Helen Moss on Lashings of Ginger Ale

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Helen Moss on Lashings of Ginger Ale

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Summary: Helen Moss, author of the Adventure Island series popped into Bookbag Towers and she was obviously determined to make us very hungry!
Date: 22 September 2011

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Helen Moss, author of the Adventure Island series popped into Bookbag Towers and she was obviously determined to make us very hungry!

Lashings of Ginger Ale

The relationship between writing and food is a close one. And I'm not just talking about the extra pounds that have turned up uninvited since I've been writing full-time – that's a private matter between me and the biscuit tin!

Given the number of cookery books and blogs in the world, I'm clearly not the only one who loves reading recipes for gourmet goodies. I trace my love of reading about food to childhood visits to my grandparents' house, where I devoured Grandma's collections of Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie, followed by enormous portions of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management.

Romance, crime and food in a single sitting!

What more could a girl want?

I've just opened my copy of Mrs Beeton at random, and I find the following warning:

Sauces should posses a decided character...they should carry their names in a distinct manner, although of course not so much flavoured as to make them too piquant on the one hand, or too mawkish, on the other.

Treading the fine line between piquancy and mawkishness sounds like great advice for writing characters too! And for life in general, for that matter.

Before I put Mrs Beeton back on the shelf, I glimpse another recipe: Cow-heel Stock For Jellies (More Economical Than Calf's Feet). I must resist or I'll be here all night, my children pressing their little noses at my office door, begging for supper, while I am still lost in a world of Scotch collops, lark pie and Dutch flummery. (Lark pie! The mind boggles.)

And anyway, I'm not meant to be talking about food writing, but the venerable tradition of food and feasts in books for children.

First, there's the fantasy sweetshop (or even factory), which features so joyfully in the works of Roald Dahl, from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, to The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me, with all those wondrous Nishnobbblers and Gumglotters and Blue Bubblers and Sherbert Slurpers, a tradition carried on in magical style by J K Rowling with Honeydukes and its chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott's Every Flavour beans. (1)

Then, of course, there's the picnic. In Kenneth Graeme's The Wind in The Willows, Ratty famously describes the contents of his wicker picnic basket as containing Coldtonguescoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater...

But the undisputed Queen of Picnics is Enid Blyton. In my childhood memories of The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, The Adventurous Four and The Five Find-outers and Dog, those kids never left the house without a basketful of boiled eggs, anchovy paste sandwiches and Cookie's fruit cake.

I don't remember much about how the gang tracked down the rascals who were smuggling gold ingots and kidnapping circus elephants, but I do remember that they never forgot to pack twists of paper containing salt for their boiled eggs. (2) But apparently - and you might want to make sure you're sitting down with a cup of sweet tea within easy reach at this point - the famous phrase lashings of ginger beer, never actually appeared in any Famous Five book! It was coined in The Comic Strip's 1980s TV spoof Five Go Mad In Dorset.

I'm sure I'm not the first to suggest that the appeal of all those picnics and midnight feasts probably stems from the days when many children spent a lot of their time feeling hungry. I heard Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, explain this point when I took my sons to an author talk, when we were living in Portland, Oregon several years ago. (3) Jacques (who, I recently learned, sadly died earlier this year) told a packed hall of ardent (and well-fed) young Redwall fans, that the reason he describes the animals' feasts and banquets in such loving detail is that he delighted in reading about food in the stories he read when he was a hungry kid, growing up in post-war Liverpool.

In fact, there is even a cookery book containing the Redwall animals' favourite recipes. I know, because I have a copy on my shelf, where it rubs shoulders with Nigella and Gordon (and Mrs Beeton, of course, although in Redwall, the larks are more likely to be found cooking the pies than inside them.)

Thankfully, hunger is not as prevalent now as in those post-war days, at least in the UK. But I think, and hope, that children still enjoy reading about food, especially big celebratory meals and picnics and gooey cakes, and anything that involves fire and/or pointy sticks (marshmallows, fondue, toast, sausages...).

In writing Adventure Island, I didn't deliberately set out to recapture the incessant picnicking and feasting of the books of my childhood. It was only after I'd written the first book, The Mystery of the Whistling Caves, that I realised just what an epic scoff-a-thon I'd created. Jack and Scott are hardly through the door of Stone Cottage in Chapter One before Aunt Kate is force-feeding them jam tarts. Then it's an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of fried breakfasts, packed lunches, sausages over campfires, chocolate fudge muffins, Cornish pasties, gingerbread and lasagne, until finally, having solved the mystery of the missing Saxon artifacts, rewards are doled out at the end of the book:

Would you like to come over to Roshendra Farm for the day?' Vicky asked.

Jack hesitated. Farms were messy and smelly and always sounded like hard work, what with all that digging and planting and muck-spreading...

It's just that we're branching out into making our own dairy ice-cream, and we really need someone to come and test out the new flavours...

Health Warning: Do not read Adventure Island books when you are hungry. You may suddenly find yourself with your hand in the biscuit tin, or at the stove whipping up a lark pie.

One day, I may take a leaf out of Brian Jacques's book and come up with an Adventure Island cookery book. In the meantime, you never know, Aunt Kate may just be persuaded to share some of those recipes on the Adventure Island website.

Anyone for lashings of gingerbread?

Footnotes (I love footnotes!)

1. I've just realised I'm not alone in noting the Harry Potter food connection.

2. The salt-in-twists-of-paper thing is something that I larkily (oops, I didn't mean to bring the larks up again!) offer to do to this day, at any mention of al fresco eating. How my kids laugh. Not!

3. The Redwall series was surprisingly popular in Oregon. I say surprisingly, not because the tales of battling woodland animals weren't exciting, but because the various species - hares, moles, otters, mice – were characterised with different British regional accents – posh hares (wot, wot!), West Country moles (Thankyeee, zurrr) and so on. I'd have thought this would be beyond mystifying to an American child. Just goes to show what I know!