My two-year-old son, Joshua, is obsessed with five things: his cousin Ben ("Baboon"), Beyoncé, announcing every single one of my farts, dragons and tacos. I'm in complete agreement with him on those last two, and likely to indulge the fascination. He has a taco shirt and a patented taco dance. He has at least four different stuffed and/or posable dragons. He eats tacos with wild abandon, and has a heck of a dragon roar, which I encourage him to deploy at his sisters and random passersby. When I heard that I could buy him a picture book featuring both dragons and tacos, I jumped at the chance. Dragons. Tacos. Books. What's not to love?
My wife and I gave him a copy of Dragons Love Tacos for his birthday, excited to see what delicious, unusual taco concoctions a dragon might whip up. Turns out, Dragons love Taco Bell. That's fine, really. I grew up in northern Indiana. We had two versions of "Mexican food:" Taco Bell, and an Irish-Mexican fusion joint called Señor Kelly's. Taco night at my house was Old El Paso hard shells filled with sauce-packet-seasoned ground beef (surely you know the sauce packet), tomatoes, shredded lettuce and cheese. A delicious taco, in its way. Still, I want better for my son, for his tacos and from his books.
Of course, I still love the idea of introducing kids to the wide world of food through the wide world of literature. Not just tacos, either. Books are a great way to both instill and satisfy a child's curiosity. If I can springboard my kid's willingness to explore and experiment with food by reading him books that feature all manner of delicious things (both real and fictitious), I'm all for it. If you agree (and want better than school cafeteria tacos in your picture books), here are a few suggestions for food-centric tomes for tiny tots.
Alphabet Soup, by Abbie Zabar
This might be my all-time favorite picture book. It's pretty straightforward — an alphabetical primer that runs through 26 international foods. Some are familiar, some were new to me when I first read it to my second daughter a decade or so ago. You and your little sous chef can learn all about Rijsttafel and Zabaglione at bedtime (best provide a snack), mastering the basics of language and the not-so-basics of cuisine. The text is laid out in a charming handwritten script, and the watercolor illustrations are evocative and lovely, feeling cared over in the way your grandmother might labor over a steaming-hot (or ice-cold) bowl of Borscht.
Pancakes for Breakfast, by Tomie dePaola
I go back and forth regarding completely wordless books. Call it laziness or lack of imagination, but I like to be led through a story. As an often harried and forgetful cook, though, I know this story all too well. Besides, even at his young age, Joshua likes to take the reins himself, calling out the major plot points of the tale (Egg! Milk! Kee-Kat! Pan...Gake!!!!) as I turn the pages. Of course, the ending is a bit of a double-edged sword; I challenge you to get to the end without your kids clamoring for a batch of the pancakes whose recipe appears in the final pages. They're actually pretty good, and a very good way to get your kids interested in actually doing work in the kitchen. Thanks, Tomie.
Wednesday Is Spaghetti Day, by Maryann Cocca-Leffler
There's no shortage of kid-friendly hilarity in a book based around the notion of cats throwing elaborate themed dinner parties in their owners' absence. Just imagine trying to cook pasta without opposable thumbs! Despite the slapstick comedy, though, the cats do a good job of teaching a few delicious lessons about teamwork in the kitchen along the way. I should probably mention that the cats also throw a taco party (Thursday is guacamole day, I believe), and share the dragons' penchant for the Bell. Forgive them. They're cats. You've seen how they bathe...
Grandma's Latkes, by Malka Drucker
One of my most treasured memories is of shucking peas with my grandmother. A stroke had already robbed her of the spoken word, but her fingers remembered the language of the kitchen. We sat next to each other on the couch, united in our work, a moment of connectedness even as connection itself was growing increasingly difficult for her. This book teaches that same lesson, with food as the conduit for both family and culture. Through a simple plate of latkes, the author weaves together family, culture, faith and food. The narrative is spun so that you feel like you're in the kitchen with them, watching the practiced hands of a grandmother cook a dish she'd learned from her own grandmother, receiving the wisdom of grandmothers down through the ages. As with Pancakes for Breakfast, this book ends with a recipe. Grandmother not included.
Pickle-Chiffon Pie, by Jolly Roger Bradfield
This is one from my childhood. Something about the vivid colors, the fantastical creatures and the epic quest set my young mind ablaze. If I'm going to be really honest, though, it wasn't the relatability of the everyman protagonist, nor the aspirational love story, nor even the juggling, rollerskating lion. It was the eponymous pie. To my young years, pickle-chiffon pie sounded alluring, exotic and impossibly delicious. To be quite honest, it still kind of does. Houston pastry chefs, get on this ASAP.