The Dinner That Cooked Itself by J.C. Hsyu, illustrated by Kenard Park
“Long ago in China there lived an honest, respectful and hard-working man named Tuan.” He hasn’t had the easiest life, having lost his parents as a child. But he was blessed with kind neighbors who raised him. He’s left his adopted nest, and lives by himself in a small house. He works all day in the magistrate’s court, and comes home and cares for his vegetable fields. As fulfilling as his life should have been, he’s understandably getting lonely.
His adoptive parents hire a matchmaker who presents three eligible young women, but something about each of them isn’t quite right: Two were born in incompatible years, the third too wealthy for “humble clerk” Tuan. Without human companionship, Tuan happens to find a large snail in his fields and takes it home to care for it. With the gastropod guest installed in his household, strange – albeit toothsome – things begin to happen: each evening when he returns home from work, dinner awaits … and every night the meal becomes even more elaborate. Ever thoughtful, Tuan tries to thank the person who might be the generous chef, from his adoptive mother to even the young woman who rejected him. But when no one takes the credit, Tuan decides to return home early to see what’s really happening … kindness begets kindness, and hard work will bring the most unexpected rewards.
J.C. Hsyu adapts an “ancient Chinese folk tale,” as noted on the book’s back cover although no source information is available within. Her prose is crisp and simple, telling the story with succinct clarity. The addition of Chinese characters next to certain parts of the illustrations – pointing out the animals and elements that need to be in alignment for a compatible union – culminates at book’s end with a mini calligraphy lesson.
As satisfying as Hsyu’s writing is, Kenard Pak’s art is undoubtedly what makes Dinner a standout. His elongated characters with expressions he can conjure with just a few lines, the earthy palette of browns, blues, and greens he uses as if to ground the ethereal magic into something of this world, the use of various textures to create infinite backgrounds of mountains and sky, are just a few of his attentive, exquisite details. Both Hsyu and Pak share a notable animation background, most prominently displayed with the sparkling appearance and swirling disappearance of White Wave (who? you’ll have to read for yourself).
Here’s to enjoying this delectable feast …