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A Cooks Tour: 3 Picture Books About Famous Foodies

Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
By Mara Rockliff
Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

By Diane Stanley
Illustrated by Jessie Hartland

Julia Child Becomes “the French Chef”
By Alex Prud’homme
Illustrated by Sarah Green

Whether kids know it or not, the plate of food in front of them can be so much more than sustenance. It can be a source of comfort, a link to their heritage, a teaching moment, a conversation starter, a grounding ritual, a battle of wills, an expression of love, a trigger of memories both fond and dark.

Three new illustrated biographies of women in the food world, who quietly and not so quietly cooked their way into history, are built on the premise that food has the power to make our worlds bigger, better and more connected.

The most compelling among them, both narratively and artistically, is “Sweet Justice,” by Mara Rockliff (with art by R. Gregory Christie). It tells the story of Georgia Gilmore, an unsung behind-the-scenes hero of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

Georgia, a restaurant cook who marches through the pages clad in a satisfyingly bold canary-yellow coat, turned out the city’s best meatloaf and sweet potato pie, boycotted the bus for more than a year to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks and segregation at large, and before long found herself in the center of the movement, preparing and selling her famous pies and crispy chicken to raise money for the cause. After testifying at Martin Luther King’s trial, she was fired from her job, but with King’s encouragement she started cooking from her own kitchen, churning out food to feed the protesters.

“Georgia’s wasn’t just a place for eating, though,” the story tells us. “It was a place to meet and talk and plan.”

Georgia’s food wasn’t just sustenance for the protesters. It was fuel as legitimate and motivating as their rage and their thirst for justice.

Rockliff weaves this idea through her poetic prose: “Spring had come, but still city officials wouldn’t budge. Fortified by Georgia’s sweet potato pie, the boycotters were determined to stay off the bus. Summer heated up, frying the sidewalks like a pork chop sizzling in one of Georgia’s pans. The boycotters trudged on. Fall passed, with cold mornings and the comfort of hot rolls from Georgia’s oven. The boycotters plodded on.”

The larger lesson for kids? Movements are bigger than the headliners; behind every Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King is an army of Georgia Gilmores. Anyone can be a hero and a hero can come from anywhere. If you’re armed with pies and collards, well, that’s as good a ticket to the show as any. (It should be noted that even though the food mostly serves as a lens here, it’s nearly impossible not to crave sweet potato pie and crispy chicken upon closing the book.) Christie, a Caldecott honoree, brings the story to life with his stylized art, rendered in rich, saturated hues.

In “Alice Waters Cooks Up a Food Revolution,” by Diane Stanley (illustrated by Jessie Hartland), kids will be delighted to read that the most important food movement in the last half-century was launched by one woman just doing what she loves: cooking and eating, for and with her community. In a not unusual beginning to the story, a trip to Paris during college turns a jaunty young Alice into a Francophile, reminding her of the way she grew up, eating only what was fresh and in season — peak deliciousness.

Kids will get the message, and a laugh, when they flip from the illustration of her childhood summer dinner table showcasing the best of summer produce (“Nothing is ever picked till it’s ripe, and they eat it that very same day”) to the fall spread (“‘Convenience food’ — processed in factories, then packaged, frozen or canned. It’s modern! It’s easy! It’s what America wants!”).

Waters’s awakening is excellent news for her friends back home in Berkeley (and eventually the world at large) because it inspires one of the most influential restaurants in history: Chez Panisse. When she opens it in 1971 with a bunch of hippie friends (collective restaurant experience: zero), Waters is just a lost college grad trying to earn a living and recapture the magic flavor of a simple soup she ate in Paris (“THE BEST! SOUP! EVER!”), followed the next morning by a baguette with fresh-made apricot jam (“THE BEST! BREAKFAST! EVER!”).

And by grounding her cooking in local, sustainable ingredients, food “that enriches the earth instead of depleting and polluting it,” she starts many other things: the conversation around organic farming; her national Edible Schoolyard project (where schools use homegrown gardens to teach kids about the environment); the return of food cooked with intention and eaten at home with family.

Following her lead, Hartland’s accompanying illustrations invite a slowly savored reading experience, all the better to discover their plentiful, happy, whimsical details — a suitcase covered with travel stickers, a fish platter where the fish looks decidedly concerned, a poodle sitting and conversing at the dining room table.

One of the ways Waters immersed herself in French cooking was by watching Julia Child’s groundbreaking PBS show “The French Chef,” so it stands to reason that the other giant among the crop here is Child herself, a giant both figuratively and literally — she stood 6 feet 2 inches tall. “Born Hungry,” written by Child’s grandnephew Alex Prud’homme and illustrated by Sarah Green, chronicles Julia’s life leading up to her blockbuster book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” “Mastering” shifted our country’s food worldview away from the cheap-and-easy to the fresh-and-fancy, eventually earning Child the “French Chef” gig.

It’s fun to read how she met her adoring husband, Paul Child, while working as a spy for the O.S.S., and how he introduced her to the foods of France, in Rouen ordering Julia oysters, sole meunière, freshly baked bread “with perfect butter,” white wine, yogurt and coffee — which (shocker!) set off all kinds of fireworks in her young brain.

The illustrations are colorful and often comical — Julia towering over her all-male classmates at the culinary school Le Cordon Bleu; Julia literally dreaming of food, a stick of butter and chicken legs swirling over her while she sleeps.

An author’s note at the end fills out her biography with the fame and fortune that resulted from her TV success, elaborating on how Child was able to so charmingly demystify French cooking for the masses — and one can’t help wishing these parts of her life were illustrated as well.

Nonetheless, Julia’s message, to any kid who wants to hear it, is clear: “Good results require that one take time and care” — for that plate of food in front of you and beyond.

Circassia News

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