In the Night Kitchen

Excerpted from Cara Nicoletti | Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way through Great Books | Little, Brown and Co., 2015

To state the obvious, books have the potential to make a profound impression on us. Characters, plots, phrasings, triumphs, seemingly impossible possibilities—when any of these resonate with a person, no matter our age, they remain with us for years if not a lifetime. Sometimes these literary recollections drift back to us in unexpected moments. Sometimes they remain with us on a less conscious level, lingering below radar in how they shape our behavior, our thoughts, our imaginations, our way of seeing the world. And sometimes they do both, as evidenced by Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, a thoughtful and evocative collection of essays by Cara Nicoletti. Each chapter revolves around a single scene in literature that relates to cooking or eating and is charmingly enveloped by the author’s own life experience. Here she tells the tale of wandering past an industrial bakery in Brooklyn late one cold, depressing winter night and, peering in the windows, being instantly reminded of Maurice Sendak’s In The Night Kitchen. Be prepared to be transported by any of dozens of similarly endearing tales when you buy Cara’s book.David Leite

My parents often read In the Night Kitchen to me before bed when I was a kid, and I was always fascinated and slightly terrified by it. After they tucked me in, I would stare at the drawings, trying to make sense of them—a scruffy, naked boy falls into a ten-foot-tall bottle of milk and gets stirred into hot cake batter by a group of swarthy chefs, then emerges from a mixing bowl drenched in a cake-batter suit that looks much like Max’s pajamas in Where the Wild Things Are.

In the Night Kitchen features a little boy named Mickey, who dreams that he falls out of bed and into the world of “the night kitchen”—a secret nighttime place where all of the pastries in the world are created while the rest of us sleep.  A place like the one I passed by that night and, I’m sure, much like places Sendak himself probably passed many times as a child growing up in a Jewish section of Brooklyn. In the Night Kitchen remains, to this day, one of the most controversial children’s books ever published—it is challenged and banned every year for a variety of reasons. Some critics take offense at Mickey’s seemingly unnecessary nudity, some at the “phallic” milk bottle and the milky substance that makes the boy’s nudity seem less pure. Some even hint at a possible World War II substory, calling attention to the chefs’ “Hitler-esque” mustaches and their attempt to bake Mickey into a cake.

In 2011 I heard an interview with Sendak on NPR’s Fresh Air in which he talked about a particularly memorable fan letter exchange, and it has stuck with me, tumbling around in my head whenever I feel particularly eager to create a recipe. The fan—a little boy named Jim—sent Sendak a “charming card with a little drawing on it,” so Sendak responded in kind, sending Jim a card with a drawing of a Wild Thing. To this, Sendak got a response from Jim’s mother, telling him: “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” Sendak told Gross, “That to me was one of the highest compliments I 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.”

Voracious Cookbook
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The experience of loving something—particularly a book or a book’s illustration—so much that you actually want to eat it is a sentiment near and dear to my heart. Sendak works the idea into Where the Wild Things Are when the Wild Things threaten Max with “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

Sendak’s upbringing was not an easy one. Raised in Brooklyn by poor Jewish immigrants, he was a sickly and anxious child, aware from a young age that he was gay. His childhood in the late 1920s and early 1930s was haunted by war, death, economic collapse, and seemingly endless violence against children. His stories are full of nightmares—children are always vulnerable and threatened by danger. Adults are either suffocating his characters with their love or disappearing completely. His characters are obstinate and often downright bratty; they defy their parents’ directions and end up hurtling into danger and adventure, usually to end up—much to everyone’s relief—back in their own beds again.

Growing up, I loved Sendak’s books for this very reason. Parents fear that their children will be shaken up by something they read or see or hear, but these stories—the ones that get your brain working and your heart pumping—are the stories 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, that comfort you when you’re fully grown, roaming the nighttime streets of your neighborhood like one of Sendak’s wandering children.

About Cara Nicoletti

Cara Nicoletti is a butcher, former pastry chef, and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. For her some of the most romantic, most poignant scenes in literature are scenes of cooking and eating, evidenced by her first book, Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, in which she charmingly chronicles how food and literature dovetail throughout her life.

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  1. There are a couple of stories, not so much a particular book, that sent me to sleep on flights of fantasy as a kid. These two, to me, focused my attention on how food could be almost magical. Both were read to me by my Grandmother, an educator, who I now realize thought stories that inspired children to use their imagination, regardless of how silly or unlikely the story, opened their minds to creative thinking.

    The first story is “Granny Glittens and Her Amazing Mittens” about an elderly woman who made colorful mittens for the neighborhood children every winter. One year she when she received the yarn she ordered only white yarn was shipped. This disaster made her come up with a solution that everyone loved; she dyed the yarn with melted candy in the colors she needed which made the mittens edible. The story worked through her dilemma and solution and the extra special response she got from the grateful children. I loved this story and had my dear Mizzie read it to me over and over again!

    The other story is one which was later banned as being racist, though I was so fasinated by the ideas presented rather than the vehicle used to tell it that I never thought it as such. I wanted to be the little African boy in the story of “Little Black Sambo.” To be confronted by (talking) tigers and how he, with no help from an adult, was able to bargain for his life by trading his clothing intrigued me as a kid. And that he was able to pit the ferocious animals against themselves to save a village and that rendered them into pools of butter for pancakes made by his Mother was just imagery that I fell asleep to many nights.

    I know the digital games of today also have much to applaud for the ways they can inspire imagery for children, but the low tech book or story did it just fine for me!

    1. Low tech did wonders for us all, Susan. I LOVE your grandmother’s stories and so appreciate you taking the time to share them with us. Long live imagination.