- “Best Batch I Ever Fried”:Food and Family in Jacqueline Woodson’s Picture Books
In a May 2009 Horn Book article, “Still Hot: Great Food Moments in Children’s Literature,” author Linda Sue Park writes: “our choice of food is neither trivial nor merely personal but has lasting social and cultural significance” (232). Children’s literature scholar Leona Fisher affirms this idea in her essay, “Nancy Drew and the ‘F’ Word,” published in Kara Keeling and Scott Pollard’s 2008 anthology, Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature. She argues that in the Nancy Drew books, food persists throughout the series as a “signifier of protagonists’ privileged status and ability to consume at will . . . also serving as a moral marker of both genteel poverty and criminality” (1682). While food can indicate wealth, the inability to consume (or produce) food can just as firmly define a character’s lower social and socioeconomic status. In Carolyn Daniel’s introduction to Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom in Children’s Literature, she notes: “Food events are always significant, in reality as well as in fiction. They reveal the fundamental preoccupations, ideas and beliefs of society” (1). [End Page 107]
In the selection of Jacqueline Woodson’s African-American children’s picture books that this essay analyzes, the centrality of food in children’s lives in large part defines who they are: We Had a Picnic This Sunday Past (1997) illustrated by Diane Greenseid; Sweet, Sweet Memory (2000), illustrated by Floyd Cooper; Visiting Day (2002), illustrated by James E. Ransome; Our Gracie Aunt (2002), illustrated by Jon J. Muth; Coming On Home Soon, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (2004) and Pecan Pie Baby (2012), illustrated by Sophie Blackall. In these picture books intended for younger readers, the privilege of growing, preparing, consuming, and enjoying food represents belonging within a circle of family care. Hence, Woodson makes food a textual centerpiece that teaches her child protagonists what family means, situates them within a particular socioeconomic class, and prescribes their role within the family, community, and social power structures while also providing rich material for story-making.
In several of Woodson’s picture books, those who grow and prepare food bind families together. In Sweet, Sweet Memory, Sarah’s recently deceased Grandpa still has lettuce, corn, collards, squash and tomatoes growing in the yard. Grandpa’s words about the earth that linger like his plants help Sarah come to terms with his death: “Like us it lives, it grows . . . everything and everyone goes on and on.” As Sarah looks out of the window of Grandpa’s house with one of her female relatives, readers can see his tall stalks of corn framing one side of the illustration. This visual reminds readers that even though Grandpa can no longer tend his garden, he will continue to contribute tangibly to the life of his family despite his absence. Near the end of the book, Grandma promises that they will “eat sweet corn and have a sweet, sweet memory.” By cooking the food for Sarah that Grandpa grew, Grandma keeps his memory alive as well.
The Grandma of the unnamed child protagonist in Woodson’s Visiting Day also functions as the family glue whose food preparation helps the child maintain a connection with their absent relative, in this case her incarcerated father. The book opens with Grandma frying chicken at 6:00 a.m. to eat on the bus to the jail. On the ride, Grandma doles out chicken to riders who are visiting their own incarcerated relatives, and other passengers pass around cornbread and sweet potato pie. Sharing food and getting to know others on this monthly trip probably make these emotionally draining visits easier. Near the end of the book, the protagonist relates how she and Grandma bide their time while they await Daddy’s return: “we can count our blessings and love each other up and make biscuits and cakes and pretty pictures to send Daddy.” The narrator’s “we” suggests that the granddaughter has helped Grandma make the “Daddy” cake that sits next to a cardboard box, ready to mail. According to Daniel, “the imperative to provide, [End Page 108] prepare...