When I was a child, my parents and I, supposedly, had a deal. At dinner, I’d eat one green bean for every year that I’d lived. Supposedly. But I stalled every blanched, lightly salted mouthful with a couple of questions. I’d ask, “What’s the point of all this food?” By the age of five, I thought myself a sphinx. My parents never got past my bean blockade, and I’d won enough of their knowledge about spices and vegetables that I learned to swap out our utilitarian fiber sticks for broccoli with lemon pepper, garlicky asparagus, and, my favorite, the beautiful artichoke that I saw on Sesame Street. Once my parents reliably began to cook the dishes that we discussed each evening, I started following them into the kitchen. I climbed on top of the counter, raided the spice cabinet, and mixed whatever I found. It didn’t matter if there was an immediate point to my concoctions; I was curious about food.
In March 2021, my old dinnertime query became the key to my Netflix watchlist. “What’s the point?” was always meant to be a disposable question. The answer didn’t really matter, so long as the discussion meandered in the direction of new, fascinating foods and kept the adults from counting green beans.
No, the pandemic did not drive me back to the comforting embrace of my Sesame Street artichoke, Big Bird, and the familiar pessimism of Oscar. On the contrary, the events of the past year have revealed and exacerbated massive inequities in food distribution and quality, showing just how few children are able to point at the artichoke on Sesame Street, and see it in a market later that afternoon. Several months into the pandemic, in June 2020, 29.5 percent of households with children in the US were experiencing food insecurity, up from 13.5 percent in 2019.1
In response to this crisis, Netflix—or, at least, one show on Netflix—is using puppets and a new nonprofit partnership. Michelle Obama’s children’s TV show, Waffles + Mochi, went from topping Netflix’s charts in March to inspiring her Partnership for a Healthier America to bring new “Pass the Love” meal kits and culinary education to underserved children across the country. “Pass the Love w/ Waffles + Mochi” is a 501(3) tax-exempt organization with a clear charitable mission. While it relies entirely upon motivated individuals’ contributions to feed children in need, it also offers free recipes and food-themed games to anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. The success of PHA in encouraging donors to “pass the love” relies on the energy and love that “Mrs. O’s” show continues to generate amongst the parents holding their families’ purse strings.
Forget parents and purses—the show’s creators, Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner, have millennials obsessing over their puppets. Judging by my newsfeed and Zoom class discussion back in March, all my friends were binge watching Waffles + Mochi, no matter the moral of moderation at the heart of its episode on salt.
Five minutes into the pilot, I could see why. The series opens on an edible arctic landscape: a “Land of Frozen Food,” reminiscent of the 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stop-motion classic. Michelle Obama narrates, as a furry purple puppet covered in waffles and a pink meeping sphere watch Julia Child on a box TV, and attempt to replicate her recipes with a pan of ice cubes. Waffles (who introduces herself as the biracial daughter of a Yeti and a Waffle) and Mochi (who doesn’t discover his family’s international roots until meeting a would-be Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in Episode 5) quickly realize that they can’t pursue their dream of becoming chefs while they’re frozen in the ’90s. Determined to encounter opportunity—and real “food …made out of food,” as Waffles puts it—the two friends hop into the back of a truck, and stow away, until they reach a city grocery store.
In the rooftop garden above her store, the kind owner—Mrs. O, that is, Michelle Obama—offers Waffles and Mochi a chance at employment. She gently prevents her pedantic, tie-festooned busy bee manager (appropriately named “Busy”) from grilling them and, instead, proposes a trial day of work to demonstrate their talent. Mrs. O’s task seems simple enough. Holding up a vine of her garden tomatoes, she asks Waffles and Mochi to “put them where they belong.” But Waffles and Mochi have never seen a tomato before. They have no idea what it is, let alone where it belongs, or, for that matter, where they belong.
At this point in the episode, parents may exchange smiles, thinking they know what’s up: episode’s over, no surprises left, this is a lesson about fruits versus vegetables. Wrong. The show’s motto, it turns out, is “Listen to your vegetables, and eat your parents.”
That’s not the only old-fashioned moral that Mrs. O inverts. Waffles + Mochi inverts the very moral structure of children’s TV and children’s literature. In so doing, it transforms a three-hundred-year-old paradigm into a genre appropriate for today’s millennial and Gen Z audiences.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, “children’s literature” gained traction as a profitable, widely consumed genre of English-language fiction. But the stories that sold best always arrived at a clear moral.
Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, or The Little Female Academy (in 1749), the first school-story for girls), John Newbery’s The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (not yet a cliché in 1765), and Maria Edgeworth’s Moral Tales (1801, which Queen Victoria read) taught children how to behave. In the same period, even the most radical how-to guides on children’s education—many of which doubled as early feminist treatises fighting for girls’ schooling—advised teachers to draw out the moral of any given story. The structure of the moral tale was baked into early children’s literature.2
Later in the 19th and 20th centuries, during a period that many scholars and collectors fondly call the “golden age of children’s literature,” food became a key ingredient communicating morals. Food usually served as a vehicle, carrying a story’s protagonist physically or emotionally toward the author’s moral destination. There was usually a point to the food.
Take Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), for example. Each of Wonderland’s “eat me” cakes and both sides of the mushroom provide pivotal and necessary transformations that allow Alice to progress in her adventures. They make her small enough to pass through a keyhole, large enough to navigate a garden, and the right size to leave White Rabbit’s house. When Alice eats the wrong cake or the wrong mushroom side, her transformation in size prevents her from progressing until she eats just enough of the right food to put herself back into the shape of a child. Fitting for a story that teaches children to keep growing “curiouser and curiouser” but preferably neither larger nor older without permission.
On the other hand, just over a century later, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) illustrated that the point of eating is to grow larger and metamorphose into a brilliant adult self. For the record, that was also the explanation that my parents usually delivered along with my green beans. At the start of the 20th century, A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh series (1926–1927) used food in a manner that my four-year-old self found far more persuasive. The point of eating honey was to have a reason to visit your friends and neighbors—not the other way around, as Pooh thought. The persuasive power of sweets also propelled children towards clear, distinct moral lessons, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), made memorable in the Oompa-Loompa songs of the 1971 film.
Don’t be greedy, don’t watch too much TV, listen to rules, don’t be too competitive. Green Eggs and Ham: try new things. Veggie Tales: read the Bible. Ratatouille: anyone can cook, give them a chance. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: have some restraint, and set boundaries at dessert time.
I have no desire to go on. I may never eat again.
Waffles and Mochi would empathize. Their show’s creators, Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner, spoke out in their Bon Appétit interview about their mission to represent food as an end in and of itself, “to get kids excited about food,” as Thormahlen explained, to encourage each child to “take ownership” and “play” in their own kitchen in their own way. In particular, Thormahlen and Konner are addressing audiences who find dinnertime difficult. Their research for the show took into account a UCLA anthropologist’s discovery that American families are most stressed (have the highest cortisol levels) at the dinner table. Relatable.
Whereas my dinnertime negotiations usually concerned portion size and veg content, Thormahlen and Konner have clarified that their primary mission was not to promote the food pyramid, or teach children about healthy eating. Konner put it simply: “We want kids to eat a piece of broccoli, not because it’s good for you, but because it’s good.” Food itself is the point in Waffles + Mochi. Food itself, in all its variability—material, geographical, cultural, etc.—is The Good, the destination at the end of each episode’s plot.
Could “Waffles + Mochi” signal a new, self-aware phase of America’s cultural and artistic departure from “simple moral lessons” in children’s literature?
Waffles + Mochi is a show composed of destinations that never feel defining or final. In the pilot, on their quest for knowledge about The Tomato, Waffles and Mochi board an electric, flying MagiCart with insane mileage. They blast off to California, where they land in Samin Nosrat’s garden.
Nosrat’s lesson deftly navigates our heroes from a biological investigation of what it means to be a “fruit”—spoiler alert, she cuts a tomato open to reveal its seeds—to a cooking demonstration of how anyone can make a cherry tomato into “candy.”
Already, there’s a hint of tension to keep adult viewers occupied. Is a tomato a fruit or a candy? More to the point, is identity determined by biological factors right off the vine, or what happens in an organism’s subsequent life? Two Magic-Cart flights away, Katie Leclerc complicates these questions by calling the tomato a cultural vegetable, and José Andres introduces the identity bending concept of cold soup (gazpacho) made of ingredients from all over the world, showing how the tomato can adapt to different cultures and even climates.
Where does the tomato belong? And, where, for that matter, do Waffles and Mochi belong? If they can’t figure out where to put the tomato, they might not be allowed to stay at Mrs. O’s store.
By the time Waffles and Mochi land back in Mrs. O’s garden, their pilot episode is buzzing with positive implications about refusing to elevate one category or one type of belonging over another. Our Heroes, ultimately, champion this position of nonbinary belonging.
Visibly distressed—Waffles shakes and pants in front of the fruit-versus-vegetable stands—they decide not to classify, or define the tomato. The tomato thrives in many different contexts, as they explain to Mrs. O, so they simply strew the store with them. There are tomatoes on ice-cream cartons, amongst eggs, and next to dried goods. One tumbles off a shelf nearly missing an employee’s head.
The magic of this conclusion is that it’s so suggestive: full of indeterminacy that some critics of children’s and YA literature, familiar with the tradition of the moral tale, say these genres lack. Mrs. O looks mildly surprised, a bit skeptical. “Well, I guess that is a choice,” she replies, “you two showed me a new way to think about tomatoes.”
Mrs. O brilliantly transforms Waffles and Mochi’s tomato decision into a teaching moment that refuses to settle on a single moral, or, even, a single way of thinking. She awards her two new employees badges for their aprons (in a deeply satisfying level-up sequence repeated in each episode) and tells Waffles and Mochi, “You belong, like the tomato, everywhere. You belong here with us.”
How can Waffles and Mochi belong both “everywhere” and “here” at the same time? The same way that food can be a point, a destination in and of itself—and the same way that Waffles + Mochi can be multilingual, international, appealing to both children and adults.
The Waffles + Mochi pilot uses the tomato to raise questions about identity rather than settling on morals. Although Waffles and Mochi don’t have the word “nonbinary” to discuss genre or identity, their introductory adventure includes several blatant refusals to engage in outdated methods of classification that still pervade US culture and children’s literature globally. The very geographic scope of Waffles and Mochi’s adventure shows how we cannot, and should not, identify the tomato with a single country, ethnic group, or race. The language in which Waffles and Mochi discuss the tomato—ranging from Mochi’s Meeps to ASL, song, dance (with a blender), and children speaking a wide variety of languages accompanied by UN-style English dubbing (in which the original language is audible)—never settles. Waffles and Mochi queer the tomato.
As their pilot clearly signals, we need to buckle up for the series as a whole, following Mochi’s utterly adorable example in the Magic Cart. Waffles + Mochi will entertain us, sure, and even keep our kids occupied for a half hour. But in return, Mrs. O and her team are going to ask us to think about immigration policy, race, ethnicity, geography, native culinary traditions, farming, city gardening, the environment, science, the history of science, and even our expectations about children’s literature itself.
The first season as a whole never arrives at a singular moral destination. It doesn’t even pass judgement on the genre of the moral tale itself, pointedly featuring the moral of moderation in Episode 2, in which an alarm goes off every time Our Heroes use too much salt.
Waffles + Mochi destabilizes the moralizing genre of “children’s literature,” I suspect, to keep adult viewers—particularly ’90s kids, channeling our specific nostalgia for Sesame Street, holiday specials, Julia Child, Blue’s Clues meeps, plastic grocery toys, and box TVs—tuned into the political questions that it raises and that we will decide. Although the fiction presents Michelle Obama as Mrs. O, she speaks also as a First Lady Emerita who championed children’s access to healthy food.
Mrs. Obama’s Partnership for a Healthy America proves that Waffles and Mochi really do belong everywhere, and you can go with them. They’re bringing “Pass the Love” meal kits to families across America, engaging children in food-themed games online, and providing free, child-and-millennial-friendly recipes. If you make a contribution, Mrs. Obama will send you your very own “Love Badge,” and you can pretend to have your own satisfying level-up sequence (I write from experience).
The popularity and progressive momentum of Waffles + Mochi is an uplifting, inspiring sign for children’s literature and TV. It was a true delight to witness widespread excitement about a show that asks us to rethink how we might share stories with each other, with children, and with anyone who might want to grow those stories into accessible nourishment—like a garden on the roof of an urban grocery store. Could this series signal a new, self-aware phase of America’s cultural and artistic departure from “simple moral lessons” in children’s literature?
At the very least, Waffles + Mochi is succeeding in its goal to get its viewers excited about food. It is a visually stunning show, with still shots of magenta tie-dye potatoes from the Andes, caverns of other-worldly mushrooms from Japan, and jewel-toned varieties of rice from across the American South and Africa.
Picture Miyazaki-quality food but in real life. Consider a spud versatile enough to power a rocket ship on Mars. Imagine a pickle so appealing that it simply demands a time machine to speed up the process of fermentation. Food that leads to food, food that is the point, no moral strings or string beans attached.
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.
- Diane Schanzenbach and Abigail Pitts. “How Much Has Food Insecurity Risen? Evidence from the Census Household Pulse Survey.” Northwestern Institute for Policy Research Rapid Research Report, June 10, 2020. ↩
- Patrick C. Fleming, “The Rise of the Moral Tale: Children’s Literature, the Novel, and The Governess.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 46, no. 4 (2013), pp. 463–77. ↩