Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

TPIB: Food Fight based on The Sweetest Thing (by Christina Mandelski)

Funny story, I hate to cook.  But I am obsessed with The Food Network, especially shows like Iron Chef, Cupcake Wars and the Extreme Challenge.  So as I was sitting there reading The Sweetest Thing by Christina Mandelski, all I could think about was all the great cooking show programming you could do as a tie-in.

The Sweetest Thing tells the story of Sheridan, the daughter of a master chef and a cake decorator who has some amazing talent of her own.  In fact, she is known around her small town as Cake Girl.  Unfortunately for her, her fabulous cake decorating mom took off quite a while ago and hasn’t really done a great job of keeping in touch.  When her father makes the announcement that he finally got his own TV show, Sheridan is terrified of making any changes and moving to New York City where her mom is sure to never find her.  As the countdown is on to film the pilot for her dad’s cooking show, things are really unravelling for Sheridan.

The Sweetest Thing will definitely remind readers of authors like Sarah Dessen (Hope was Here) and Joan Bauer (Squashed).  I enjoyed reading about a teenager with passion, especially since her passion did not involve singing, acting, dancing or trying in any way to be famous.  Sheridan’s voice was true to the teenage life and she worked hard at her craft.  As her life spirals out of control she becomes a selfish bundle of bad decisions, stinging statements, and begins idealizing and demonizing the wrong people; but like most teens, she eventually works it out.  There’s a nice little love story nestled in here, a loving grandmother, and a father who cares but doesn’t necessarily know how to show it. Mandelski also manages to weave in some touching discussions of faith and religion without being overbearing; she presents a well rounded spiritual leader who touches just the right notes in his discussions with Sheridan.  At the end of the day, The Sweetest Thing is a satisfying read that will satisfy your sweet tooth without being syrupy sweet. (4 out of 5 stars)

Based on the book, there are a wide variety of food/cooking type of programs that you could put together.  I recommend having teens sign up as teams.  At the end of the event, teens can do the judging and choose a winner and then, yum, there’s lots of good stuff to eat.

Cupcake Wars

On the TV show Cupcake Wars, contestants cook and direct a variety of cupcakes in a series of three challenges.  In the final challenge, contestants must not only make cupcakes but design a display to showcase them.  For the sake of simplicity, and so you don’t accidentally burn down your library, I recommend asking a local bakery to donate unfrosted cupcakes for this activity.  With the promise of publicity most should be willing to donate.

Throughout the book Sheridan and the TV show are planning a fake sweet 16 for Sheridan with a luau theme.  Ask contestants to design and decorate cupcakes for a luau themed party and then you can judge your entries on things like creativity, originality and execution.

For a second round you can buy a variety of inexpensive luau decorations (Oriental Trading usually sells them) and have your teams create a display to showcase their cupcakes.  Other cake themes in the book: mermaids and barnyard animals.

If cupcakes proves to be too expensive, you could substitute sugar cookies for a canvas.  And because pancakes play a part in this title, you could also do some pancake decorating.

Iron Chef

I have done an Iron Chef program before and to be honest, it was a very popular program and my teens begged to do it again.  Because I worked in a library with no cooking facilities, I purchased a wide variety of dry good and dessert items and let the teens go wild with creativity in creating desserts.  Some of the items I purchased included marshmallows, chocolate bars, pretzels, various candy bits and toppings, graham crackers, whipped cream, etc.  You could alternately purchase sandwich ingredients and see who could make the best tasting, most creative sandwich, for example. 

Again, you divide your teens into teams and just let them be as creative as possible with the ingredients that they have.  Simply specify the number of dishes they need to prepare (it is 5 on the Food Network show) and let them know if you want different types of dishes or give them free reign. (YouTube clip of a library teen iron chef competition to give you ideas.)

Cake Challenge

Of course at the heart of The Sweetest Thing is cakes.  You could definitely get a cake decorator to come in and do a workshop where they taught basic techniques and how to do things like make roses.  You could have contests to see who could roll out the smoothest fondant or make the best gum paste flowers.  The ideas are really limitless.  The Grand Prairie Library system that I work for recently had a cake decorating contest for National Library Week and had entrants bring in their already decorated cake for judging and this is certainly a viable option as well.

Keep in mind you can also do a variation of the “gingerbread house” by using graham crackers, frosting and a variety of candies as decorations.  They don’t even have to be houses, they can be any type of scenes that teens want to create. For more information, visit My Recipe.

If you really wanted to have fun with it and take it to the next level, be sure to bust out your Flip camera or iPhone and record the experience.  You could even get some of your teens to do on camera demonstrations and show what they are making.  Then, edit your video and share it online.  Don’t forget to pull some of your favorite (easy) recipe books off the nonfiction shelves and some of your favorite teen fiction titles dealing with food to put on display in the room.

Some other fun food program ideas:

  • Have teens share their favorite recipes and put together a library teen recipe book
  • Remember to take pictures of any creations to share on your social media sites
  • Have local restaurants provide a main dish and have a taste of the town program and book discussion group
  • You can make dessert pizzas (large cookie crust, pudding or whipped cream for “sauce” and various fruits as toppings) (http://www.instructables.com/id/Dessert-Pizza/)
  • Have a pizza tasting challenge where local pizza places donate pizza and teens vote on their favorite pizza place
  • Do a Coke/Pepsi taste challenge
  • Do an Oreo stacking contest
  • Challenge: How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop
  • Decorate aprons, chef hats or oven mitts and pot holders
  • Decorate placemats or plates to showcase food creations
  • Make recipe cards or cook books (Online recipe card maker and Printable recipe card generator or simply use card stock or scrapbook paper).  You can make your own cook books using 3-ring binders and dividers, simply decorate the outside and gather your favorite recipes.  There is also this organize your family recipes craft at Martha Stewart.  And here is another scrapbooking recipe cards activity. You can also make homemade envelopes to mail your favorite recpies to friends and family.
  • Oriental Trading has a Design Your Own Lunch Box Tin you can purchase and decorate. These are also great for recipe card holders or just a catch all.
  • Make food gifts in a jar (http://www.squawkfox.com/2008/12/02/holiday-gifts-8-homemade-gifts-in-a-jar-with-free-printable-gift-tags/)

The Sweetest Thing discussion guide with a recipe for Cake Girl Fondant can be found here.

Have you read The Sweetest Thing? Tell us what you think.  And share any fun food programming that you have done in the comments.

Cupcake Wars, Iron Chef, and the Challenge programs are all based on TV shows that appear on the Food Network and are the property of said network.