November 21, 2013


Thanksgiving Day Thanks. By Laura Malone Elliott. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Pete the Cat: The First Thanksgiving. By Kimberly & James Dean. HarperFestival. $6.99.

Best Food Writing 2013. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $15.99.

     Thankfulness and food, the primary elements of Thanksgiving in the United States, are inevitably served up in some combination in kids’ books designed specifically for the holiday. Other elements are mentioned as well in Thanksgiving Day Thanks, when Sam’s class talks about giving thanks for football and shopping – but Sam himself, a rather quiet bear cub, isn’t quite sure what he is thankful for. As Laura Malone Elliott’s book progresses, with the class involved in Thanksgiving projects that range from pumpkin-pie making to donating food to the needy, Sam simply cannot think of a project to do – until eventually, he prepares a surprise that he tells his best friend, Mary Ann (a squirrel), can be found outside the classroom. It turns out to be a set of balloons that Sam plans to use to create a Thanksgiving Day parade – but a storm whips up some high gusts of wind that spoil his work. Still, the loss of the balloons reminds Sam of why he likes the parade – because his whole family watches it together – and that makes him realize that time with his family is what he is most thankful for. Thanksgiving Day Thanks is a pleasant holiday book for ages 4-8, with nicely done illustrations by Lynn Munsinger that complement the text well. It is nothing particularly special, but works well as a straightforward look at the holiday and its traditions.

     Pete the Cat: The First Thanksgiving is a shorter book for the same age range, and a more-participatory one – it is a lift-the-flaps book. Its focus is a class play about the first Thanksgiving, with Pete playing a pilgrim and wearing “a pilgrim hat, which was really cool.” Lifting the flaps moves the story along – the 65-day voyage of the Mayflower, for example, is shown with a calendar with September 6, 1620 circled for the day they set forth, and calendar months beneath the flap showing the days at sea and the eventual arrival on November 9. Elsewhere, lifting flaps shows vegetables growing and transforms a long, empty table into one covered with food. The book ends with Pete and his family at their own Thanksgiving dinner, thinking of what they are thankful for – those items shown by lifting flaps over their heads. There is little of Pete’s personality in this book, which as a result is less engaging than it could be if his quirks came through more clearly. But kids who enjoy Pete’s other adventures will like having him as a guide to the history of the Thanksgiving holiday.

     And of course Thanksgiving is not the only time of the year when food is people’s major focus. For some people – food critics – it is not only a year-long obsession but also their, well, bread and butter (sorry about that). The exigencies of publishing mean that Best Food Writing 2013 actually includes only material from the first part of the year, but there is still plenty here to chew on (sorry again). The kind of writing showcased in this long-running series, which has been around since 2000, is not hearty meat-and-potatoes stuff (sorry yet again) but the crème de la crème (all right, enough) of essays from newspapers, newsletters, Web sites, magazines and books. The essays are more about societal attitudes toward food than anything else, and as such give a sense of what sorts of esoterica and trendiness are on the rise and which are declining. Best Food Writing 2013 clearly shows that certain forms of high-end food preparation, such as foams and gels, are no longer “in,” while certain specific foods, such as kale, are increasingly appearing as the features of the day. Most of the writing here is by the food-focused and for the food-focused, such as articles arguing that the “eat local” movement is a triumph while others argue that it deserves to be viewed with skepticism. Some of the writers here do concern themselves with everyday, plebian topics: there is a piece on food trucks and another on McRibs. But food writers look on these subjects with disdain, and their essays indicate they are slumming. The McRib one is an example: “This was a terrible thing to have eaten and I had no real excuse to do so. …The ‘pork’ inside the McRib tastes quite obviously fake. …It’s not like [sic] you’re eating real meat at all, but something materialized on the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise or a piece of food that’s fast-fading in some airport during the course of the Langoliers. It’s just … [sic] weird.” The writing here really is, by and large, quite good, and some of the subject matter should stand up well over time even as other topics fade quickly from comestible consciousness. But elements of the book will be strange, and likely off-putting, to many readers, such as the essay on pig slaughtering in rural Spain, including “holding the head to direct the blood flow,” “the smell of burning hair is strong, but somehow not unpleasant,”  “the viscera are dragged down, out and into a plastic bowl,” and so forth. Ultimately, this book has more to do with personal experiences of food than with food itself, even though only one section is actually labeled “Personal Tastes.” Best Food Writing 2013 is for people who take food and food-related topics and esoterica very seriously indeed – perhaps even a touch too seriously. If you are one such, de gustibus non est disputandum and bon appétit.

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