swinging into september with polly horvath (shepherd’s pie)

If you could have anything on a waffle, what would it be?

I choose Polly Horvath’s daringly delicious bookEverything on a Waffle (FSG, 2001, 150 pp., ages 10+).  Not only would I be feasting on a satisfying tale about 11-year-old temporary orphan Primrose Squarp (who has “hair the color of carrots in an apricot glaze”), but I would be guaranteed sixteen recipes and the cleverest bounty of food metaphors ever blended into a middle grade chapter book.

         Cover Image

Hungry yet? Let me whet your appetite. After Primose’s parents are lost at sea, she is left to the care of her Uncle Jack. A group of very eccentric characters, living in Coal Harbour, B.C., concern themselves with Primrose’s welfare, yet Primrose herself never doubts that her parents will return, for as she repeats several times, “Don’t you ever know anything is true, just in your heart?”

Food is much more than sensory ornamentation. It characterizes and underscores plot points:  Miss Honeycut, the guidance counselor, tries to woo Uncle Jack with a plate of lemon sugar cookies; Miss Perfidy, an eldery woman who babysits Primrose in the beginning of the story,eats soft, stale tea cookies which smell of mothballs; and Primrose’s foster parents, Bert and Evie, resemble two hard boiled eggs. But perhaps the most important character to enter Primrose’s life during this parentless time is Miss Bowzer, who owns a charming restaurant called The Girl on the Red Swing. Everything, from lasagna to broiled swordfish, is served on a waffle. Miss Bowzer thinks it gives the restaurant class. Besides, she likes to give the customers a little something extra.

Of course Horvath always has something else simmering on the back burner. When the town first learns about Primrose’s plight, the kids chase and tease her, looking down their noses at Uncle Jack, whom they describe as “a developer.” Primrose likens these girls to a bunch of asparagus, and as she flees down the alley to escape them, Miss Bowzer’s hand reaches out and pulls Primrose into the restaurant. 

This becomes Primrose’s safe haven, as Miss Bowzer offers lots of advice and reassurance (and cooking lessons), along with her waffles. It is also here that Primrose first decides to write down some of her mother’s recipes in a notebook. We see how food comforts, and how a child copes by writing down what she knows for sure about her absent mother.

And then there are those wonderful recipes, which include, but are not limited to:

     tuna casserole
     tea biscuits
     perfectly boiled potatoes
     chocolate covered nuts
     shepherd’s pie
     lemon sugar cookies
     carrots in an apricot glaze.

As a writer trying to write her first novel, I always look for discernible structure in what I read. I’m not one for detailed outlines, but before beginning I want to have a platform upon which to build my scenes. Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein talks about the importance of an emotional plot as well as an action plot, how the two should converge at the book’s climax. Horvath’s book is a fine example of form = function.

The emotional plot is about Primrose’s “search for peace and understanding,” as her parents are adrift in the unknown. The recipes at the end of each chapter serve as an anchor and illumination of plot. I like how they are written not as conventional lists of ingredients, but in Primrose’s own voice and style. I also like how Horvath revs up her usual off-the-wall humor by including a recipe for chocolate covered nuts, after likening Primrose’s accidentally severed toe to a cashew.

Only in a Horvath book could you envision munching on an appendage.

So, I’m delighted that my recipe for September was inspired by this highly original and Newbery Honor-winning title. Late in the story, Uncle Jack and Primrose meet Miss Honeycut at the Girl on the Red Swing for dinner. Uncle Jack has the broiled swordfish, and Primrose orders the shepherd’s pie (she likes how the gravy stays in the waffle holes). I don’t want to spoil your reading of Primrose’s recipe, so I’ve included my favorite recipe for shepherd’s pie, taken from Delia’s Smith’s Evening Standard Cookbook (Coronet Books, 1974). It is easy, satisfying, and reheats well. Now I’m going to have to try it on a waffle.  Give me an extra large helping, please!

Click here for shepherd’s pie recipe.FOUR STAR SHEPHERD’S PIE

(Serves 4)

Meat mixture:

1 lb. best-quality minced beef
1 large carrot, chopped very small
2 medium onions, chopped
1 T flour
1/2 pint hot beef stock mixed with 1 T tomato puree
1/2 tsp mixed herbs
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 T fresh chopped parsley
Pepper and salt
Beef dripping

Fry the onions in dripping till soft, then add the carrot and minced beef and cook for about 10 minutes until the beef is browned nicely. Add salt, pepper, cinnamon, mixed herbs and parsley, then stir in the flour and gradually add the stock and tomato puree. Bring to simmering point, cover and simmer very gently for 45 minutes, stirring now and then to prevent sticking.

The topping:

2 lb. potatoes
2 medium leeks, chopped (may be omitted)
2 oz. butter

Boil the potatoes in salted water and meanwhile melt the butter and gently cook the chopped leeks in it.
When the potatoes are done, cream and stir in the leeks and butter. Place the meat mixture in the bottom of a well-greased baking dish, spread the potato mixture on top and bake in a 400 degree oven for about 25 minutes.



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