[zesty review + recipe] Our Little Kitchen by Jillian Tamaki

Tie on your apron!
Roll up your sleeves!
Pans are out, oven is hot.
The kitchen's all ready,
where do we start?

From its very first cheery HELLO! . . . to its final glorious SLURP!, this exuberant, soul-nourishing story demonstrates the good that can come when ordinary people work together to help others.

In Our Little Kitchen (Abrams BFYR, 2020), Caldecott honoree Jillian Tamaki takes us inside a bustling community kitchen, where every Wednesday a crew of hardworking volunteers prepares a meal for their neighbors.

They’re a resourceful, ethnically diverse bunch who get the job done with their no-nonsense brand of high energy, cacophonous teamwork.

Upon arrival, young and old waste no time in assessing available ingredients: “what we’ve grown, what we’ve kept, been given, and bought!”

In the garden they find ripe tomatoes and zucchini, though “the lettuce is holey,” the carrots too small. But in the fridge, a purple-haired teen boy jubilantly discovers carrots, celery and radishes.

They know how to make the best possible use of what’s on hand, cutting the brown bits off apples to make a sweet crumble, tossing day-old bread into the oven (“Soft and warm, good as new!”), and earnestly contemplating what to do with the abundance of food bank beans: “bean salad? bean soup? bean tacos? bean stew?”

Then it’s down to serious prep work, as they chop, slice, sprinkle, peel, toss, trim, squish and splash. Everybody’s got a job to do as their meal comes together amidst this happy, frantic kitchen music.

In no time, their fearless team leader shouts the “FIFTEEN MINUTES!” warning. This brown-skinned, bespectacled, plumpish woman with a purple cane means business. 🙂

As the diners gradually file in, they greet each other and exchange small talk, while the kitchen crew sets up tables and chairs, rolls silverware in napkins.

At the “TEN MORE MINUTES!” warning, everyone’s scrambling with final fixes: a last stir and seasoning of the big pot of chili, tossed salads and hot veggies transferred to serving dishes. Details, details, there’s still so much to do: “Where’s the salt?” “Just one more sec, please!”

The team leader is having none of it: “Our neighbors are waiting! I mean it! LET’S GO!”

So they march out with the day’s work, carrying steaming pots, casseroles, and garden fresh impromptu salads to a hungry queue of appreciative neighbors. The collective “AHHHHHHHH” of satisfaction and anticipation is the perfect prelude to food lovingly cooked and savored by all.

One glance around the room clearly shows this weekly meal fills more than just the belly. How wonderful to see familiar faces, catch up on the latest news, enjoy a quick game of cards, listen to a little music. A bright spot midweek, until they meet again.

One thing’s for sure: this little kitchen has a big heart.

Tamaki’s illustration and comic book artistry are on glorious display in this socially conscious slice of life. She creates a sense of immediacy with her lively, joyous, vibrant spreads, powered by fluid lines, great use of white space, speech balloons, attention-getting lettering, playful exaggeration, and variations in scale.

Created with nib and ink and colored digitally, each highly emotive illustration pulls the reader deeper and deeper into the frenzied activity of this inspired group effort.

I love how Tamaki draws her characters; in all shapes, sizes, and colors, they resemble people we may know or want to meet, and her brilliant posturing and facial expressions go a long way towards arousing our curiosity about their individual stories and personalities.

Aside from the boss lady, readers will want to keep their eyes on the mother and son who first arrive at the kitchen, the tall male cook in the backwards baseball cap, and the aforementioned purple-haired teen, who arrives on the scene wearing a red t-shirt with a bear on it! 🙂

Touches of whimsy add to the fun: to underscore the beans dilemma, there are giant cans that the crew leader and little boy try to scale like mountains before they come tumbling down along with an avalanche of spilled beans.

There are great montages showing the crew in the thick of cooking, with a woman pouring a pinkish liquid (vinegar?) from a giant bottle (just as tall as she is). We get a good sense of the many tasks being performed simultaneously. And of course, I love the whimsical cover showing the volunteers levitating in sheer culinary bliss.

The entire book is a mouthwatering sensory delight that’s sure to stir hunger pangs (steam rising, spices wafting through the air, the scent of cucumbers being chopped, apples peeled, the glug glug of olive oil hitting the pan, onions sizzling).

And to top everything off, there’s a sublime double page spread of a young girl lifting a spoon of warm chili to her mouth, with the longest, loudest, most enthusiastic SLURP in the world.

In her Authors Note, Tamaki shares that her own experiences of working in a Greenpoint, Brooklyn, community kitchen inspired the book. She volunteered every Wednesday for many years and explains how her neighborhood changed when the economy crashed and rents rose.

When things are stretched thin, food is often the first thing to be cut.

It was only one meal a week, hardly a solution to their problems of economic insecurity, but it kept them going in the spirit of purpose and moral support.

Our Little Kitchen checks all the right boxes when it comes to community building, teamwork, diversity, social activism, thrift, and volunteerism. It’s an uplifting and gentle way of introducing kids to the timely issues of hunger and hardship, illustrating how small gestures can mean a lot, and that we are all part of the same human family, perfectly capable of finding ways to make a difference in each other’s lives.

Now, let’s have a bite.

*

Sweet Potato and Carrot Soup

As if there aren’t enough reasons to love this book (Jillian actually had me at the cover), there are illustrated recipes on the endpapers!

In the front, Vegetable Soup, and at the back, Apple Crumble.

Both are pretty open ended with procedures broken down into steps. No precise measurements are given, but one can make fair guesstimates from looking at the pictures.

This Vegetable Soup is of the thick, purée variety, where cooked ingredients are mashed/blended together before serving.

We’re asked to choose from one to three vegetables that “go together,” and to simmer them in water or stock (no specified length of time given).

We decided to go with sweet potatoes and carrots, a good choice for chilly fall days. We omitted the thyme and bay leaf in favor of seasoning the soup with curry powder, a little honey, and a medium tart apple, as per a similar recipe found online.

Turned out well, and Mr Cornelius polished off three bowls!

I don’t think the kitchen crew in the book, who thrived on being flexible and creative, would mind these adjustments one bit. 🙂

Sweet Potato and Carrot Soup

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: average
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 3 or 4 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 2 small sweet potatoes (approx. 1-1/2 lbs), peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 8 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1-3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 medium tart apple, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Melt butter in a large pot on medium heat, add onions and cook until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add the curry powder and cook about a minute more.
  3. Add chopped carrots, sweet potatoes, salt and broth to the pot.
  4. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
  5. Stir in the honey and apples.
  6. Purée the soup with a stick blender, or add cooled batches in a blender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. Ladle into bowls and enjoy!

Note: The soup will thicken as it cools. Add more stock just before serving if you prefer a more liquid-y soup.

~ Inspired by “Vegetable Soup”/Our Little Kitchen by Jillian Tamaki (Abrams, 2020), as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.

*

OUR LITTLE KITCHEN
written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
published by Abrams BFYR, September 2020
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 48 pp.
**Starred Reviews** from Booklist, Horn Book, and Publishers Weekly

*


*Interior spreads from Our Little Kitchen, text and illustrations copyright © 2020 Jillian Tamaki, published by Abrams. All rights reserved.

**This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. When you purchase something using a link on this site, Jama’s Alphabet Soup receives a small referral fee. Thank you for your support.

***Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

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