Every Night is Pizza Night by J. Kenji López-Alt
illustrated by Gianna Ruggiero
Purchased from Ooni Pizza Ovens
Every FRIDAY Night Is Pizza Night In My House!
I usually avoid sharing personal stories in my book reviews, assuming that most people want a quick summary and a few details on what makes this children’s book worth buying and for what kind of reader. But, how and why I came to buy Every Night Is Pizza Night has so many personal threads that I can’t start the review without first untangling them.
As of a year ago, I have not had a job working with children and/or children’s books for the first time in twenty-five years. The pandemic upended my life, with many good, if challenging, changes. I have always loved cooking, especially for my family, and when I found myself with my two adult kids and mother living with me, my husband and my teenage son, I decided I was going to work to become a better cook. I am no slouch in the kitchen and our family has always eaten a home cooked dinner together, mostly because what I made at home was better than what we could afford to eat out. I am curious and, while my purchase of cookbooks has slowed, I am reading recipes online daily. I am an adventurous eater, but also very averse to failure in the kitchen, which keeps me from expanding my repertoire.
I had long been benefiting from the wisdom of J. Kenji López-Alt (unknowingly) in the pages of Cook’s Illustrated, which I have subscribed to starting with the 1993 charter issue, and more recently (knowingly) at Serious Eats. And, having been a subscriber to the New York Times for all of my adult life, I am very happy that López-Alt is now sharing his wisdom there. Unbeknownst to me, my oldest son, who shares my passion for food and dabbles in cooking, had been watching Kenji’s YouTube channel while ensconced in his dorm room on the other side of the country. When the pandemic sent him back home to California, I knew my partner in cooking had arrived. We purchased The Food Lab, pored over it, and are slowly cooking our way through it.
Friday has always been pizza night in our family. Before, and occasionally after, we had kids, my husband and I made our own dough. There was a rough few years when I was working full time when we bought frozen pizzas and I added home cooked, speciality toppings. But, in the past year and a half, I returned making my own pizza dough (with 00 flour from Italy, because I also returned to making my own pasta). My son stepped in, happily pushing us to try more adventurous toppings (coppa, clams and fennel, anchovies, and something he calls gabagool) and in May, for out 30th wedding anniversary, my mother and mother-in-law bought us a portable outdoor pizza oven – the Ooni Koda 16 inch, which you can watch Kenji make a pizza in here. The pandemic impacted wait times to get this very popular item (which is arriving any day now), but it is worth the wait. As a thank you for being patient, Ooni Pizza Ovens gave us a $50.00 gift card, which I promptly used to buy a pizza turning peel AND a book that I had long wanted to read and review since it came out in September of 2020 – Every Night Is Pizza Night! It felt right buying it from a company that makes pizza ovens. And, as I write, I must pause to get my dough started for tomorrow night’s dinner, which we just might grill since López-Alt’s latest piece for the NY Times (and past episodes of his cooking show) is on that subject.
As a bookseller, reviewer and librarian, I’ve had the opportunity to read many children’s books written (or "written") by people who do not write for children as a profession and often do not write as a profession at all. This always shows in the quality of the book, no matter how stellar an illustrator is attached to the project. The first thought I had after reading Every Night Is Pizza Night is, "This book was written by a writer, a writer who has an understanding of writing for children." Then, somewhat obviously, I admit, I thought, "This is a writer who knows how to write about food." As a food lover and a lover of books about food going back decades to my first reading of Bread and Jam for Frances, I go out of my way to review Books About Food, fiction and non-fiction, picture book, graphic novel, cookbooks, food science and novels, the more multi-cultural the better. I also read quite a bit of food writing for adults, so I feel qualified in my praise of this book. In addition to the great writing, I am happy to say that, despite the title, Every Night Is Pizza Night! is a love letter to delicious dishes from all over the world, as explored by a a narrator with a singular taste and a scientific mindset. Ruggiero’s illustrations perfectly capture the main character’s energy and curiosity while creating detailed and distinct illustrations of the many dishes in this book and the variety of ingredients used to create them.
Every night is pizza night in Pipo’s home, despite the fact that her exhausted parents (mom appears to be Latina, while dad reads as AAIP) are clearly yearning for some variety. She has even scientifically proven that pizza "Is. The. BEST," having conducted several tests under a range of conditions. When Mama tries to let Pipo know what she is missing, Pipo pauses, remembering her science teacher saying that "a good scientist always wants more data." This was the first moment in the story when I knew that it was written by an author who knows kids and children’s books. As Mama longingly lists the dishes she is missing, Pipo responds in rhyme, "Peking duck? Peking yuck," and, "Five-bean chili? Don’t be silly," ending with, "French onion soup? French onion p . . ." Having read books out loud to audiences of kids for over 25 years, I can confidently tell you that the only thing kids love more than predicting a rhyming word in the text is the possibility of getting to shout out the word "poop."
With the help of her home-cooking neighbors and Mr. Gonzalez, owner of the local market, collects new data, experimenting with bibimbap, tagine, red beans and rice, dumplings and green pozole soup (with phonetic pronunciations when called for). López-Alt’s descriptions of these dishes, in the voice of a pizza-loving but cautiously adventurous eater Pipo (who utters, "I do not need it. I do not want it. But I will try it," before tasting each new dish in the name of scientific research) are where his work as a food scientist and food writer shine. He’s not afraid to have Pipo describe a food as smelling spicy and stinky. After sampling this "taste sensation," she declares, "If being stinky is wrong, I don’t want to be right." Beans that look like "big shiny beetles swimming in mud" end up tasting like a "great big hug around my belly!" And dumplings with middles that are "so hot and juicy," and skins that are "so think and stretchy," are "Little purses of delight!"
Having tasted what her friends and neighbors consider the best food, Pipo wonders if the best food is "the kind that says ‘I love you’ without making a sound? Or is it just something you like to share?" With this in mind, a new round of experiments begins with a pizza party at Pipo’s, followed by a tagine party at neighbor Farah’s the next week. The story ends with Pipo determining that her new round of data does in fact confirm that pizza "really is the best," but also affirming that there are "a lot more bests I can try."
Besides everything else I already mentioned, one of my favorite aspects of this book is the way that López-Alt bypasses the typical kid’s story involving foods from other cultures in which noses are turned up and "Ewwws" are heard from minor characters for a main character who, while she knows what she likes, is open to trying new things, even if it is in the name of science. I believe that parents pass on their likes and dislikes, with foods especially, to their children, consciously and unconsciously. It makes perfect sense then, that a food lover and father of an adventurous eater would write a book about a child like Pipo!
Back matter includes "Pipo’s Pizza," a brief invitation for parents and caregivers to get in the kitchen with kids and make pizza together, with a P.S. that reads, "Make sure you wear your nicest clothes while cooking. Tomato sauce has a way of jumping out at you unexpectedly." A recipe for two 10-inch thick crust pizza follows.
A Few of My Favorite Books About Food
(click HERE for the full list)
MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS
August 21, 2021 at 01:53AM Tanya