Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
By Mara Rockliff
Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
ALICE WATERS COOKING A FOOD REVOLUTION
By Diane Stanley
Illustrated by Jessie Hartland
Julia Child becomes “the French chef”
By Alex Prud’homme
Illustrated by Sarah Green
Whether kids know it or not, the plate of food in front of them can be so much more than just food. It can be a source of comfort, a link to their heritage, a teaching moment, a conversation starter, a grounding ritual, a battle of wills, an expression of love, a trigger of both fond and dark memories.
Three new illustrated biographies of women in the food world, who quietly and not so quietly made their way into history, are based on the premise that food has the power to make our worlds bigger, better and more connected.
The most compelling among them, both narratively and artistically, is Mara Rockliff’s “Sweet Justice” (with art by R. Gregory Christie). It tells the story of Georgia Gilmore, an unsung hero behind the scenes of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
Georgia, a restaurant chef who marches through the pages dressed in a satisfyingly bold canary-yellow coat, made the city’s best meatloaf and sweet potato pie, boycotted the bus for over a year to protest Rosa Parks’ arrest and segregation in general, and soon she found herself at the center of the movement, preparing and selling her famous pies and crispy chicken to raise money for charity. After testifying at Martin Luther King’s trial, she was fired from her job, but with King’s encouragement, she began cooking from her own kitchen and producing food to feed the protesters.
“Georgia’s wasn’t just a place to eat, though,” the story tells us. “It was a place to meet, talk and make plans.”
Georgia’s food was not just food for the protesters. It was fuel as legitimate and motivating as their anger and thirst for justice.
Rockliff weaves this idea through her poetic prose: “Spring had arrived, but city officials wouldn’t budge. Bolstered by Georgia’s sweet potato pie, the boycotters were determined to stay off the bus. Summer was heating up and baking the sidewalks like a pork chop hissing in one of Georgia’s pans. The boycotters trudged on. Autumn passed, with cold mornings and the comfort of warm pastries from Georgia’s oven. The boycotts plodded on.”
The bigger lesson for children? Movements are bigger than the headliners; behind every Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King is an army of Georgia Gilmores. Anyone can be a hero and a hero can come from anywhere. If you’re armed with pies and kale, well, that’s just as much a ticket to the show. (It should be noted that while the food here usually serves as a lens, it’s nearly impossible not to crave sweet potato pie and crispy chicken by the close of the book.) Christie, a Caldecott honorary, brings the story to life with his stylized art, rendered in rich, saturated tones.
In “Alice Waters Cooks Up a Food Revolution,” by Diane Stanley (illustrated by Jessie Hartland), kids will be thrilled to read that the most important food movement in the past half-century was launched by a woman who was simply doing what she loves: cooking. and food, for and with her community. In a not-unusual opening to the story, a trip to Paris during university turns the merry young Alice into a Francophile, reminding her of the way she grew up eating only what was fresh and in season – top delights.
Kids will understand the message and the laughter as they move from the illustration of her childhood summer dining table with the best summer produce (“Nothing is ever picked until ripe, and they eat it that same day”) to the fall spread (“‘ Convenience food” – processed in factories, then packaged, frozen or canned. It’s modern! It’s easy! It’s what America wants!”).
The awakening of Waters is excellent news for her friends back home in Berkeley (and eventually the entire world), as it inspires one of the most influential restaurants in history: Chez Panisse. When she opens it in 1971 with a bunch of hippie friends (collective restaurant experience: nil), Waters is just a lost college student trying to earn a living and taste the magical taste of a simple soup she ate in Paris (“THE BEST! SOUP! EVER !”), followed the next morning by a baguette with fresh apricot jam (“THE BEST! BREAKFAST! EVER!”).
And by basing her cooking on local, sustainable ingredients, foods that “enrich the earth instead of depleting and polluting it,” she starts many other things: the conversation about organic farming; its national Edible Schoolyard project (where schools use homegrown gardens to teach children about the environment); the return of food deliberately cooked and eaten at home with family.
Following on from her lead, Hartland’s accompanying illustrations invite a slow-paced read, all the better to discover their lavish, happy, whimsical details – a suitcase covered in travel stickers, a seafood platter where the fish definitely looks concerned, a poodle sitting and talk to the dining table.
One of the ways Waters immersed himself in French cuisine was by watching Julia Child’s groundbreaking PBS show “The French Chef”, so it goes without saying that the other giant among the crop here is Child himself, a giant both figuratively and literally – she stood 6 feet 2 inches tall. “Born Hungry,” written by Child’s great-nephew, Alex Prud’homme and illustrated by Sarah Green, chronicles Julia’s life prior to her blockbuster “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” “Mastering” shifted our country’s worldview from the cheap and easy to the fresh and beautiful, ultimately earning Child the appearance of the “French Chef”.
It’s nice to read how she met her loving husband, Paul Child, when she was working as a spy for the OSS, and how he introduced her to French food, in Rouen where she made Julia oysters, sole meunière, freshly baked bread “with perfect butter”, white wine, yogurt and coffee – which (shocker!) set off all kinds of fireworks in her young brain.
The illustrations are colorful and often comedic – Julia towers over her all-male classmates at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school; Julia literally dreams of food, a pat of butter and chicken legs swirling over her as she sleeps.
An author’s note at the end fills her biography with the fame and fortune that came from her TV success, explaining how Child was able to demystify French cuisine so charmingly to the masses—and one can’t help wishing for these parts of her life were also illustrated.
Nevertheless, Julia’s message, to any child who will hear it, is clear: “Good results require taking time and concern– in front of that plate of food in front of you and beyond.