The taste of a good book

My husband is reading "The Secret Garden" aloud to our boys. They are at the part where Mary Lennox has told Colin that she's found the garden his mother loved. It's an exciting moment. But the passage I'm waiting for is a few chapters on, after Colin has tasted his first breaths of fresh moorland air and Mary has grown strong running in the garden. It's just a detail, but my kids will notice it: a luscious description of roasted potatoes and eggs.

We have a tradition of trying foods from the books we read aloud. It started when we read Elizabeth Enright's "The Saturdays," and one of the boys asked, "What are petit fours?"

An answer, my husband and I felt, wouldn't be as good as a sample. So one Saturday we all sat down to tea and little cakes, iced in pink, green, and yellow. It was exciting for the boys to try a dessert they had learned about in a book.

Later, when we read C.S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," we had Turkish delight. "I don't think I would betray my brothers and sisters for this!" said one child.

We read "The Penderwicks," written by Jeanne Birdsall, and had gingerbread. We read Paddington Bear and tried marmalade.

The world that a good book creates is whole and real, but it lies flat on the page until a reader animates it. Stories, when read, are visceral: We believe in the characters. We can see their lives, hear the things they hear. We can almost taste the food they eat. Almost. Because while stories are visceral, they aren't tangible. Petit fours, however, are tangible.

The world of "The Saturdays," where we read about petit fours, is like a foreign country to my children. It was written in the 1940s and takes place in New York City. The petit fours they tried didn't tell them what it was like to live in the city 60 years ago, but tasting them made the book's words feel alive.

Soon we will reach the part of "The Secret Garden" where Mary, Colin, and Dickon grill potatoes and eggs in a tiny oven in the earth. My boys will pull on jackets and tromp out into the woods to find the perfect spot for an oven of our own. Yes, we've eaten eggs and potatoes, but never in the open air, with salt and fresh butter. And never in the company of friends we have met only in the pages of a book.

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