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How do you peel a banana? Or leading young people from food poverty to food (and language) riches. With help from Jack Monroe, Rodrigo y Gabriela and the smelliest fruit in the world!

Date posted: Thursday 20th February 2014

‘Let food by thy medicine’

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Think of any pithy and sensible saying, and you can bet your bottom Euro that it will have first been said by

a) An Ancient Greek
b) Mark Twain
c) Winston Churchill
d) Bill Shankly

I have always thought that food can either be medicine or poison (lentils, red kidney beans, coffee and Coca Cola fitting into the latter category for me.) So I was a bit surprised to discover that an ancient Greek called Hippocrates had got to the idea first. (For many years I had been under the impression that he had given us the concepts of hypocrisy and hippies.)

Food can also be love: and particularly when preparing it for children to eat. There is a lot of pure emotion associated with food: and especially when you talk with children about it. I walked into a day nursery in Essex one morning and a little boy, who I had never met before, proudly boasted, ‘I ad a twassont for bwekfust in nurswee, I did. It made all twums on me twaaziz.’

Staff in another nursery had set up a ‘smell experience’, where they had put a selection of little pots containing fruit juice, herbs and spices, for the children to smell and talk about. One little Bangladeshi girl was taking a while to settle into nursery. She was beginning to really enjoy playing in the sand, doing puzzles and playing with dough, but whenever she moved from one activity to another she remembered that she was without her mum and would burst into tears. She was in the early stages of learning English and was a bit wary of me. Once I had tried all my Bengali phrases on her (water, fish, sit down and a few other random words) she began to relax, so we went over to join in with the smell experience.

She was having a few gentle laughs at me pretending to feel sick at all the smells in the pots, which she thought were all lovely. Then we came to the pot of curry spices. She took one sniff, smiled a very big smile and exclaimed, ‘Didi, Dada, Ama, Aba!’ (Granny, Grandad, Mummy, Daddy!) Food is love.

So how do you peel a banana? Are you like me: a bit of a traditionalist who believes that there is only one true way to do it; i.e. hold it in one hand, with the stalk end pointing upwards, take hold of the stalk with your other hand and yank downwards -thereby breaking the nana and squashing at least two centimetres of fruit. It’s God’s design for the banana, so we just have to regard the squashed bit by the stalk end as collateral damage. Or can we look towards other cultures, to see if we can learn from them? On my ‘Bring Storytime to Life’ course I often start with the ‘Make Friends with Your Banana’ game. Everyone is given a banana. They have one minute to examine it and memorize all its features. Some delegates even give theirs a name (though they have not been asked to do so). Then we throw all the bananas in a heap on the table, mix them up and everyone has to find their banana. There is usually one forlorn banana left over, which begs quite a few questions. It gets everyone thinking and talking, (including, ‘do we really want to be on this course?’)

Then we have a go at opening our bananas ‘the wrong way’. As you can imagine, this causes uproar.

My point is that food, love, experience and language are inextricably mixed. When I was leading the Every Child a Talker (ECaT) project, we were looking to boost the language of children with limited vocabulary. The children didn’t have language delay caused by problems such as glue ear or developmental issues. Their big problem was a real paucity of vocabulary. This came from lack of experience. A little boy approached me once in a day nursery. He had a banana in his hand. He asked me, in a very cheeky chappie kind of way, ‘’Ere Mate. Open that for me, will ya?’ I was tempted to respond, “Yes, I’d love to peel your banana’: thus increasing his vocabulary by two words. However he was shocked, nay flabbergasted, by what I did next. I peeled his banana the wrong way. Well I had completely misjudged the little fellow’s language skills. Based on his response, I learned that he had indeed got a very rich vocabulary… made up mainly of words consisting of four letters.

Children, like adults (and especially French adults) love to talk about food, and particularly what they don’t like. Preparing and cooking food stimulates a huge amount of interest and talk. But how can you talk about food if your diet is limited mainly to precooked meals? I’m not being snobby about how other people eat: I just know that if there are two children starting school and one calls a tangerine ‘a little orange’, while the other one says, ‘Is that a tangerine or a clementine?’ I can predict fairly accurately which one will do well in school. It’s all about experience. The ‘little orange’ boy will almost certainly not have experienced peeling and eating a tangerine. It’s as simple as that.

A dietician who worked with us on an ECaT project explained that fruit in the UK is a real luxury. If you are a parent on a low income, you have to make very serious choices. Do you buy a bag of chicken nuggets or a bag of oranges? Not only will the nuggets be cheaper, but you can guarantee that the children will wolf them down, whereas they may not eat the oranges. Likewise if you are a very young mother, would you buy a bag of apples or a box of value washing powder? Chances are you would go for the washing powder. When you are a very young parent you tend to think that everybody is going to judge you as you walk down the street, so your child’s clothes are always going to be spotless. It was a real eye-opener for me to hear that, I can tell you.

Enter Jack Monroe. Jack is on a one-woman mission to help people on a low income improve their diet, despite having a very limited budget. She is a total inspiration. My hope is that as children are introduced to a wider variety of foods at home, they will have more to talk about, thus improving their chances of success in school.

Jack Monroe
Food poverty is not necessarily about lack of money but about lack of food education.’

Here’s a way that I make the link between experiencing food and increasing our vocabulary.
Have you ever heard of the fruit in the photo below?

It’s a durian. I have never seen one, and I hope I never do. The durian is a fruit that is a legend in its own lunchtime. It is grown in Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia and there are basically two types of people: those who love durians and those who have very rich language development. Of all the fruits in the world, the durian has not only the strongest smell, but the most curious texture. So if you have been unfortunate enough to have met a durian and not liked it, you will have 1000 ways to describe how awful it was, including, ‘It smells like a skunk that rolled in dog mess and then died, only to be discovered rotting on a baking Arizona highway three weeks later.’ That’s pretty rich language. If you liked the durian, you will be hard pressed to say much more than, ‘It’s nice, rich and has a creamy texture.’

The durian (pronounced doorian) is so fearsome-smelling that it is banned from public transport in Singapore (including in taxis). In many countries in South East Asia, hotel staff will sling you out if they get even the faintest whiff of durian coming from your luggage.

I have mentioned the name of this fruit seven times, and told you all about it. Has the word durian entered your vocabulary yet? If one of your kids walks in from playing in the park and there is a very nasty smell wafting upwards from one of his trainers, might you call out, ‘Either you’ve trodden in dog muck or stepped on a ripe durian’? Maybe not. However, next time you are in Waitrose and you fancy having a laugh, ask one of the young Saturday staff working on the fruit section if he has any durians in stock. After half an hour of him searching and asking all his colleagues, just pray that the manager doesn’t find one for you and make you feel so guilty that you end up buying it. Then your children will know what you are talking about.

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Food is love. Food is medicine. Food is life. Food can smell like hell. The durian: the original Forbidden Fruit?


Braniac Durian smell test: prepare to be disgusted!

Rodrigo y Gabriela: Mexican, groovy, hugely talented and Vegan (therefore spending very little of their income on food!)

Take care out there


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5 responses to “How do you peel a banana? Or leading young people from food poverty to food (and language) riches. With help from Jack Monroe, Rodrigo y Gabriela and the smelliest fruit in the world!”

  1. John Rice says:

    It made all twums on me twaaziz – I had to say it out loud to get it! Fantastic!

    The first sentence gave me fond memories too. I taught a child who ended every sentence in this manner: he gave to me… he did; it were ‘orrible… it was; I can do it… I can. His grandmother had exactly the same speech pattern but he managed to leave an extended pause before the rejoinder. I used to wait for him to finish a sentence and we’d stare at each other for several seconds; he’d start to fidget, I’d sigh and then, together, we’d complete his phrase. It was all very odd…………………

    … was.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi John
      That is quite fascinating and almost like the sort of dialogue that you might see on comedy shows like The Fast Show, or being developed by Harry Enfield or Steve Coogan, or even a character in a new version of The Vicar of Dibley (shades of ‘No, no, no, no…. yes!’)
      You have given me an idea….
      Best wishes

  2. Debbie Brace says:

    As always your post are so readable/funny/enlightening in their messages re language development. But it was the girl called Jack VT that really touched me. I have two little boys who are always hungry, not in sense that Jack describes but rather just because they are two growing boys. Helped me to get some perspective. THANK YOU

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Debbie
      Thank you for your kind words.
      I agree about the Jack Monroe clip. It makes me feel like I have just had a bowl of Thai noodle soup with too much chilli sauce in it!
      I think there is a lot of mileage in setting up cooking workshops for parents, and particularly those on a low income, who may be ‘vulnerable’ in all sorts of ways. They could have a big impact on language development. Guess who I think would be just the right person to do this? I have read several articles about Jack, and in one she mentions that lentils are very cheap and nutritious, but we have to realise that not everyone likes lentils (including me!) I think the concept of taking ‘value range’ food and creating meals that little children would love to eat is just brilliant.
      BTW Waitrose have brought out a ‘basics’ range. I don’t know what the price range is, but I know that you can go there 20 minutes before closing time and get amazing bread that normally retails for £1.99 for 20p. I used to live near Waitrose in North Finchley and used to buy loads of it and freeze it!
      Thank you for responding and feel free to email my post to anyone you know who has little children or works with families.
      Bye for now

  3. Debbie Brace says:

    As always your post are so readable/funny/enlightening in their messages re language development. But it was the girl called Jack VT that really touched me. I have two little boys who are always hungry, not in sense that Jack describes but rather just because they are two growing boys. Helped me to get some perspective. THANK YOU

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