man One

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table (Readers to Eaters, 2013) by Jacqueline Briggs Martin; illus. by Eric-Shabazz Larkin

Thank You, Omu! (Little, Brown, 2018) by Oge Mora

The Art of Simple Food (Clarkson Potter/Crown, 2007) by Alice Waters with Patricia ­Curtan, Kelsie Kerr, and Fritz Streiff; illus. by Patricia Curtan

Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea (Chronicle, 2008) by Alice Waters with Daniel Duane; photos by David Liittschwager

Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child’s Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes (Harper
Collins, 1992) by Alice Waters with Bob Carrau and Patricia Curtan; illus. by Ann Arnold

Fanny in France (Viking, 2016) by Alice Waters with Bob Carrau; illus. by Ann Arnold

Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches eighth grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Mary Stevens

Fabulous list, Dean! We loved the Winnie the Pooh cookbook when the boys were young— lots of classic English nursery food like bread-and-butter pudding— and it tied in to familiar stories.

Posted : Mar 18, 2020 03:51



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