Biscuits. Cobblers. Sweets. Dessert. Those are my favorite things to cook. When I saw that Sophie Blackall had illustrated a book about a dessert, I was on it.
The book starts and ends with blackberries — literally. Blackall squished them into a paste and used it to paint the muted endpapers. The endpapers’ purple and black sets the scene and grabs the attention of the reader. The story is straightforward — the history, through four centuries, of one particular dessert: blackberry fool. “Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmm.” The first time the dessert is made, it’s 1710. The cooks (“a girl and her mother”) pick the berries, squish them, whip the cream with twigs, chill the finished blackberry fool in an ice pit, and later eat it at the table, warmed by a fireplace fire. The next time the dessert is made in the book, it is a century later, 1810, and another girl and her mother repeat the recipe. This time the cooks are enslaved people. And now the cream is beaten with a metal whisk, but the recipe is still the same, and the warm relationship between mother and daughter remains the same as well. As the recipe is prepared two more times, in 1910 and 2010, the reader realizes the gentle pattern of the story as she sees the differences between whisks (twigs to metal to egg beater to electric mixer) and strainers (muslin to tin sieve to colander to food processer) and plans (invented recipe to cookbook to internet recipe) and all the ways to refrigerate the whipped dessert. The delicious dessert and community around the table are the constants.
Blackall and Jenkins could have avoided the challenge of setting the 1810 scene on the plantation. They did not. They could have simply chosen a family without slaves or servants, but they did not. They clearly approached the situation thoughtfully. The enslaved daughter and mother’s humanity is secure as they work together and enjoy each other, despite their lack of freedom. In the 1810 table scene — the only time in the book when the cooks don’t eat the dessert at the dinner table — each of the African American characters depicted has a serious look on his or her face (i.e., there is no indication that anyone is enjoying their work or, by extension, their enslavement) while the children in the family attend to their parents and siblings or are distracted by a book or a kitty under the table. In its own way, the little nod to books and pets is also a nod to the privilege of the white children. They don’t have to serve. They don’t have to fan the family. They get to eat. Hidden in the closet, the African American mother and daughter have a rare relaxed moment away from the eyes of their enslavers.
In the book’s final dinner table scene (in 2010), we see Blackall’s current world: a community meal, filled with people of all ages and backgrounds. I imagine it is not unlike the dinner parties she attends in her diverse Brooklyn neighborhood.
Blackall’s art has a distinctive, recognizable style. Each face is round with eyes set wide across the nose. The background details — tiny leaves, stones in the wall, the way the chimneys smoke, the darkening skies as the sun goes down — add emotion to the text. The repeated motifs (four sepia vignettes on each dessert-preparation page; three vignettes of sweating faces working on whipping the cream per page; and the concluding dinner table scene) weave the book together in a gentle way.
Since I have already read some online talk about the plantation section, I assume the committee will have, too. I know that we all bring our own perspectives to reading illustrations, and I trust that the committee will have a serious, open discussion about the whole book and see that the choice to include it was a deliberate one. Perhaps the committee will wish Blackall had set her second vignette in a different place, perhaps not. Will it work for the committee? I have no idea. But I do know that a large committee means there will be all sorts of readers and evaluators, with good discussions.
Extensive historical and illustrator notes add much to the story, and the source notes make me want to find an old recipe for blackberry fool and whip some up for myself. I think I will use my electric mixer, though.