New York Review Children’s Classics has reissued so many wonderful forgotten texts: novels and picture books and nursery rhymes and even the occasional cookbook. But for my money, none is weirder than Dorothy Kunhardt’s 1933 Junket Is Nice.
The prolific Kunhardt is best known for Pat the Bunny, but long before Daddy’s scratchy face was even a twinkle in her eye, the author was animating a far more sinister beard: that of the mysterious Junket-Eater. The plot of Junket Is Nice is as follows: a fat man with a Rasputin-like red beard sits at a table consuming a massive bowl of junket (“a delicious custard and a lovely dessert”). This intrigues everyone; the people come running to view the spectacle. Between gulps, the Junket-Eater challenges the populace to guess why, precisely, he is eating this enormous bowl of junket. They put forth ever-sillier hypotheses, to which the Junket-Eater screams, “WRONG!” for all the world like a red-bearded John McLaughlin. And then a little boy stands up and tells truth to power: “JUNKET IS NICE.” For which effort he receives SOMETHING NICE.
When I first encountered this book in the home of my best friend’s grandmother (she also had a dollhouse inhabited by anthropomorphic mice and a videotape of Guys and Dolls), I was fascinated but confused. Back in the thirties, junket was a standard part of any kiddie diet, presumably, but by the eighties it was already recherché enough to figure in Jane and Michael Stern’s nostalgic Square Meals. In the “Nursery Food” chapter, they write, “Junket is the meekest of foods, beloved by infants and invalids … Made of rennet, its magic is that it congeals milk into soft custard of the loveliest pastel hues.” It must be beloved to someone; you can still find the red-and-white JUNKET boxes in most gelatin sections, if you look for it. The picture on the book’s cover doesn’t exactly inspire the sort of Brobdingnagian gluttony recounted in the book.
But it’s not just the eponymous pudding that captures the child imagination. Part of the book’s appeal comes from the fact that it’s a kid who bests the adults with his basic understanding of the value of dessert—but what really shines is the existential nature of the parable. The Junket-Eater is pretty obviously God, or at least the equivalent in his universe; he’s also sort of Rumplestiltskin-ish and evil. Kids may dream of glutting themselves on sweets, but when an adult does it, it’s vaguely disquieting. Not least when the grownup in question is consuming a massive pile of baby food. But, as the book would doubtless instruct us, don’t overthink it.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review and the Daily’s correspondent.