This past November I was reading Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen to the little boys I babysit for and was struck by what an incredibly odd book it is. My parents used to read it to me before bed as a kid and I was always fascinated by the drawings—a scruffy, naked boy falling into a ten-foot bottle of milk, or getting stirred into hot cake batter by a group of swarthy chefs and emerging in a cake-batter-suit that looks much like Max’s pajamas in Where the Wild Things are. But I had never really paid much attention to the words until I was reading it a few months ago.
The book is about a little boy named Mickey who dreams that he falls out of his bed into the world of “the night kitchen”—a secret, nighttime place where all the pastries in the world are created while the rest of us sleep (a place that is all too real and much less magical to any of us who have ever worked an overnight baking shift). The book is incoherent and nonsensical in a way that is reminiscent of those first few moments after you wake up and are trying to explain your dream to someone but it keeps slipping away from you and making less sense with every passing second. One gets the sense that Sendak had this very dream at some point and In the Night Kitchen is his way of trying to convey it.
In the Night Kitchen remains, to this day, one of the most controversial children’s books ever published—it is challenged and banned year after year for a variety of reasons. Some take offense to Mickey’s seemingly unnecessary nudity, some to the “phallic” milk bottle and any manner of milky substances that make the boy’s nudity seem less pure, some even hint at a possible World War II sub-story, calling attention to the chefs’ “Hitler-esque” mustaches and their attempt to bake Mickey in a cake.
There is no question that Sendak was a complicated man. He grew up in Brooklyn, poor, Jewish, sickly and aware that he was gay from a young age. His childhood in the late 20’s and 30’s was haunted by war, economic collapse and seemingly endless violence against children—the kidnapping of the Lindeburgh baby was particularly disturbing to young Maurice and factors in to a few of his books over the years. His stories are full of nightmares–children are always vulnerable and threatened by danger, adults are either looming over and suffocating his characters or have disappeared completely. His characters are obstinate and often downright bratty, they defy their parents’ directions and end up hurtling into danger and adventure, only to end up– much to everyone’s relief– back in their own beds again.
Growing up I loved Sendak’s books this very reason. Parents fear so much that their children will be terrified, disturbed, shaken up by something they read or see or hear, but this is an absolutely integral and necessary part of childhood. Children are fascinated by anything unknown or mildly dangerous. The boys I babysit for are forever asking me to re-read any line of a story that is slightly mysterious or creepy, and when the book is done will talk forever and pepper me with questions about that one scene—“Do you think that robber has a mom?” “Are witches ever kids or are they born old?” “One time I think I saw a goblin in a swamp at my grandma’s house in North Carolina!” These stories—the ones that get your brain working and your heart pumping—are the ones that make you realize the power of the written word, that make you fall in love with reading. They are the ones you remember most vividly when you’re grown.
When I was home over Christmas I was determined to find my old copy of In the Night Kitchen. After reading it to Max and Arlo the month before I was having visions of Sendak’s drawings framed around my kitchen. My sisters and I went searching around the attic and ended up pulling out all of the books our parents used to read to us as kids. With them splayed all over the bed we looked for hours, pausing to read particularly memorable books like The Elephant and the Bad Baby, Louhi Witch of North Farm, and The Tall Book of Make Believe (which, much to my surprise, now sells on Ebay for $600…). Hidden amongst all the books was a tiny, pocket-sized copy of Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice, a charming, month-by-month ode to one of the world’s most comforting foods. Carole King wrote a song for the book, using Sendak’s rhymes as lyrics, and my mom used to sing it whenever she made her famous chicken and rice soup (which thankfully was pretty often).
Recently I read an interview with Sendak in which he talked about a particularly memorable fan letter exchange, and it’s stuck with me for a long time.
“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
The experience of loving something—particularly a book or a book’s illustration—so much that you actually want to ingest it is very near and dear to my heart, as it is essentially what I’m attempting to do here, only in a much more appetizing way. It is a sentiment that Sendak himself conveys in Where the Wild Things Are, with the wild things threatening Max “Please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!”
When Sendak passed away on Tuesday the world lost a brilliant and sensitive soul, a man who pushed our imagination to new limits and made the world a more magical and mysterious place. Wherever you are, Maurice, I hope that when you arrived there you found your supper was waiting for you, and that it was still hot.
Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice and Mickey’s Hot Milk Cake
Chicken Soup with Rice–Serves 10-12
This is the soup my mom always made us growing up, it is incredibly simple and comforting and a great basic soup that you can easily dress up however you want.
- 1 4 lb roasting chicken
- 2 large white onions, peeled and halved
- 10 carrots, peeled
- 8 celery stalks
- 5 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 quart chicken stock
- salt and pepper to taste
- long-grain white rice
- salt and pepper to taste
Rinse your chicken and pull out any offal that may be stored inside the body cavity. Put it in a 20 quart pot along with your onions, celery, carrots garlic and chicken stock and cover with water until pot is filled about two inches from the top. Cover and let simmer over medium-low heat for an hour and a half to two hours. At this point, strain your broth through a fine-mesh strainer, and dump the clean broth back into the soup pot. Discard the celery stalks, onions, and garlic and place chicken and carrots onto your cutting board. Dice the carrots and throw them back in the pot. Once the chicken is cool enough to touch, pick the meat off of the carcass, using a knife or your fingers to get it into manageably-sized pieces. Put the chicken back into the soup and taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed. Let the whole mixture simmer on low for another 30 minutes. While the soup is simmering, cook your rice according to the package instructions. Make sure you cook the rice separately before adding it to the soup, cooking the rice in the hot broth will give your broth a glutinous texture, foggy appearance and icky taste. Season with fresh herbs (parsley, dill or thyme) and enjoy!
Mickey’s Hot Milk Cake
Makes 15 mini-cakes or 1 13×9 inch cake
Hot Milk Cake is a traditional southern cake that is somewhere between a pound and angel food cake in texture, it has a moist dense crumb but is also somehow light and fluffy–doesn’t seem possible, right? The most important steps in making this cake are 1) make sure you whip your eggs for at least 10 minutes before adding anything to them and 2) don’t be afraid to heat your milk within an inch of burning, it’s the scalded milk that gives the cake its unique flavor.
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups superfine sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 1/4 cup cake flour
- 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 10 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- powdered sugar for dusting
In a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment whip your eggs on medium-high speed for at least 10 minutes, or until they are thick and light yellow. Slowly add your superfine sugar and continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy (Superfine sugar is relatively easy to find, but if you can’t find it simply put regular granulated sugar into a food processor or spice-grinder and pulse until it is the consistency of fine sand. This may seem like a pain but it makes a big difference in your cake’s texture, as it’s easier for the eggs to soak it all up).
Sift your cake flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt together. Switch the whisk to the paddle attachment and with the mixer running slowly add dry ingredients to wet. Meanwhile put milk, butter and vanilla in a saucepan and heat until butter melts and mixture is nearly boiling (but not boiling!). Slowly pour milk into batter and beat until just incorporated. Pour into greased cake pan and bake at 350 for about 30 minutes (15 if you’re making mini cakes like I did) or until tester comes out clean. Invert onto cooling rack. When cooled, dust with powdered sugar and serve.