Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
The chef and writer Julia Child once mused, “I think careful cooking is love, don’t you?” We know when a dish or a meal has been prepared with intentionality and love, and part of what we enjoy when we eat it is the feeling of assurance that we are cared for and valued.
I remember many Saturday afternoons spent perched on a kitchen stool as I helped my paternal grandfather make chicken and dumplings, pear preserves and fried okra, and many wintry mornings spent twirling around on the bar stools in my maternal grandmother’s kitchen, watching as she prepared toad in a hole (fried eggs cracked into pieces of bread with the middle cut out) and cream of wheat topped with heaps of brown sugar.
In a class discussion with my second graders last year, I asked them to share a beloved family food. Their responses were robust and enthusiastic. They were all eager to describe their favorite dishes in great detail, from comfort foods such as snowy potatoes and cheesy noodles to regional specialties such as Coca-Cola cake and clam donuts. My students’ love for these foods was audible in their voices.
Our favorite dishes don’t evoke such strong feelings because of the recipes we follow when we make them or even because of the way they taste. They’re our favorites because they connect us to the people we love most, who have expressed their love for us through food.
These three books skillfully explore themes of cooking and food and but gain deeper emotional resonance thanks to the intergenerational relationships at their hearts. Share them with your students, and be sure to allow for extra time so they can share, in return, their own cherished culinary memories.
Dumplings for Lili
By Melissa Iwai
Lili loves baos, Chinese dumplings that are “bundles of warm, doughy, juicy yumminess,” so she is thrilled when Nai Nai, her grandmother, invites her to help make them. As they begin to cook, Nai Nai discovers that she is out of cabbage and sends Lili up to the sixth floor of her building to borrow some from Babcia, a white-haired grandmother who is making pierogi. Babcia, too, is missing an ingredient she needs and sends Lili down to the second floor to see whether Granma has any potatoes she could spare.
The pattern continues as Lili fetches and delivers missing ingredients to Abuela, Nonna, Granma and Teta, up and down the floors of Nai Nai’s apartment building. When Lili has finished all her errands and the baos have finished steaming, she and Nai Nai gather at a big table outside with the building’s other residents, who all bring the dumplings they’ve made. The celebration is complete when Lili’s parents arrive with Lili’s newborn brother, a “little dumpling treasure” of her very own. Readers who loved Oge Mora’s Caldecott Honor book Thank You, Omu! will love this story that brims with warmth as it captures a slice of life in a diverse community.
- Room reflections
The decor in each of the apartments that Lili visits reflects its owner’s cultural heritage. Revisit these illustrations with your students. Ask them to tell you what details they notice in each apartment. How do the decorations, furnishings and dishes each woman is cooking reflect their culture?
Invite students to consider what an individual’s room or house might reveal about their personality and identity. Explain how objects around your classroom reflect you and your background.
Give students sheets of drawing paper and art supplies, such as crayons or colored pencils. Ask them to imagine and draw a living space, like a kitchen or a bedroom, and to fill the room with objects that reflect their hobbies, interests or family/heritage.
- Culinary research
Provide books, magazines or online resources that contain information about traditional foods from many countries and cultures. Give students time to explore them, then ask them to choose a dish and a culture to research further and then deliver a presentation about. Create a guideline sheet that outlines the information they must include, such as the history of the dish, what time of day or year it is traditionally eaten, how it is prepared and so on. Allow the option of using either digital presentation tools or physical ones, such as poster board.
- Apartment stories
Depending on your community, your students may be unfamiliar with the concept of apartment living or would enjoy reading more books about characters who live in apartments like they do. Read more books about apartments and other forms of communal housing. Some of my favorites include Ezra Jack Keats’ Apt. 3, Mac Barnett and Brian Biggs’ Noisy Night, Eve Bunting and Kathryn Hewitt’s Flower Garden and Einat Tsarfati’s The Neighbors, which was translated by Annette Appel.
Let Me Fix You a Plate
By Elizabeth Lilly
Every year, the narrator of Elizabeth Lilly’s Let Me Fix You a Plate leaves the city with her sisters and parents. They drive first to Mamaw and Papaw's house in the rural mountains of West Virginia. In the morning, they enjoy a delicious breakfast of sausage and toast with blackberry jam, then they help Mamaw make banana pudding. A few days later, they hug goodbye, get back in the car and drive to Abuela and Abuelo’s bright orange home in Florida. Here, they enjoy eating crispy tostones, arepas with queso blanco and flan, but soon they are saying goodbye again and heading back home to their own family feast of waffles and syrup before they fall into bed. Lilly’s detailed and colorful illustrations reflect the cozy presence of love in all three of the homes she depicts. Joyous and appealing, Let Me Fix You a Plate is a satisfying tale that celebrates road trips, family and food.
- Food traditions interview
Ask students to think about a family member or person in the community who has prepared a traditional dish or meal for them. Most of my students chose a grandparent, but two students wanted to interview the owners of restaurants and bakeries in our community. If you have students for whom interviewing family members won’t be possible, ask teachers at your school if they would be willing to serve as interview subjects.
As a class, think of five or six questions that students will ask in their interviews. Create a simple form that contains the questions and space for students to record answers. Discuss interviewing techniques and etiquette and give students time to practice with their classmates.
Older students can extend this activity by crafting their interviewees' responses into a piece of reflective writing. Invite them to add visuals to their writing, then put their pieces together and publish a classroom food traditions memoir.
- Same, same, but different
I use this exercise all the time because it shows students that while the details of families, homes, cultures and traditions may appear to be very different, many commonalities exist among them, and differences and similarities are all beautiful and worth celebrating.
As a class, revisit the illustrations in Let Me Fix You a Plate. Write down all the differences you can spot between the grandparents’ two houses that the narrator visits, then go back and write down the commonalities. Finally, examine the illustrations that depict the narrator's family’s own home and see what students notice.
Soul Food Sunday
By Winsome Bingham
Illustrated by C.G. Esperanza
When a boy arrives at Granny’s house on Sunday, he follows her to the kitchen. “Time for you to learn,” she says, how to prepare a traditional soul food Sunday meal. The boy dons his grandfather’s chef’s jacket from when he was in the Army and listens as his grandmother affectionately explains the steps of the meal’s many dishes, including macaroni and cheese, greens, chicken and ribs. Although he finds it challenging to work on the dishes ("My hand hurt. My arm aches. But I don’t quit."), he perseveres and even prepares a pitcher of sweet tea to add to the feast. After all, Granny says that “unless sweet tea is on the table, it’s not soul food Sunday.” Illustrator C.G. Esperanza’s layered oil paintings capture the energy and love of a big family meal through bright, colorful illustrations. This joyful picture book celebrates soul food and the nourishment of gathering around the table with loved ones.
- Sounds of home
Soul Food Sunday is filled with onomatopoeia and words related to sound. Read the book again and make a chart of these words. Ask students to consider how these words add sensory detail, energy and atmosphere to the story.
Read other books with examples of onomatopoeia, then task students with a “sounds of home” challenge. Give them index cards and ask them to write down the sounds of their afternoon and evening, from the bus ride home to their evening meal to the sounds of their bedtime routine.
- Miniature murals
Esperanza’s oil paint illustrations draw inspiration from street art and murals. With your students, visit Esperanza’s website. Explore his portfolio and read his picture book, Boogie Boogie, Y’all, a fantastical tale about graffiti coming to life. Guide students through a discussion of Esperanza’s art. Questions I like to pose during this exercise include:
- How do these illustrations make you feel?
- What things do you think about when you see these pictures?
- What do you think the artist used to create this art?
- What makes you say that?
Read more books about street art and murals. I recommend F. Isabel Campoy, Theresa Howell and Rafael López’s Maybe Something Beautiful and Ian Lendler and Katie Yamasaki’s Everything Naomi Loved.
Give students oversize pieces of paper and let them sketch and design their own miniature murals. After they’ve settled on their designs, provide them with oil pastels or paints and brushes so they can add color and texture. Combine their miniature murals into a single, large mural in the hallway.