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.