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Remembering the Delicious Whimsy of the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs Book

The 1978 children's classic by Judi and Ron Barrett remains a visual smorgasbord all these decades later.

By Josh Weiss
A split of the original book cover of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) in the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009) film.

As kids, we're told what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat during a single meal. You need to finish your vegetables before dessert. A glass of milk will help you grow up big and strong. Don't you ever play with your food! Such gastronomic structure is, of course, necessary in the cultivation of a healthy and thriving society, but every child fantasizes about the freedom to chow down as they please.

This culinary wish fulfillment is what makes food-centric books like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (both animated film adaptations are now streaming on Peacock) so appealing to young readers. The concept of whimsical eats and larger-than-life confections strikes a deep chord with individuals still developing the taste preferences they'll carry on for the rest of their lives. But even as they grow, those erstwhile youngsters will hold on to the imaginative stories reminding them to relax a little in the kitchen and at the dinner table. Sometimes, playing with your food isn't a such a bad thing.

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Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs Is Still a Tasty Treat All These Years Later

Written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by her then-husband, Ron Barrett, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was first published in 1978. The book adopts a nested narrative in which a mustachioed and pancake-flipping grandfather sends his two grandchildren off to bed with a scrumptious — and perhaps autobiographical? — yarn about the town of Chewandswallow, a faraway place where three square meals fell from the sky every single day.

The citizens of this odd hamlet never had to shop for ingredients or follow complicated recipes. They simply needed to leave the house with plates, utensils, napkins, and glasses to catch whatever edible meteorological phenomena regularly rained down from the heavens: eggs, bacon, juice, pie, spaghetti, lamb chops, drizzles of soda and condiments, chicken legs, cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, hot dogs already in their buns, and, on one notable evening, a golden Jell-O mold setting on the horizon.

"Judi Barrett's examples are nutty enough so that kids won't tire of the gag," Kirkus wrote at the time, going on to add: "Grandpa's imaginings are very close to a little kid's funny bone — which everyone knows is located somewhere along the intestinal tract." Speaking with NPR in 2022, Ms. Barrett couldn't recall where the tasty idea originally came from, "other than the fact that I'm very involved with food," she explained. 

The illustrations by her ex-husband hammer home the grandfather's delightful narration with memorable images of a girl slurping orange juice out of an upside down umbrella, a baseball game canceled on account of pie, and a roofless restaurant where customers must dive across tables (the ultimate uncouth behavior at the dinner table, according to grown-ups) to nab a frankfurter slathered in mustard. "I really wanted to create a world that was so believable that kids would find it a very credible situation," Ron told NPR.

Eventually, the nutritious weather takes a turn for the worse as giant pancakes doused in syrup lead to school closures, houses are violently ripped up by a tomato tornado, and Chewandswallow residents are forced to eat nothing but "overcooked broccoli" over the course of a single day. "I was thinking that in some ways this relates a little bit to climate change," Judi added. "It's funny how it's come around to that after all these years."

Realizing their town is doomed by a downpour of increasingly oversized eats, the residents set sail on old sandwich bread (glued together with peanut butter) for greener pastures. They make it to safety, but must now wrap their heads around the bizarre idea of a supermarket. The book then returns to reality with the two grandkids waking up to a pristine snow day. They go sledding down a hill and, for the slightest moment, the setting sun puts them in mind of mashed potatoes topped with a pat of butter.

Despite the fact that it's nearly half a century old, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs remains a timelessly tasty treat that continues to feed imaginations — both young and old. "It's just amazing. I feel like I've made my mark on the Earth and the book will outlive me, as will the story," Judi concluded. "Which just gives me goosebumps to say that. But it's really true."

Check out the movies inspired by the classic book: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 are now streaming on Peacock! 

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