“Your work should be in praise of what you love.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The best cooks know that sometimes it’s those intangible ingredients that can make or break a recipe.
A certain slant of light, a sprinkling of happy anticipation, a generous cup of love. Two people can prepare the same dish with notably different results. That’s because cooking is a transformative process — part magic, part spiritual, part meditative. Every cook brings his or her own je ne sais quoi to the table.
In Mr. Emerson’s Cook by Judith Byron Schachner (Dutton, 1998), we see what happens when Irish cook Annie Burns finally discovers what special ingredient she must use to help employer Ralph Waldo Emerson regain his appetite.
Fact and fiction are interwoven in this beautifully written gem of a story, which takes place at Emerson’s home in Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived with his second wife Lidian and their three children.
As the story opens, Annie Burns has just arrived in Boston and decides to answer an advertisement seeking an “extraordinary cook”:
Acclaimed poet and philosopher has stopped eating due to an overactive imagination and meddlesome Mother Nature. Desperate.
Mrs. Emerson explains to Annie that Mr. Emerson is far more interested in feeding his soul than his stomach. Thriving via his imagination and firmly believing that Mother Nature will provide all he needs, the brilliant Mr. Emerson prefers “the warm colors of the sunset to a warm bowl of soup.”
Annie agrees to try her best and soon becomes quite devoted to the entire family. She is delighted and surprised by Mr. Emerson’s unusual behavior and his singular way of viewing the world, as he communes with nature and offers puzzling insights like “the sky is the daily bread of the eyes.”
Though she happily serves his favorite pie and coffee for breakfast and a savory roast with vegetables and buttery potatoes for dinner, Mr. Emerson will eat none of it. He explains that he doesn’t mean to be rude, but he’d much prefer the solitude of the woods to dining indoors.
Feeling like a failure and not wanting to lose her job, Annie desperately writes home to Ireland for advice. Her mother sends a cookbook Annie had made when she was little containing recipes for mud pies, moon cakes, and other fanciful treats. Reading that handmade book again frees Annie’s imagination, and she finally begins to understand what Mr. Emerson has been saying all along.
Annie imagined setting a glittering table. The sun was poured into heavenly cups, and silverware sparkled by the light of the moon. A comet-tail stew she prepared was so spicy-hot, it sent guests into orbit around the room. The planets applauded Mr. Emerson’s cook while the philosopher ate from everyone’s plate.
Annie sleeps well that night, her imagination permeating her dreams, and the next morning she bakes a Sunrise Pie with “all the colors of the morning sky,” “birdsong and sunbeams.”
“If we are to live by our imagination,” she said, “then we must cook with it.”
The pie’s heavenly aroma awakens Mr. Emerson, who loves it at first bite and eats three helpings. The family is ecstatic — Annie has indeed become an extraordinary cook!
Mr. Emerson’s Cook is simply enchanting. I enjoyed the deftly drawn counterpoint between Emerson’s metaphorical dreaminess and Annie’s literal practicality, and what a great way to introduce young readers to transcendentalism!
The author brings Emerson to glorious life as a likeable person, keen philosopher, ardent teacher, and devoted family man. Her lyrical prose evokes the romantic spirit, and her charming ink and watercolor illustrations invite us to step right into the 19th century, making us wish we could walk the same woods and learn the names of all the flowers and birds, or converse with the great minds of the day who come to call, and to whom Annie serves tea and cakes. Alcott fans will especially enjoy the scene where Annie imagines serving snow pudding to “four little women” who sit side by side at Mr. Emerson’s table, the one named Louisa remarking at how delightful it is.
In the Afterword, Ms. Schachner tells us more about Emerson’s life and work, and mentions that she is the great-grandaughter of Annie Burns, who worked as a domestic for the Emersons before she got married and had eleven children.
Don’t be surprised if after reading this book, you find yourself craving homemade apple pie. Just don’t forget to add sweet golden apples, cinnamon, sunshine, and all the colors of the morning sky. :)
* * *
MR. EMERSON’S COOK
written and illustrated by Judith Byron Schachner
published by Dutton Children’s Books, 1998
Historical Fiction Picture Book for ages 6+, 32 pp.
*Carolyn W. Field Notable Book, 1999
**Bank Street College, Best Children’s Books of the Year, 1999
What lies behind us
and what lies before us
are small matters compared
to what lies within us.
A friend may well be reckoned
the masterpiece of nature.
Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.