Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Mouse meals

A children’s-literature scholar salivates

March 10, 2010

Here’s a dinner-party menu for the ages:

“Hic hic hic,” laughed Tucker Mouse, rubbing his front feet together, “I have: two chunks of liverwurst, one slice ham, three pieces bacon — from a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich — some lettuce and tomato — from said sandwich — whole-wheat, rye, and white crusts, a big gob coleslaw, two squares from a Hershey chocolate bar, the end of an Oh Henry candy bar — with nuts! — and now comes the climax.” Tucker paused. “Iced soft drinks!”

Maybe it is the carnivore in me, but I find this list as entrancing now as I did when I first read it in grade school. George Selden’s 1960 children’s novel, A Cricket in Times Square, tells the story of a cricket named Chester, who finds himself an accidental resident of a newsstand in New York City where he makes friends with Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat.

Tucker’s a downtown gourmand, who lovingly describes his contribution to the dinner party — bits and morsels rescued from the corners of the train station and assembled with gleeful ceremony.

His breathlessness about ice clearly dates the book. Though the novel’s publication nearly coincides with the ice-maker-in-the-door refrigerator, Tucker was likely imagined by a man whose mother shopped daily for fresh meats and vegetables, and whose rare exposure to ice came in the form of highballs “on the rocks” and shaved ice in waxed cornets. In 1961, it seems, ice was the greatest treat a mouse could imagine.

Everyone likes to eat.

When asked how he scored his bounty, Tucker explains how he shadowed a soda jerk the whole day long, slipping the counter-boy’s mess into a “heat proof, insulated bag.” When Chester chirps with admiration, Tucker says, “Oh, it’s nothing, really,” but then reconsiders and confesses, “I mean, it’s something — but nothing too much.”

Like any ersatz feast, Tucker’s menu is hardly balanced. There’s a landslide of meat, some very likely soggy morsels of vegetable and fruit, a candy-bar cake (just compare it to the size of a mouse’s paw), and enough cold fizzy liquid to give a cat an ice-cream headache.

As humble as it is, to me this meal is perfect; Selden’s writing captures the pleasure assembling dishes can inspire. I have rubbed my feet together like Tucker, enjoying both a mosaic of goodies and the memory of procuring each fine tidbit.

Thinking I might find more excellent mouse cuisine, I wandered to my bookshelf and grabbed E.B. White’s Stuart Little, which follows a tormented and dapper man-child as he seeks his childhood love, a wren named Margalo.

However, rather than descriptions of dinner parties amid drainpipes, Stuart Little recounts the young mouse’s ill-advised refrigerator excursion in search of (what else?) cheese. Stuart stumbles into a saucer of prunes and drags himself onto a butter plate, shivering there until his mother returns to the refrigerator for another ingredient. Hardly an auspicious introduction to cooking.

Later, though, when he has finally broken free of the city and its pesky refrigerators, Stuart enjoys a fine, solitary repast. “At suppertime,” White writes, Stuart “took his ax, felled a dandelion, opened a can of deviled ham, and had a light supper of ham and dandelion milk.” Afterward, he “propped himself up against a fern, bit off some spruce gum for a chew, and lay there on the bank dreaming and chewing gum.”

I have also had that solo outdoor meal, though the number of dandelions it would take to slake my thirst is great, and I can’t recall the last time I had deviled ham. Here, as in A Cricket in Times Square, it is as much the setting as the tasting: the vision of a mouse tipping his head back to drain a green straw, him slowly puncturing a tin with a miniscule steel point, his hunger growing as he works the top free.

Here’s the deal: I am presently struggling with a mouse who has found her way into the car and who, despite my higher-order machinations, has supped in my store without losing her head. She has eaten lustily of Clif Bars and daintily of wet wipes. She has feathered her bed with burlap and pink plastic. She has not really made a dent in my larder, and yet, all the same, I wish she would depart.

Still, when I think of that intrepid girl finally tearing through the image of a rock climber and inhaling deeply of mint and chocolate (like a dog-food bagful for me, I suppose), I almost envy her. I see her kicking the bottle of ibuprofen just to hear it rattle and storing seeds in the folds of my registration. My world is bigger and smaller with her in it.

Somehow when I think of all this, the motto “We are all eaters” takes on a more cosmological ring.

There are 3 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by DawnHeather Simmons on Mar 10, 2010 at 11:19 AM PST

another delightful essay, my friend. I love your musings! Just beware of what happens if you give a mouse a cookie.

2. by joanmenefee on Mar 15, 2010 at 10:43 AM PDT

Thanks, DawnHeather! Or do you prefer one over the other?) I totally forgot the Numeroff book. Picture books deserve their own separate category.

3. by TRISTA on Mar 19, 2010 at 5:52 PM PDT

This is a sweet story,and I find myself hoping the mouse stays! You made me think of Paddington Bear and his marmalade. Lots of good food in children’s books. Let us know what happens to Ms. Mouse.

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [ "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Culinate 8

Kale in the raw

Eight versions of kale salad

Eight ways to spin everyone’s favorite salad.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice