January 31, 2008


Everything but the Kitchen Sink: Weird Stuff You Didn’t Know about Food. By Frieda Wishinsky and Elizabeth MacLeod. Illustrated by Travis King. Scholastic. $7.99.

The Greedy Triangle. By Marilyn Burns. Illustrated by Gordon Silveria. Scholastic. $6.99.

      Look at real-life stuff from the right angles and it’s just as strange as anything in fiction. Everything but the Kitchen Sink explains why you might enjoy eating a dessert that grunts (it’s a Canadian pudding that makes a grunting sort of sound while being steamed) and feasting on mudbugs (that is what crawfish – which are not bugs at all – are called in Louisiana). This delicious compendium of little-known food facts explains what 19th-century cowboys ate (mostly beef, beans and potatoes); how much cereal kids eat (an average of 15 pounds a year); why people in Scotland always store unsliced bread with the rounded side up (a superstition says that storing it with the rounded side down means someone will die or have trouble at sea); and when potato chips were invented (in 1853 in Saratoga Springs, New York, by a chef who was trying to get potatoes to taste bad to get rid of a complaining customer). The book’s chapters focus on specific aspects of eating – snack foods, foods around the world, food-related inventions, food names and expressions, and so on – but it’s fun simply to open Everything but the Kitchen Sink at random and read whatever you find. You might, for example, come upon a quiz asking how popular food expressions started (“chew the fat,” for example, comes from the Inuit people, who used whale blubber as kids now use chewing gum). Or you might happen upon a “breakfast brainteaser” puzzle in which you match countries with breakfasts that people eat there. Or you could learn about a South African dish called biltong, made from strips of animal buttocks that have been covered in salt, dipped in vinegar, sprinkled with pepper and coriander, then dried. One thing is for sure: you’ll learn some stuff about food that you never knew before. Whether that expands your appetite or makes you lose it altogether may depend on just where you open Frieda Wishinsky and Elizabeth MacLeod’s book.

      Speaking of looking at life from a certain angle, that’s just what Marilyn Burns does in The Greedy Triangle, which is all about a three-sided character, with big eyes and a bright smile, who gets tired of doing all the thing that triangles do: making music in an orchestra, holding up roofs, catching the wind for sailboats, and so on. Gordon Silveria’s amusing illustrations show triangular elements of life clearly and simply – and continue showing what happens after the triangle, to overcome boredom, asks a helpful “shapeshifter” for an extra side and angle to make life “more interesting.” Now a quadrilateral, the ex-triangle can become a TV or computer screen, a picture frame, a book or many other things – until, growing bored again, our friend returns to the shapeshifter for another side and angle. Now the quadrilateral is a pentagon and can become U.S. military headquarters or a section of a soccer ball. But then…well, the shapeshifter is kept busy supplying the onetime triangle with new sides and angles, until eventually something happens that leads the shape to want to become a triangle again – and to be happy about it. This is a charming math fable that never really seems like an educational book, but most definitely is one. Two end-of-book pages for adults can help turn the book into a useful teaching aid – but in fact, The Greedy Triangle teaches a great deal without any grown-up assistance. For it is not only about math but also about learning to be satisfied with what you are – and that’s a lesson that’s always in great shape.

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