Cook the story: Family projects for a wintry day

A book full of recipes or activities to try as a family makes for a holiday gift with follow-through. Story-inspired cookbooks can fire the enthusiasm of new cooks by tying together a beloved fictional universe and real-life action in the kitchen. And a well-constructed children’s cookbook can fill a wintry afternoon with kitchen adventure, even if California needs fewer rainy-day recipes than it once did.

Bringing food traditions to life

The beloved animal universe of Brian Jacques’ Redwall books features a civilization of animals who cultivate, cook and feast their way through adventures in a world like a pre-human English countryside. Jacques’ “The Redwall Cookbook” (Philomel Books, 2005) imagines the moles’ Deeper’n’Ever Pie and the mouse ecclesiasts’ Abbey Trifle as real-life recipes – who wouldn’t want to bake up turnips and taters, or quaff a strawberry fizz?

The lovingly illustrated text will be most fun for readers who have already encountered the seasonal delights cooked up by each animal species’ personal preferences, but the book could also serve as an entry-point for those just ready to take on the longer chapter books Jacques wrote for elementary-schoolers.

Parents looking to fondly revisit their own youth will enjoy sharing “The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories” (HarperCollins, 1989). Barbara Walker carefully adapted the recipes mentioned throughout Wilders’ autobiographical novels set on the American frontier. In addition to describing early cooking methods and how to adapt them to a modern kitchen, the book revisits where they appeared in Wilder’s life. From using snow to freeze molasses candy on a Tahoe trip to cooking up johnny cakes on a weekend morning, the “Little House” recipes offer a chance to revisit food ways from many generations past.

Art of the tea table

Tea connoisseurs know that the ritual and procedure of a proper tea party is at least as important as the recipes it relies on. Jane O’Connor’s “Fancy Nancy: Tea Parties” (HarperCollins, 2009) shares Fancy Nancy’s tea-party tips, from planning to etiquette and appropriate attire.

Plan your own party with folded napkins, French vocabulary, snacks and centerpieces, or simply browse the book as fodder for future doll tea parties as it sparks the imagination.

Two cookbook pros offer a youth edition

Local author Erin Gleeson reimagined her first book as an edition for young cooks in “The Forest Feast for Kids: Colorful Vegetarian Recipes That Are Simple to Make” (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016). She took the most kid-friendly of the recipes in her original text, added new ones, expanded instructions and included ideas for parties for young people. Gleeson’s spectacular photography – she began her career as a photographer – and watercolor art make the book a delight to explore, and her vegetarian aesthetic uses just a few simple ingredients for each dish, emphasizing the pleasures of presentation and perfect preparation over complexity. She uses photographs to explain cooking concepts such as quarter-inch slices or vegetable ribbons, and assumes that her child chefs are entirely capable of enjoying an adventurous range of flavors.

Famed author Mollie Katzen, whose “Moosewood Cookbook” introduced an earlier generation to straightforward vegetarian cuisine, also created a truly child-friendly classical text for introducing the very young to cookbooks and the kitchen. “Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up” (Tricycle Press, 1994) offers hand-illustrated, step-by-step instructions for chefs as young as 3 years old. She shows what milk looks like when it is poured into a bowl, and suggests age-appropriate tasks scaled to the individual reader – 3-year-olds will have a keen interest in cracking eggs, for instance.

By rendering each recipe in sequential pictures, Katzen makes the idea of kitchen literacy age-accessible. Each of the 17 recipes appears twice, once in words and once in pictures, and all come with endorsements from the young cooks they were tested on.

A wizarding way with treacle

Dedicated Hogwarts aficionados can find projects for days in Dinah Bucholz’s “The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook: From Cauldron Cakes to Knickerbocker Glory – More Than 150 Magical Recipes for Wizards and Non-Wizards Alike” (Adams Media, 2010). The compendious text includes recipes and techniques drawn from J.K. Rowling’s universe, both character favorites and background notions such as pasties served on the Hogwarts Express.

In addition to referencing the story context for each recipe, the cookbook provides a primer on culturally specific sweets like Harry’s beloved Treacle Tart (“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”), made from a molasses-like sugar syrup better known in the British Isles. Because feasting features so heavily in the stories, the book offers opportunities to introduce hands-on kitchen magic as an easy celebration to the beloved wizarding universe.

For the more classically inclined, in “Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook for Young Readers and Eaters” (Interlink Pub Group, 2009), celebrated story wrangler Jane Yolen retells 20 classic tales – many hinging on food in the plot – with accompanying recipes and food facts. The inventively illustrated text sticks to short fairy tales.

Purely food for thought

For long-distance giving, the book “It’s Disgusting and We Ate It! True Food Facts from Around the World and Throughout History” (Aladdin, 2001) provides a thought-provoking tour through the weird food ways of human history. James Solheim’s book explores the gross and surprisingly practical aspects of eating roasted spiders, earthworm soup and cow secretions (milk), as well as offering a tour of historical culinary oddities. The slim, playfully illustrated chapter book is good for any young reader and stuffed full of poems, graphs and cartoonish characters. Preview it at the Los Altos Library.

All of the books listed above are available at Linden Tree Books, the Los Altos Library, other local book purveyors and online.

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