National Geographic Kids, 2018.
I really wanted to like this book. I love food and history, and I always have. I know this book would have just jumped into my hands from the bookstore shelf when I was a kid. I read merrily along at first, albeit briefly shaking my head at why the publisher would think a ten question multiple choice quiz was needed or desirable on every fifth spread. But soon I began to be slowed by the content itself.
The recipes are made with real, not processed, ingredients (beyond the occasional can of beans) and look to support both healthy eating and good cooking techniques, so I was eager to try some. Unfortunately, in the first recipe I decided to try “Barley Bread” I struck out on finding the barley flour required (and if Whole Foods doesn’t have it, I don’t know where to look except online). On the other hand, had I been a kid, I might have chosen one of the other recipes like hummus which have ingredients more likely to be found at a supermarket or at least at Whole Foods. So the recipes aren’t a deal breaker.
The format is one National Geographic Kids publications are known for: bright colorful pictures, enticing subtitles, and “chunked” text so kids can read a little or a lot. These pages are appealing to kids at a range of reading levels. The problem is that sometimes the pictures chosen don’t reflect the content. For example, in the medieval times chapter there’s a recipe for pork meatballs cooked in almond milk and served on a trencher. The recipe is for meatballs and the trencher is made from a baguette, but the picture above the recipe clearly shows a meatball sub. Nothing in the recipe makes red sauce with green herbs artfully sprinkled on top. This may seem like a niggling complaint, and yet, pictures pack a huge informational punch, especially with kids, and this picture makes it look as if people in medieval times ate tomato sauce–when tomatoes had not yet arrived in Europe at this time. That’s very misleading.
There were a number of problems I found with the text itself as well. I found the text to be culturally loaded more than once. The game played with pig knuckles was called a “primitive” form of jacks–I’m not sure why that label was used–the game is pretty much the same whether you use a ball and machine-made jacks or pig knuckles. In addition, sometimes the text seemed simply to be written too quickly without editing or reflection as is the case in this sentence: “Wild animals ran freely through city streets, so sometimes it was hard to get to the market because a cow was in the way!” I’m pretty sure there weren’t wild cows in medieval Europe.
But I read on, hoping I would be won over. I gave up on the book entirely when I reached the chapter on Mongols and the Silk Road. In Menus of the Rich and Famished, it speaks of a traditional dish for the wealthy in the 1400s made by filling a goat’s stomach with hot rocks vegetables, water, and potatoes–there’s a lovely photo of a potato and a cabbage above the section. Sorry folks, no potatoes in Mongolia in the 15th century, they’re still in South America. I can’t imagine where the author got this information or why it made through to publication.
I’m so sorry I can’t recommend this book to kids and families. Food and history are fun subjects, and together with good recipes they’re really fabulous. But only if you can trust them to be correct.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.