I am one of those people who finds comfort in reading about food. The first of these kinds of stories to appeal to me was Bread and Jam for Frances.
This picture book, by Russell Hoban with illustrations by Lillian Hoban, features an anthropomorphic badger named Frances. Russell Hoban wrote six Frances books between 1960 and 1970 that were based loosely on the antics of his four children and their friends. Bread and Jam was first published in 1964.
The story opens with the badger family sitting the breakfast table. Mother, father, and baby sister consume soft-boiled eggs, which they talk up in an effort to get the older daughter, Frances, to vary her diet.
Frances prefers her bread and jam, and she sings little songs about her favorite food rather than acknowledging her family. Later, she refuses the veal cutlets, string beans, and baked potatoes at dinner, and reveals that she traded her chicken salad at lunch for—well, you know.
The next day the entire family has poached eggs on toast—the entire family, except for Frances. Her mother serves Frances her preferred meal. At lunch, her friend Albert has a sandwich, a hard boiled eggs AND a cardboard salt shaker (handy!), fruit, and custard. Frances discovers that her mother has packed bread and jam again. She watches Albert eat. When she goes out to the playground, she sings and plays with little energy. After school, her mother serves her a snack of bread and jam.
It’s the spaghetti and meatballs, however, that really break our badger friend and make her decide to eat something other than bread and jam.
I find it funny that young me decided to settle into a seat at the library and read and reread Bread and Jam for Frances. I did not like jam, or most sweet things, when I was a child. I didn’t enjoy soft-boiled eggs, grapes, or black olives—all foods that people (badgers) eat in this book. My mother mostly cooked variations of Chinese/Taiwanese dishes, so I didn’t know what a breaded veal cutlet was, nor had I tasted custard. Moreover, I was a picky eater who would gaze at a huge party table filled with fancy foods and then ask for a piece of toast.
But I did like to read about food. I went through the other Frances books, all of which contain bountiful feasts. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy and still remember passages about popcorn, pound cake, and other delights.
Eventually, I got over my fussiness, tasted many of the things I’d previously only read about—and started to enjoy those that I’d hated as a kid. I still like to seek out books about food. In fact, recently, when the news got to be too much, I opened up the New York Public library website and searched under for fiction with the keyword “cake.” I needed something that would go down easy. I figured that a book that featured something beautiful and sweet would be just the thing.
But I wasn’t actually eating cake myself—I didn’t even particularly want any. I just wanted to read about other people making cake, or maybe eating it. And then, I began to wonder why.
Of course, Bread and Jam for Frances isn’t really about bread and jam. We don’t even learn what flavor of jam Frances likes; Lillian Hoban’s illustrations depict a reddish-pinkish splotch in the middle of a slice of white. Maybe it’s raspberry, maybe it’s rhubarb, maybe it’s the blood of fairies. We just don’t know. What matters more is the fact that in eating it, Frances is flouting the rhythms of her family’s life by rejecting what is on offer at meal times.
By contrast, Frances’s post-bread and jam lunch is both rich and orderly:
“I have a thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup,” she said.
And a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread.
I have celery, carrot sticks, and black olives,
and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery.
And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries.
And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles
and a spoon to eat it with.”
“That’s a good lunch,” said Albert.
This is a very sophisticated lunch, Albert! Frances goes from a white bread and sugary jam to black olives and lobster salad. She even sets out a doily and a small vase of violets.
What’s also interesting is that this is mostly a list; it tells us nothing about how the food tastes. We don’t learn that the lobster salad is tangy or crunchy, or that the cherries are ripe and juicy and their flavor dances on the tongue—because that is beside the point. The main description of eating is about how methodical Frances’s consumption of her food is; the last words of the book are “she made the lobster-salad sandwich, the celery, the carrot sticks, and the olives come out even.”
What matters is not the food itself, but the system. Frances takes one measured bite of everything, one after another. Her lunch—the flowers, the doily, the arrangement and recitation of items—is meticulous and perfect, and so is her method of eating it.
Frances eating her lunch isn’t about food—it’s about the restoration of order. Something as unruly as appetite—as hunger and desire—can be sated, arranged, brought to heel.
Or maybe it is about the food, too. While I was writing this, my daughter nabbed Bread and Jam for Frances. Then, she wanted a soft-boiled egg for lunch—two, actually. She also asked for one for breakfast the next morning. Each time, it was my pleasure to remember the book, to be able to provide this small bit of comfort and satisfaction to her life.
About Mindy Hung
Mindy Hung’s essays and articles have appeared in The Toast, Salon, The New York Times, and many other publications. Her short (often very short) fiction has appeared in Joyland, PANK, and The New Quarterly. She received a New York Foundation for the Arts fiction fellowship in 2010. Her literary novel, Trip, was published in 2012 by Outpost19. She writes romance as Ruby Lang.