Readers of all ages will lick their lips as they witness the preparation of the blackberry fool at the heart of A Fine Dessert. While leaping through time and across continents, we see the dish made by a farmer’s wife and her daughter in England in 1710; a plantation slave and her daughter in South Carolina in 1810; a woman and her daughter in Boston in 1910; and finally by a father and son in San Diego in 2010. Author Emily Jenkins says she wanted to write a food-related picture book for a while; when she happened to read somewhere that fool (a simple dish made with berries, cream and sugar) is one of the oldest desserts in Western culture, it sparked the idea of adding a historical element to A Fine Dessert.
The recipe for blackberry fool may be straightforward but Jenkins says learning about the historically accurate facts contextualizing the preparation of the dish through the centuries was not: She’d never written a picture book that required so much research. “It was a little daunting—I don’t usually write nonfiction picture books,” she says. “I had to learn about the history of refrigeration, the tools, whisking techniques.” No single source had all the answers; Jenkins drew on “tiny fractions of many, many books” to provide material with which to build her story.
Though the research process was daunting, the end result was rewarding; Jenkins describes seeing Sophie Blackall’s lively interpretation of her story as a “very magical experience.” As she points out, there is no digital replacement for picture books, no substitute for their “physical beauty” or for the visceral experience of “sitting with a child on your lap and sharing a book or reading to a group of children at a library or school.”
Jenkins especially appreciates how Blackall’s illustrations highlight the changes in culture and technology, creating a historical context that unfolds around the making of the dessert, while still echoing one century into the next—“the ways she found to create visual echoes where I’d made textual ones,” as she puts it. For example, in each century, Blackall depicts people whipping the cream; in the first, a little English girl takes 15 minutes, using a whisk made of twigs, which contrasts with the last picture where a little boy whips the cream with an electric beater in just two minutes. Finally, Jenkins admires Blackall’s “wonderful way of capturing the human spirit. Her pictures never feel saccharine or faked but they’re still very beautiful—beautiful and true at the same time, which takes real artistry.”
The truth and beauty of Blackall’s illustrations required an astonishing amount of research. “For this book, I picked blackberries in England and in America,” she says; she made the dessert at least 20 times. “And I made a twig whisk,” she says. The illustrator even painted the book’s endpapers with blackberry juice, which Blackall learned had to be scanned “really quickly, as it goes gray—you have to capture it when it’s bright.” She explains that this kind of in-depth research makes her “fall in love with the process, and then it’s something I can’t let go of. Just relying on the Internet—as wonderful as it is—can’t quite capture it in the same way. When I delve deep, the work is better for it.”
Because Blackall’s work is very much in demand (she schedules projects several years out), she says that accepting and then shelving a project can be frustrating: “It feels like ordering something fantastic on the menu and not being able to eat it for about three years!” When she’s finally able to begin working, Blackall approaches the project as a sleuth—one who must “unravel the mysteries of a particular book and see how it will work.” Jenkins provided her with “a really wonderful structure, a blueprint, with the four centuries mapped out: what was needed for dessert, how she described each family, its members, in factual terms,” Black all says. “I had the beautiful, wonderful task of filling in all the period detail and the emotional relationships in each scene and the historical detail, re-creating a whole context for that process, finding the ingredients, making the dessert, licking the bowl …it was all very satisfying.”
Readers will appreciate the accessibility and loving detail that Blackall employs, but few are likely to guess the pains she went to—unless they happen upon her blog, where she shares the “messy process…the decision-making…the false leads, the mistakes” she made in creating this book’s art while ensuring strict historical accuracy. Reading that blog provides a wealth of understanding about, among other things, her decision to draw, erase, then ultimately draw again the “wriggly oak trees” depicted in the Charleston plantation scene.
Asked about their favorite page in the book, both author and illustrator independently chose the same one: Both are drawn to the book’s final spread, in which the dessert is shared by a diverse gathering of people, a picture that celebrates an inclusive sense of family coming together over food. In that last scene, Blackall says, the world opens up. “Suddenly it’s 2010, and there’s an explosion of everything brighter and freer. A woman sits at the head of the table instead of a man,” she says. “It’s this lovely celebration of history and family and the future and of eating together and all that entails.”
For her part, Jenkins loves how that final scene pictures “a boy and a dad in the kitchen instead of women; how they’re living in Santa Fe and of Mexican-American heritage; and how they invite friends over to share the meal.” In the book’s other pictures, the meal is shared just with immediate family; here, however, it’s a party, a potluck. “And you see people from all different kinds of families, so it becomes this expression of what community means to me, at least in the 21st century—which is different kinds of people coming together over food. And the opening up of the family unit to include families of choice, the people you want to have in your family, not just the one you’re born into. That pictured moment when people all pour in the door always chokes me up.”
Pictured above: Emily Jenkins, Sophie Blackall.
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.