A time-honored summertime dessert – blackberry fool – brought seasoned children’s book creators Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall to the table together for the first time. Jenkins (whose versatile oeuvre spans numerous picture books, including Toys Go Out and its sequels, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, and YA novels written under the name E. Lockhart) and Blackall (illustrator of Annie Barrows’s Ivy + Bean series and many picture books) collaborated on A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. Due from Schwartz & Wade Books on January 27, the picture book spotlights a quartet of families – in 1710 England, 1810 Charleston, 1910 Boston, and 2010 San Diego – preparing and enjoying blackberry fool, and tracks the evolution of cooking methods and equipment, societal changes, and period shifts in fashion, architecture, and home décor. Both Brooklyn residents and fans of the dessert that is the centerpiece of their story, Jenkins and Blackall shared the makings of their historical and literary concoction.
Emily, was it an interest in things culinary that sparked the idea for A Fine Dessert?
Emily Jenkins: I do love to cook and eat – dessert especially. I also like to read food magazines, food essays, and cookbooks, and had been keeping an eye out for a food-related picture book I could do. I had read somewhere that blackberry fool is one of the oldest desserts in Western culture. And suddenly the idea sprang into my mind of a story of four families over four centuries connected by blackberry fool.Once you had the basic ingredients, how did you start the project simmering?
E.J.: The research was a bit daunting from the start – and not that easy to do once I began. I’d never done a picture book that required historical research. I pulled information from a lot of different books and found information on the Internet, but there wasn’t always the best documentation available.
What information was difficult to come by?
E.J.: There were so many questions that were hard to answer: how did people refrigerate things in 1710 and 1810, and how wealthy would you have had to be to have access to slabs of ice for refrigeration – and where did people get them? And when did recipe books first become available – and when were most people literate enough to read them? I ended up calling some food historians to check the accuracy of all that I’d researched, and got the answers eventually – but it did take a while.
And Sophie obviously faced her own challenges ensuring the accuracy of her art. But first – how did she come to illustrate the book?
E.J.: When Anne [Schwartz] and Lee [Wade] asked me, “How would you like Sophie Blackall to illustrate your book?” I was so thrilled that I immediately began running around, screaming! No other artist was even discussed – why would anyone ever look further than Sophie? And in terms of research, she had to explore so much – including period clothing, houses, dishware, and furnishings—so many things I hadn’t actually described in the text. I feel as though her research was far more arduous than mine – and mine was plenty arduous!
Sophie Blackall: “Arduous” could be one word for it, but “delightful” is definitely another one. Researching this book was really so much fun. I did research in museums and on the Internet – but also used the book as a great excuse to travel to England. Among other things, I picked blackberries there, and discovered they’re quite different from American blackberries – they’re small, dark, and hard, rather than reddish and plump.
And did you both give making blackberry fool a go?
S.B: Yes! I had a lot of fun making it, and found when I finally tasted it that I couldn’t get enough of it! I loved Emily’s description of people in 1710 making blackberry fool by whipping cream with a twig. I felt compelled to make a twig whisk and use it to whip cream – and I couldn’t believe how tired I got after just a few minutes. But it was worth it – blackberry fool is so good and so summery and so delicious.
E.J.: I agree with that – but for me, making blackberry fool involved full-on Kitchen Aid!
Sophie, in addition to using blackberry juice in your dessert preparation, you also found another use for it.
S.B.: I did. Emily wrote that, when the 18th-century mother and daughter were picking blackberries, the juice turned their hands purple. I put that in the illustration—showing their hands and their white aprons stained purple. And then it occurred to me that maybe I could use blackberry juice in my paintings, and I ended up making the purple endpapers from it, and also used it in some touches in the illustrations.
Authenticity seems to be a hallmark of A Fine Dessert, as both text and art explore changes that occur from century to century – in multiple ways.
S.B.: For me, showing the changes over time was the best kind of challenge, and the illustrations are every bit as much about the people as they are about the history of food and the changes in technology – like kitchen gadgets and refrigeration. It is Emily’s genius that she also included sometimes subtle social shifts from century to century.
S.B.: Well, for instance, in the first three eras – the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries – the father sits at the head of the dinner table, as it was very much a patriarchal society. By 2010, a boy and his father are cooking together in their California kitchen, and hosting a multicultural gathering of guests, and a woman sits at the head of the table. Today’s kids may think it weird that things weren’t always this way – the book is packed with historical clues, which I hope they will discover and question.
And obviously there were huge shifts in racial relationships over the centuries that A Fine Dessert spans, which you illuminate in your portrayal of 1810, when a South Carolina slave and her daughter pick blackberries and prepare and serve the dessert to white plantation owners – but are not allowed to enjoy their culinary creation openly, and must hide in a closet to lick the bowl.
E.J.: Sophie and I both worked so hard to make this book truthful yet gentle at the same time. I did not want to write a book that was a lie, but I did want to celebrate the simple joys – like a mother and child making food together – that occur even in complicated lives and times. For me and for so many others, cooking and sharing food is a through line in times of hardship.
S.B.: I think it was so important to have this element in the book, and I wanted to show it as sensitively as I could. By the very nature of their identity as slaves, the lives of this mother and daughter were compromised. With the image of them picking berries in the sunshine, I wanted to show one of those happy shared moments we all have with our children. And afterwards, as they hide in the cupboard licking the bowl, I wanted readers to think about all that that implies, and the injustice of it all. I didn’t want to be too heavy-handed, but I also didn’t want to sugarcoat it.
It sounds as though you were very much in sync from the start. Would you say that that like-mindedness facilitated your collaboration?
E.J.: With many book projects, the author and illustrator never meet – or even communicate with each other. I shared all my research notes with Sophie, though she of course did a great deal research on her own. And it was very magical to read her blog posts about her illustrative process, and many of the things that inspired her paintings for this book. I got to see her process in a way I’d never seen before from an illustrator. That was very meaningful to me.
S.B.: I was in the fortunate position that I could e-mail Emily at any time as I figured out the historical details – like whether a mother and daughter in 1910 Boston could have bought blackberries from a vendor on a Sunday, or if they would have had to do that the day before. A lovely part of an illustrator’s job is to unravel the mysteries of a concise picture book text, which Emily is so very good at writing. It was a pleasure to work on this book with her.
Might you collaborate on another picture book down the road?
E.J.: I want Sophie to illustrate all of my books! Actually, another collaboration would involve me writing something – and then me begging. It could be a long process.
S.B.: I think it would be a lovely thing to look forward to!
A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins, illus. by Sophie Blackall. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-375-86832-0