Someone else I know, who has read Sarah Elton’s Starting from Scratch: What You Should Know about Food and Cooking, told me that it’s the kind of book she wishes she’d had as a child. Having finished the book myself, I can say now that I think that’s a great way to summarize this appealing nonfiction title for children.
Elton is a Canadian author, journalist and food writer. She is also a food columnist for CBC Radio’s Here and Now program. She’s written several adults books about food, including a book about locavores (whose meaning I didn’t know until I read Starting from Scratch, so here’s to fun facts!) and a book about sustainable eating on a “finite planet.” In Starting from Scratch, she’s created an accessible, informative resource guide for children interested in learning how to cook. At 96 pages, it’s also a book I’d heartily recommend for elementary and middle school classrooms and libraries. Elton doesn’t just talk about cooking and baking; she talks about nutrition, science and ethics as well.
After her engaging introduction—which answers the question of why we should cook and why many people love to cook, despite the existence of things such as microwaves and canned soup—she divides the book into six chapters and a challenge of a concluding chapter, called “So What Dish Will You Make?”
One of many things that I think makes this book work is that Elton lays her foundations here with science and passion. Instead of just jumping right into recipes or measurements, she starts out by discussing with the fervor of a foodie why food tastes so good, the tastes on our tongues, our taste buds, what a flavor scientist does, and lots more. (Did you know that it’s not really true that different parts of our tongues taste different flavors? “Research has proved that wrong,” she writes. “Now we know that all parts of your tongue can taste all flavors.”) She talks about smell, textures and even sound. Did you also know that noise can get in the way of flavor? Yep, scientists have researched how, say, noises in a restaurant can affect how you respond to food. Fascinating, I tell you.
Chapter two is really all about cuisines the world over; chapter three discusses the science of cooking (why things like bugs and acid are important, to name just two examples); chapter four is, essentially, all about the math behind cooking; and chapter five focuses on the kitchen itself and what’s needed to prep. It’s here that Elton brings up “Ethics in the Kitchen”—or how cultural beliefs, political attitudes and religious beliefs shape what people eat—with topics such as vegetarianism and food security. She lays out the precise meanings of labels, such as organic, cage-free, free-range, fair-trade and sustainable fisheries. The final chapter is all about the actual cooking, and there’s a lovely baking spread, which emphasizes that “the way you combine and handle ingredients when you bake will determine whether your croissant is flaky, your bread is chewy, or your bagel is dense.” Only a real foodie would acknowledge both the science and magic behind it all. Or, if you don’t want to call it magic, you could at least call it the artist’s touch.
The book closes with three detailed appendices: Basic recipes (think: Never-Buy-Cereal-Again Granola), a guide to flavor pairings, and measurements and conversions. The book includes bright, sleek illustrations from illustrator and designer Jeff Kulak.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what a locavore is, well…you can probably guess from the name. It’s someone whose diet primarily includes only locally-grown food.
This is just one of many fun facts I picked up from Elton’s book, highly recommended for the budding young chefs in your life.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH: WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT FOOD AND COOKING. Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Elton. Illustrations © 2014 by Jeff Kulak. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Owlkids Books, Toronto.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.