Friday, 13 January 2012

Food and Frances

Russell Hoban died!

Well actually it seems he died a month ago, and he was 86 so it's not that surprising but I'm only just catching up with this news and I'm sad.
It does give me a lovely excuse to wallow in nostalgia once again and revisit his 'Frances' books. These were favourites of mine as a child and I'm glad to say also currently in favour with the younger generation in this household too.

It is slightly embarrassing to me (but not altogether surprising) to realise how many of my best top childhood book memories are based around the food they contained . Virtual eating was a big pleasure for me then and thinking about it, I enjoy a good cookbook now. I realised that my children shared this attribute when we all found ourselves poring over the chapter devoted to chocolate cakes in Nigella Lawson's 'Feast' recently having a healthy debate about which we should make next...(chocolate malteser cake won again despite some controversial support for the chocolate coconut Bounty cake) This is not the last time food is going to appear as an influence here.

The 'Frances' books of which I think there were about 7 but not all still in print are domestic stories of a girl and her family and her imaginative engagement with the world. Actually not dissimilar to Lauren Child's Lola. Except the girl and family in question are a family of badgers. I know, I know, I said I didn't like anthropomorphised tales but- there you go- my blog, my rules.
'Bread and Jam for Frances' was and is my favourite almost certainly because it's the foodiest. Frances doesn't like the look of her soft-boiled egg at breakfast so she decides she's going to forgo eggs in favour of bread and jam in the future. She sings a song to her egg...Frances sings a lot of songs and they're all excellent...for example:
'Poached eggs on toast, why do you shiver
With such a funny little quiver?'
At dinner time she feels the same way about her breaded veal cutlets with string beans and baked potatoes and again turns to bread and jam.
Clever Mother and Father of Frances model exactly how savvy parents should approach this problem of nourishing home cooked meal rejection by calmly accepting the new status quo and serving Frances bread and jam for every meal and snack thereafter (I should have reminded myself that that was the way to do it pre-conceptually...clearly works better that force feeding carrots into your weeping toddler's mouth in seething fury yelling 'But You Liked Them Yesterday'...heigh ho).
And thus slowly bread and jam starts to lose it's appeal, Frances's songs become a little more melancholy:
'Jam for snacks and jam for meals,
I know how a jam jar feels-
and in the end she cracks and asks for her own plate of spaghetti and meatballs at dinner and rediscovers the joys of a varied diet. High five Mother and Father badger. result.

The real hero of this story is Frances's best friend at school; the gluttonous Albert. There's a fabulous  full 3 pages in the middle of the book devoted to a loving description of Albert laying out and consuming his packed lunch at school while Frances slightly mournfully compares her bread and jam. I'm quite tempted to treat you to the full description but it's REALLY long so I'll give you the final third.

'He took a bite of sandwich, a bite of pickle, a bite of hard-boiled egg, and a drink of milk. Then he sprinkled more salt on the egg and went around again. Albert made the sandwich, the pickle, the egg and the milk come out even. He ate his bunch of grapes and his tangerine. Then he cleared away the crumpled-up waxed paper, the eggshell, and the tangerine peel. He set the cup custard in the middle of the napkin onhis desk. He took up his spoon and ate up all the custard. Then Albert folded up his napkins and put them away. he put away his cardboard saltshaker and his spoon. He screwed the cup on top of his thermos bottle. He shut his lunch box, and put it back inside his desk, and sighed.
"I like to have a good lunch." said Albert.'

I should say that reading this book aloud used to drive my husband slightly insane. He really couldn't see the point of these long descriptions, meanwhile Bill, Eddie and I would be salivating, hanging on each word. He's not as food orientated as the rest of us. Reading this book as a child in 70's Britain, where sandwiches were made from white sliced bread and might contain a strange substance called 'sandwich spread'. Albert and Frances's packed lunches seemed unbelievably, wonderfully the end of the book she has olives and a lobster salad sandwich for goodness sakes. Now Eddie requested 'rye' for his own sandwiches last week...we've clearly moved on. Mother and Father Badger...I'm learning.

'Bread and Jam for Frances', written Russell Hoban, illus. Lillian Hoban, pub Harper Collins isbn-13 978-0060838003

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