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A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat
Written by Emily Jenkins, Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Published by Schwartz and Wade, 2015
ISBN 978-0-375-86832-0
Grades 2-6
NOVEMBER 4, 2015 NOTE: Since the initial publication of this blog entry, there has been significant discussion within and outside of the children’s book community regarding the manner in which the enslaved African mother and daughter are depicted in the 1810 plantation setting within A Fine Fine Dessert. When I reviewed this book, I did so via a content analysis rooted in my academic knowledge of the history of free and enslaved African Americans in the 19th century. My understanding of the limits of my interpretation has been deepened as a result of the ongoing discussion. It is my job to listen to the men and women of color who read the text and illustrations with a lens that I don’t possess, and to incorporate their perspectives into my future reviews and selections. To our blog readership who may not know of this discussion, I offer some key entry points from the media and blogosphere in the links below, and encourage you to read them. I also recommend John Bickford and Cynthia Rich’s 2014 article in Social Studies Research and Practice, “Examining the Representation of Slavery within Children’s Literature,” for a content analysis framework for text selection.  – Mary Ann CappielloOverall Bibliography of Commentary (work in progress):

Book Review
Is it possible to taste the past? Readers of A Fine Dessert may be able to do just that. After reading about four different families eating the same dessert, spread out over four different moments within a three-hundred year span, curious readers will be prompted to consider where food comes from, how it is prepared, and by whom.  Most likely, they will also hunger for a taste of Blackberry Fool, the featured dessert that has its origins in the Renaissance. The book provides examples of changes in food technology, preparation, and refrigeration. Starting in England in 1710 and ending in San Diego, California, the book also showcases changes in family and social structures, moving from the wealthy to the middle class, from slaves preparing food for white owners in the 19th century to mixed-race families and multicultural dinners in the early 21st.  Back matter includes valuable information about the history of Blackberry Fool and the author’s and illustrator’s research processes, as well as a recipe for the sweet treat. This fine picture book serves as a catalyst for historical exploration, a snapshot of changes in food technology, and a love song to the delights of finger-licking-good food.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Grades K-2
Changes Over Time. Read aloud A Fine Dessert. What observations of change can your students make in the illustrations of different time periods? Categories may include: houses, furniture, technology, food, people’s roles, and clothing. Document their thinking on chart paper. Have students do some picture writing about making dinner in theirhome. Who cooks? Who helps? Where does the food come from?Grades K-Up

Cooking in Your Family. Have students interview family members about recipes that have stood the test of time in their own families. Who in the class cooks or bakes with older generations in their families? What is the story of those recipes that they make by hand alongside their family members? Where did the recipe come from? How long has it been in their family? Create a class cookbook in homage to those generational recipes and make copies for everyone in class. Each student can write/draw/dictate why the recipe is important to them, why they chose it, and what they learned by talking to their family members about it.

Grades 2 and Up
Lenses on History. Pictures books can offer readers a unique window into the process of “doing” history. Read aloud the narrative of A Fine Dessert aloud with your students, and ask them to name what the author’s purpose was in writing the book. Next, ask them to consider what questions the illustrator may have had as she worked on the book. Read aloud the Author’s Note and the Illustrator’s Note. Explore Sophie Blackall’s blog entries on researching and illustrating the book. Compare their actual questions with the questions your students developed.  Next, in the Duet Model, read Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, written by Deborah Hopkinson. Ask students what they think her author’s purpose was, and that of the illustrator. Through discussion, tease out how each book gives us a different lens for looking at history, one through a single “product” over time, and one through the interpretation of a single moment.
Growing Blackberries. Have students explore the four locations on Google Earth: Lyme, England; Charleston, South Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts; and San Diego, California. Can blackberries grow in all four locations? What are the similarities and differences in their climates? Next, explore whether or not blackberries grow where you live. Have them also research the way that blackberries spread as they grow. What are some of the ways that they see this growth as beneficial? What are some of the ways that it can be problematic? If possible, bring a blackberry stalk, thorns and all, into class, and be sure to look at lots of pictures, too (local ones, if you can). Because blackberry bushes spread out over time, have students compose a four-part drawing to demonstrate the growth and spread of a blackberry bush, perhaps drawing a picture of an imaginary backyard every two years.
Graphing Whipped Cream. How hard is it to make whipped cream by hand? Bring in several wooden whisks (if you can find them), metal whisks, hand-held metal beaters, and one electric beater. Have students document the time it takes to make whipped cream using each ingredient (milk versus cream) and tool. Were they as efficient as the children in the book? Compare and contrast the times. Finally, have students in small groups create a graph to represent the times and tools visually. Since you have all that whipped cream, make a big batch of Blackberry Fool and store it in the school’s refrigerator until it is ready to eat.
Illustrating the Renaissance. In the Author’s Note, Emily Jenkins reveals that Blackberry Fool is one of the oldest desserts in Western Culture, with its origins in the Renaissance. What was it like to make it then? What did kitchens and houses in Renaissance England of the 16th and 17th centuries look like? What did people wear? Who did the cooking? Have your students research Renaissance England and have them create the two illustrations for 1510 and 1610 that could precede the one for 1710 at the start of the book.
Grades 4 and Up
Cod and Cream. Using the Duet model, follow a read aloud of A Fine Dessert with small group explorations of The Cod’s Tale by Mark Kurlansky. After completing the book, have students create presentations that compare and contrast the differences in technology used to process and/or cook food in each text. How has technology changed how and what people eat? What are the differences in social structures that students can trace within the two books?
Changes Over Time Revisited.Read aloud A Fine Dessert. What observations do your students see in the illustrations of different time periods? Place students in small groups that explore one category specifically, such as: houses, furniture, technology, food, people’s roles (in particular, pay attention to gender and race), and clothing. Next have students brainstorm the reasons why they think those changes may have taken place. Come together as a class to report out, and then have students write about the category that interests them the most, detailing changes more specifically. For research purposes, you might want to have copies of books from the two Lerner series listed below, which focus on change over time.
Writing Recipes. How have recipes changed over time? Cookbooks and recipes are a relatively new phenomenon. Explain to students the ways in which cooking was for centuries something learned only by doing and observing, not from cookbooks or written recipes. Have students explore some recipes from the first “best-selling” cookbook in England and the United States, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery. Next, using the resources from LeMoyne University’s Library, have students explore recipes from 19th and 20thcentury cookbooks. Finally, have some current cookbooks available in print, webpages bookmarked from popular food sites, and perhaps some food columns from your local paper. Have students try to find similar recipes or recipes that use the same ingredient over the different time periods. Next, have them write an article that compares and contrast the ingredients, methods, technology, and time required to make the recipe.  Be sure to have them also reflect on the writing style of the recipes. How formal or familiar is the “voice” of the recipe? At what points were they confused as readers, and how is that connected to the author’s assumption of prior knowledge on the part of the reader?

Food Memoirs. A Fine Dessert celebrates a beloved food. What foods do your students love? What foods do they relish eating? Have each student write a food memoir that focuses on imagery. Make sure they incorporate the five senses. What does the food look like? Taste like? Feel like? Smell like? Sound like? Perhaps you can have students conduct research at home by eating the food and taking careful notes. Students could even record themselves eating on cell phone cameras, so that they can “mine” the video for details. If you are concerned that too many students would not be able to document their eating at home, due to food scarcity, bring in school-sanctioned food, and create food stations based on the food type. Have students take notes on the five senses at each, and then write their “food memoir” of eating the food. One could even do this exercise using lunch served at your school cafeteria. Students could take notes over several days, documenting what they eat, taking pictures, and writing down their descriptions.
Critical Literacy
Gendered Cooking. In the Author’s Note, Emily Jenkins discusses the ways in which food preparation and cooking in the home has historically been the domain of women. Have students carefully document the gender roles they see at work in this picture book. In each time period, who cooks? Who serves? Next, have some students interview adults in your school community about who did the cooking in their childhood home and who does the cooking in their current home. Have other students interview fellow students about who does the cooking in their current home. Compare and contrast the data gathered, and have students do some research about current trends in home cooking.  Use the digital databases available to you through your school or local library to locate articles on family eating in America. You might also have them explore The Family Dinner project.  Have students put together presentations, in a format of their choice, in which they report out their findings on who is cooking at home in America today. What do they see happening to family dinner by the time they are adults?
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Emily Jenkins
Sophie Blackall
19th and 20th Century Cookbooks, Lemoyne University Library
Hannah Glasse, 1774, The Art of Cookery
Food Timeline
Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project
The Family Dinner Project
Boothroyd, J. (2012). [Lightening Bolt Books: Comparing Past and Present]. Lerner Publications.
Goodman, S. (2004). On this spot: An expedition through time. Il. By L. Christensen. Greenwillow Books.
Hopkinson, D. (2008). Abe Lincoln crosses a creek: A tall, thin tale.  Ill. by J. Hendrix. Schwartz and Wade.
Karas, B. G.. (2014). As an oak tree grows. Nancy Paulsen Books.
Kurlansky, M. (2001). The cod’s tale. Ill. by S. D. Schindler. Putnam’s Books.
Nelson, R. (2003). [First Step Nonfiction: Then and Now]. Lerner Publications.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.


  1. I'm curious if any black people were consulted on this post or book. There are many black people speaking out on social media who are raising very valid reasons why this book doesn't even belong in a classroom. However, they could offer insight on how to properly frame the book for those who do chose to use it as teaching material. So again, were any black people involved in writing this post?


  2. Since black people's concerns about this book being so virulently racist in its depiction of a SONG OF THE SOUTH style “plantation paradise” are being ignored, how will that factor into the way this book is taught?