Review: A Fine Dessert

The late summer is fading fast, but still promises simple pleasures for those who pause to look. I found one unexpectedly when I picked up a fresh batch of books from our tiny local library: A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

This charming bit of culinary history imagines four fictional families concocting the same dessert, each one hundred years apart. First, an English mother and daughter pick the berries and milk the cow, whipping the cream with a bundle of twigs before serving it to their family. A century later, an enslaved woman and her daughter in South Carolina can whip it up a little faster with a metal whisk, but they must serve it to the master’s family. By 1910 a family in Boston has the pasteurized cream delivered to their door, and in 2010 a father and son can buy what they need at the supermarket and have the cream whipped in no time with an electric mixer.

As the story follows each family, children can readily pick out the details that make each scenario similar and different. The careful text grants a clear picture of what it looked like, felt like, tasted like to make this delicious sweet in every age; while the pretty illustrations accurately convey both historical particulars and familiar emotions. Details of clothing, lifestyle, and diet have all been thoroughly researched by author and illustrator, allowing young readers to immerse themselves in the lives of these families from the past.

This story is short enough for very young children, but rich with possibilities for understanding elements that the food preparation only symbolizes. In the first three families it is the females who prepare the treat, but only in the third do they sit down and enjoy it together as a family. The depiction of the second family, living as slaves, is heartbreaking; they must sneak a taste after their owners have eaten. By the time of the fourth family, we see a father and son making the dessert for friends of mixed races, and enjoying it together. Readers are invited into a world that was once far less equitable, and gently encouraged to consider what that progress has looked like, even as it continues.

Whatever their circumstances, each parent-child pairing plainly delights in one another’s company. The work is not always easy, but the sugary reward at the end is a pleasing prospect for every generation. Along with a lick of the bowl, each child receives a fond smile and a shared experience. It is a warming portrayal of the ordinary bonds that make a loving home.

The recipe itself, given in the back of the book, is for an old dessert called blackberry fool. It is quite a simple dish, consisting of crushed and sweetened blackberries swirled with whipped cream and chilled. It is very easy to make, and I highly recommend doing so with children. While kitchen tools and methods of refrigeration have obviously changed with time, the basic method of the recipe has not. And the playful joy of parents and children making a summer treat together is timeless.

It happens that blackberries are at their best in late August. When I placed this selection on hold, I had no idea what the dish would be, or what blackberry fool even was; but I thoroughly enjoyed recreating the delight of these families in my kitchen with my own children. We found ourselves giggling like the long-ago characters, even as we took turns whipping the cream the old-fashioned way. And just as they did, we couldn’t help but lick the bowl.

Don’t let summer slip away without trying this fine dessert.

Review: Magic in the Margins

As I lay the final plans for my family’s first year of homeschooling, I have given a great deal of thought to what it is that any child needs to learn, and what I want mine to know. It is tempting to answer that question with titles of courses and subjects, and while these are necessary, none of them fully answer the question: what do I want my students to be able to do?

I want them to observe and ask questions. I want them to notice which tree’s leaves change color first, and discover why. I want them to look up the word they don’t know, and find out which bird is nesting in the barn loft. When they hear a piece of music or see a piece of art, I want them to be able to describe what is so stirring about it. I want them to research an argument and recognize a fallacy; to use language and numbers both precisely and artfully. I want them to be delighted by a honey bee.

As usual, my mental meanderings take me right back to the books that have formed these ideals in my mind. There are so, so many; and a number of them are children’s books. One leaped into my hand this morning, past my piles of notes and my cup of cold tea. Sadly I believe it is out of print now, but like all the best picture books it tells in a story what I can only attempt to describe here: Magic in the Margins: A Medieval Tale of Bookmaking by W. Nikola-Lisa and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen.

In this fanciful tale, an orphaned peasant boy named Simon is taken in by the nearby monastery and raised by the monks. He is trained to assist in the scriptorium, where he is employed making parchments, curing quills, and grinding pigments. With reverent awe he views the Psalters and Herbals and Bestiaries, and displays some talent when shown how to make letters and sketches on scraps of parchment. Simon’s dream is to be allowed to illuminate a real manuscript.

Brother William, his kindly tutor, acknowledges the boy’s skill and shows his work to the master scribe, Father Anselm. The master praises Simon’s copying ability but wants him to develop the imagination of an artist; and he gives Simon the unexpected assignment of capturing mice.

Determined to prove himself, Simon turns his mind to catching every mouse in the monastery. But he has misunderstood Father Anselm, who didn’t want him to catch mice, but capture them. When Simon realizes this, he notices one little furry intruder in the corner of the dormitory, and watches it with interest. How quickly it moves – how sleek its coat! Simon sneaks to the scriptorium and spends all night drawing that mouse in every angle, every attitude. Satisfied, he takes his work to Father Anselm.

But still Simon has not entirely understood. Disappointed, he returns to the scriptorium and leafs through Father Anselm’s own work. He marvels at the perfect lettering and vibrant paintings, those hallmarks of medieval manuscript illumination. And then he notices something else: the figures intricately hidden in the margins. A flying fish, a bear reading the Bible, a knight charging a snail: they are playful, imaginative, and fun! Simon pauses when he sees a mouse out of the corner of his eye; then he takes a quill and draws his mouse again in all sorts of whimsical postures. With his imagination now building on his technical skill, he has learned his mentor’s lesson.

With a historical note at the back, this story is a fabulous introduction to the painstaking and distinctive style of medieval manuscripts. The bright illustrations do not quite recreate this technique, but offer a simplified version and fully support the story with lots of hidden surprises. Young children will appreciate these pictures alongside the humorous narrative, while older ones can learn just how much labor once went into the creation of books to preserve information. The roles of author and artist are celebrated as those who capture the wonders of Creation and share it with others. The importance of the monks in preserving this heritage and serving local communities is also wonderfully apparent.

The Year of Our Lord 2020 has not turned out quite how most people had planned, but the privilege of raising inquisitive, thoughtful children is as valuable as ever. Whichever method proves best for furthering your family’s education this year, don’t overlook the power of books that make us pause and marvel at the splendor of even the smallest good things. Find out how your library is currently handling services, and see if you can request this title. Read with your children, teach them to discover and create, and show them that the tiniest details matter.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Simeon’s Gift by Julie Andrews Edwards and Emma Walton Hamilton, and illustrated by Gennady Spirin

Leaving Beauty Behind

I have taken my own advice and, after finishing Swallows and Amazons last week, slipped away for a socially-distanced lakeside getaway with my family. You may well ask what we’re getting away from, living as we do in such a quiet corner of the world. I admit that I too once believed that life was slower, more peaceful, less frantic in the country. Now I can assure you that we have deadlines, quotas, disasters, and mind-numbing paperwork just like our urban counterparts. We can only boast a better view and less traffic.

For the first year or two after we started milking cows it was impossible to get away, but now that things are more established there are a few opportunities in the summer when we can entrust everything into the capable hands of a relief milker and take some much-needed time off. When those blissful days approach each year, there is one place I want to go, and it’s an old home that is near and dear to my heart.

It’s a bittersweet fact of having moved about: one is never entirely at home again. I love where we’ve put down our roots, but it will never be as intimate as the town where I grew up. And of all the familiar ways in between, I miss the brick sidewalks of Ohio University; the heavy smell of magnolia blossoms in rural South Carolina; the steady wash of the tide on the beaches of Southern California. I have left good people, fond memories, and a little piece of my heart in every place I have ever lived, and I will never be quite whole again. But one beloved haunt holds a place none other can claim, and that is the seminary where my husband prepared for ministry prior to our conversion.

We are fortunate, after all our roaming, to have settled near enough to visit “The House” every once in a while. To this day, I breathe a sigh of peace whenever we enter the gates of the place where we spent three years as a new family preparing for a life of service. Things have changed, but my sense of homecoming here has never been rivaled.

What is it about this place? The great stone archways, the shade of the mighty oak trees, the sound of the Angelus bell? Why is it, forever and always, home? I ask myself, as I gaze in hushed adoration on these familiar walls. And I answer myself: because it is so beautiful.

And it is beautiful: achingly beautiful; but it didn’t have to be. The missionaries who came to this wilderness could have built a school that was thoroughly serviceable and utterly nondescript, and who could have blamed them? But instead they built a place of formation, where the soul as well as the mind is nurtured and fed.

The school has been faithful to this mission for almost two hundred years. No one is meant to stay here; it is a place of preparation. But as such, it takes great care to impart a legacy that its sons and daughters will carry on to the furthest reaches of the Kingdom of God.

Our work did not take us where we first intended. But it did bring us closer to coming home to the Catholic Church, with a firmer grasp on our first vocation as spouses and parents. Now we labor to bring up our family on a farm; and as a first-generation endeavor, there is never enough time or money to do everything we would like to do with it. After three years, it’s just beginning to function properly. We can even manage a short vacation between hay crops. It has a natural, God-given beauty, and I am thankful for it.

And yet, like my own soul, there is so much work to be done. All the pruning and trimming that will properly cultivate this stewardship of ours awaits our careful attention. I don’t just want our piece of land to function, or even thrive. I want to create something of lasting beauty, a place that forms my children’s souls before they go on to their own callings. I want to make a home.

Today I must leave this well-worn, hallowed place, and return to my own calling. It will be all too easy to think of the loveliness I have left behind; but how much better would it be to plan what beauties I will intentionally leave behind in the garden I have been given to tend? Stories that enrich my children’s imaginations, and food that delights their senses; a safe, if simple, place to rest after a day’s labors, and the prayer life that makes these chores a wholesome sacrifice. And I’m thinking now that I might sow some wildflowers on that rocky hillside where nothing will grow but the thistles, to make a garden for the butterflies. It will take time, but good things always do.