Review: Princess and the Peas

Long, relaxed summer evenings offer an ideal opportunity to spend quality time with children in the kitchen. If you need some inspiration for sharing your culinary skills with the kids, start with Princess and the Peas, written and illustrated by new author Rachel Himes.

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As the familiar title suggests, this a retelling of the classic story The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen. I love fairy tales with all their frightful rawness, and I don’t always appreciate modern versions that purposefully miss the point. This, however, just might be an improvement on the original tale. Ms. Himes has created something really quite wonderful.

Set among a close-knit African-American community in 1950s South Carolina, the prince figure (named John) is surely a catch: kind, active, involved. When he decides to settle down and get married, his Ma is worried; she’s the best cook in Charleston County. How can any of these other young ladies take proper care of her John? So she gets word out about a contest. Only the girl who can make the best black-eyed peas is fit to marry her son.

Well all the local girls turn out to have a crack at those peas, but they’re just not up to the job. When the new girl shows up – “fresh out of college and sharp as a tack” – they don’t think she has a chance. But Princess soon proves that she can do much more than cook in this charming celebration of resourceful industry, family traditions, and blossoming romance.

Written in a fun storytelling style, this book is just the right length and can hold the interest of toddlers and school-age children alike. The illustrations are bright and expressive with lots of homey details. At the end is an Author’s Note describing the rich values she set out to portray, and also the recipe for Princess’s Black-Eyed Peas. (In the interests of full disclosure, I have not tried the recipe; being from Ohio, I’m no good judge of black-eyed peas. But the instructions are simple and clear, and would be a reasonable project to undertake with a child helping.)

What I love most about this fresh version of an old tale is its grasp of what truly makes someone worthy. It’s not about feeling a pea through a pile of mattresses, nor even about cooking. It has much more to do with caring about the people around you, and learning from them; about being willing to work hard, and confident enough to seize opportunities. It’s about being wise enough to take care of yourself, but knowing that you can rely on others (John, as it turns out, is no slouch!). It’s about family, community, and the simple things like food that bring us together.

Bon appétit!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Pizza for the Queen by Nancy F. Castaldo and illustrated by Melisande Potter

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Please note: this dramatized historical account of the invention of Pizza Margherita is unfortunately out of print, but it is well worth looking for at the library. The recipe is fun to make and absolutely delicious!

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