What a lovely book! And how sad it is that I'm almost the only person in the world who seems to remember it. But I've shared it with my son - just read it to him again tonight, to his delight - so I've done my part to share the memories.
The Cat Who Tasted Cinnamon Toast was both written and illustrated by the talented Ann Spencer. It's the story of an elderly millionaire, Miss Margrove, whose cat Augie suddenly goes through a strange transformation: he absolutely refuses to eat cat food. One taste of cinnamon toast, and all is undone; he now insists on only the finest gourmet fare. His psychologist is unable to explain this mysterious change.
But Augie is fickle in his tastes, venturing into the haute cuisine of one culture after another. Miss Margrove's stable of chefs eventually lose their tempers and leave. Fortunately an unexpected television appearance by the French Chef, Julia Child, inspires Miss Margrove and saves the day.
The balance between text and art is particularly well done. Each page features large, finely-detailed black and white illustrations. Unusually, there is absolutely no "talking down" to the young reader; words and phrases like "Escoffier", "truite amandine", and "la vie en rose" are sprinkled liberally throughout the text. Nonetheless, the story is quite easy for children to comprehend, and the humor of the words and illustrations is ideal for a child.
I first began reading The Cat Who Tasted Cinnamon Toast to my son when he was about four years old, at a guess. He loved it, and still does five years later; it helps that he's a cat-lover (and any child who is a cat-lover is sure to like this book). There are no serious crises, no moments of terror or stress. Augie is naughty at times, but in a very lovable way. It's a perfect bedtime book.
Reading the book aloud takes about one-half hour, including the very necessary time spent allowing the child to look at each picture. As I noted above, some of the cooking-related language is a bit esoteric; if you're not familiar with the words, you may want to look up pronunciations before reading it aloud. It's definitely worth the effort.
There is one illustration which might trouble some parents. When Augie sneaks out to the Omar Khayyam restaurant to be inducted into the wonders of Persian cuisine, the illustration includes a representation of a fairly large painting on the background wall that depicts a naked woman seated (with legs turned sideways) next to a man. So far, my son has never commented on it, and I see no reason to call it to his attention or be concerned. When I was a child myself, I never noticed it through many readings.
For very strict parents, I suppose the page where Augie gets drunk on baba au rhum could also be a concern. My son found it hysterical. So do I.
If you're reading aloud, a passable Julia Child impersonation adds quite a lot to the experience (she has a short but memorable television appearance in the book). It's also useful to be able to sing the old "Let Your Fingers Do The Walking" jingle from the Yellow Pages commercials in the 1960s and 70s. But neither is a requirement, of course!
The book is out of print forever, I suppose. It represents what might now be considered an impossibly "high culture" moment in America, an aesthetic which I cannot imagine will ever return to public awareness, much less popularity. And that's sad. Still, if you're lucky enough to find a copy, it's a wonderful, memorable book.