Bee Wilson is a food writer, author and reviewer. Her latest book was Consider the Fork: A History of Invention in the Kitchen. She has been named food journalist of the year three times by the Guild of Food Writers. Here Bee writes about Russell Hoban's Bread and Jam for Frances.
Bee Wilson on Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban
'One of the reasons I like bread and jam', said Frances, 'is that it does not slide off your spoon in a funny way'.
Russell Hoban's Bread and Jam for Frances (with pictures by Lillian Hoban), first published in 1964, is an authentic tragicomic account of what it feels like to be a child who is fussy about food - an experience common to almost everyone during the first few years of life. Frances, who comes from a family of humanoid badgers, only likes to eat bread and jam.
To start with, her parents try to make her try different foods: soft boiled eggs and sunny-side up eggs and nutritious meals of breaded veal cutlets with baked potatoes and runner beans. But then they appear to give up, allowing her to eat nothing but bread and jam at every meal. At first, the freedom is thrilling. Frances no longer has to swop her packed lunch with her greedy friend Albert because she already has what she wants. But the endless diet of jam starts to pall, until eventually she breaks down in tears and begs to be given some spaghetti and meatballs.
'She sang so softly that Mother and Father could scarcely hear her:
What I am
Is tired of jam'.
I was born 10 years after the book first appeared and my mother read it many times to me and my sister, along with the other Frances books, all of them brilliantly understated psychological explorations of childhood problems such as sibling rivary (A Baby Sister for Frances and A Birthday for Frances) or the vicious psychodramas of female friendship (A Bargain for Frances). I've since returned to the Frances books with my own children and they deepen with each reading. As a child, I identified with Frances and her raw ego. As a parent, I am struck by the humour and tolerance of 'Mother' and 'Father', who are given such kind and wise faces in Lillian Hoban's illustrations. More recently, I was doing some research on childhood neophobia (fear of new foods) and the psychology of eating and realized that the Hobans had prefigured by several decades a great deal of academic work on disgust and the acquisition of childhood tastes.
'She won't try anything new', said Mother to Father. It is generally accepted that one of the strongest ways to overcome neophobia of most foods is 'mere exposure': trying a food on numerous occasions. But the hard part - as Mother and Father find - can be getting a child to try something at all. Paul Rozin among others has written many papers on disgust as one of the most primal and powerful of human emotions. The original purpose of disgust would have been survival. A child faced with a new food often treats it with the same wariness an adult would accord to poison.
Hoban, who died in 2011, and who is mainly remembered for his often supernatural adult novels, captures brilliantly the horror Frances feels in relation to eggs. Explaining to her father why she won't eat them she remarks 'sunny-side-up eggs lie on the plate and look up at you in a funny way. And sunny-side-down eggs just lie on their stomachs and wait'. By contrast, when she eats bread and jam, 'I always know what I am getting, and I am always pleased'.
Recently, there have been many more picture books on the theme of fussy eaters, but they tend to focus more on the food than on the reasons for eating or not eating it. I found one in the public library the other day about a princess who wouldn't try salad. It had zero psychological nuance. This princess won't eat and won't eat until she grows her own tomatoes and discovers they are actually yummy. Eh voila! A happy ending, that could come from a government-issued healthy eating pamphlet.
There is nothing so pat in Bread and Jam for Frances. Hoban depicts Frances's reluctance to try new foods as part of a family dynamic. He shows us how alienated a picky eater might feel to belong to a family of omnivores, where Father greets each meal with booming approval and even little baby Gloria in her high chair gobbles up eggs and likes to 'practise with a string bean'. At the beginning of the book, Frances thinks that what she wants is to be left in peace to eat bread and jam. But it turns out that what she really needs is to find a way to join the happy throng of omnivores, without feeling coerced into it.
Hoban's writing is not remotely sentimental. He does not expose Frances's emotions, but leaves us to infer them from her actions. We know that she is tiring of jam because each time she goes out skipping, she skips a little slower. And there is a subtle twist. The real problem, it turns out, is people not food. Father wants Frances not to reject foods when she hasn't even tried them. But as she tearfully asks for spaghetti she asks 'How do you know what I'll like if you won't even try me?' Being pigeon-holed as the person in a family who only eats jam is a fate lonelier than being encouraged to eat disgusting eggs.
The final scene, of neophobia overcome, is richly satisfying. Frances lays out an elaborate packed lunch of cream of tomato soup in a thermos, lobster-salad sandwich, celery carrot sticks and black olives with a tiny vase of violets on a paper doily. And she eats a bite of each in turn to make 'the lobster-salad sandwich, the celery, the carrot sticks, and the olives come out even'. In a book about the vagaries of appetite, Hoban's prose has the power to summon it. Reading Bread and Jam for Frances always makes me hungry, in the nicest way.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]