I know that quite a few of you don’t have babies or children of your own.
But you may well have nieces or nephews, or a number of friends who have decided to procreate, or heck, maybe even a neighbor or co-worker is about to have a baby.
What is the perfect gift for a foodie to give to a baby in order to open new eyes to the world of food?
Well, other than a ringside seat in the kitchen with the highchair pulled near the stove so that the scents, sights and sounds of cooking enter their consciousness from day one? And other than a taste, smell and touch of every ingredient in your kitchen? And other than a personal guided tour of all of your coffee-table cookbooks with lavish photographs of food in exotic locales?
I think the perfect gift for any food in training (pants) are the little picture board books of Amy Wilson Sanger in her “World Snacks” series.
Sanger is a paper collage artist, and her work is filled with color, energy and a vivacious joy that is irresistible to kids and adults alike. The first of her books I ever saw were Yum Yum Dim Sum, and My First Book of Sushi, which were at one of the gift shops at the Smithsonian when we had gone back to visit a few years ago. I was pregnant at the time, and so we bought them along with a pair of tiny child’s chopsticks and a little rice bowl decorated with painted kittens all over it. I was heartbroken, of course, when that pregnancy ended in miscarriage, but while the sight of the little bowl and chopsticks were too much for me to bear, the rhymes of those two little books still made me smile, if a bit wistfully. (My very favorite rhyme is from My First Book of Sushi: “Miso in my sippy cup, tofu in my bowl/Crab and avocado fill my California Roll.”)
So, even though I wasn’t sure if I would ever get pregnant again, I kept those two little books on my shelf, little testaments to the hope that one day I would have a chance to share them with a little one of our own.
In the meantime, I bought other copies of them, along with the other titles in the series, and sent them along to my nieces when they were born, and to Zak’s newly born cousins. Let’s Nosh, which introduces such Jewish delicacies as gefilte fish, noodle kugel, and hamentaschen, was a great favorite among them, though I, myself was partial to A Little Bit of Soul Food, which features southern goodies like fried chicken, collard greens and biscuits and gravy–the food I grew up on.
When Kat was born, I was thrilled to round out the collection with Hola Jalapeno! which covers delicious Mexican foods like enchiladas and turkey mole, and Mangia! Mangia!, which tells all about Italian favorites such as spaghetti with polpettini (meatballs), risotto and gelato. I also cannot wait for the release of the newest in the series, Chaat and Sweets, which will cover the foods of India.
I think that we can all agree that reading to babies is important; it helps them develop a love of language, learning and reading if they are read to from picture books (and other books–I used to read to Morganna from Tennyson and Tolkien when she was a baby) from a very early age. The sound of written language, especially poetry, helps babies learn to recognize and try to emulate the rhythms of spoken words. Kat shows this when she looks at these books, and babbles, her voice naturally taking on the sing-song, up-down rhythmic quality of the rhymes she has heard us repeat for these books over and over.
Recognition of colors, shapes, and representational art are all important developmental stages assisted by reading to babies and toddlers from picture books. They learn to understand drawings and photographs as representing something else, and they learn to recognize and vocalize colors by having physical representations shown to them from an early age. With the many shapes and colors of the foods presented in these books, babies are exposed to a myriad of forms which is not only stimulating aesthetically, but intellectually as well.
Not only do Sanger’s books, like all picture books, help with literacy development, and intellectual stimulation, they also help introduce worldwide cultures through the foods typical to that culture. They introduce both the diversity of food and dining habits, but also the universality of them. They give children an imaginary taste of foods and ways of life that may at first seem very different to them, but after being read these books over and over, what once might have been strange will seem familiar and comforting.
In a rapidly shrinking global community, where the United States is even more of a melting pot than it ever has been before, I think that this introduction to culture via food is extremely important and valuable, and I only hope that more parents use these books to help their kids become good global citizens from an early age.
I just wonder what Sanger’s next project in the series will be? French food? Scandinavian? African?
How about Arab foods? Personally, I think that the last choice, while it might be seen as too controversial, would be quite welcome and useful in helping to dispel some of the untrue stereotyping of Arabic culture that the US media has perpetuated over the past several years.
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