The novel “Black Cake” uses a Caribbean Christmas cake to tell family stories

In the novel Black cake, when Eleanor Bennett dies, her two grown children inherit a note, a USB stick containing an audio recording and, in the freezer, one of her classic black pies, that rum-soaked Caribbean dessert that can take months to prepare and is often served during festivals and other celebrations. “I want you to sit down and share the cake together when the time is right,” reads Eleanor’s note. “You’ll know when.” From here, the continental and cross-generational story of Charmaine Wilkerson, whose paperback edition hit shelves November 29, unfolds as one family’s secrets finally come to light.

A former journalist, Wilkerson’s debut novel was formed while scribbling short stories outside of her non-fiction work. When Black Pie made its way into one of these stories, it became clear that Black Pie could intertwine the different threads and characters of him. “It was then that I realized: That’s all. This is a novel, it’s multigenerational, and I see a lot of symbolism attached to this cake”, says Wilkerson. “Although this is a fictional story – non-autobiographical, wildly inventive – the emotions and ideas of transferring culture and stories through food, it’s a real thing.”

With the fruits for her holiday cakes having been dipped in rum all year — she showed me the jar over Zoom — Wilkerson sat down to talk about black pie, its role during the holidays, and how food gives a idea of ​​family history.

Eater: I’d like to know more about your history with the black pie. Is it something you ate growing up, especially this time of year?

Charmaine Wilkerson: I associate black cake with Christmas and with my mother who is no longer here. My mother, who was born and raised in Jamaica in the West Indies, always had some cake ready for that time period. She made it in a pudding form, meaning she steamed it and it was very moist.

Without a doubt, I would not have imagined this story if I hadn’t been born to a woman who made a legendary black cake. I actually call it rum pudding. My mom called it plum pudding, and depending on where you live in the Caribbean, you might just call it Christmas cake. But black pie obviously comes from color; it is very dark. My aunt and other people who knew my mother, who also made this cake, were always like, “Oh, your mother’s is the best.” My mother also made wedding cakes: it is that particular role of the black cake that is most important in the novel Black cake; it is more associated with the idea of ​​the pageantry of marriage.

Is black cake something you now DIY?

I usually make a black pie or two towards the end of the year. Also I live in Italy where this cake doesn’t matter so I only make it to share with friends or to take to my in-laws and they enjoy it. It’s remembering my mom, and it’s also because I really love black pie; not everyone does.

It doesn’t, to me, have the same importance that it did to my mother, because my mother was very good at it and really made it something that she would give to other people. When I lived away from my mom, she sent it to me, and to this day there are ex-roommates who froze when they think of my mom’s black pie. Not sure if it has the same impact with mine. But I like it and it’s a connection to someone I used to love. A number of years ago, when I was writing notes on the idea of ​​the importance of a recipe like this, little did I know that I would be writing a work of fiction using the name of this cake.

Was there ever another food that you considered to play the role of black pie in the novel, or did it click as soon as black pie made history?

The moment it popped up in my imagination and onto the page, I immediately saw a connection between that imaginary cake and the ideas already spinning in the back of my head about ways food can be about not just recipes or ingredients, or also the act of preparing food, but how it is a kind of language.

At its core, the story of Black cake, it’s not about food: it’s a family drama. There’s a murder in there. And yes, food is important. But what it’s really about is the ways we form our identities because of the stories we’ve been told, and the stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves, and also the stories that aren’t told.

Due to my familiarity with Caribbean culture, I recognized that this cake also has some kind of untold story. The story of the pie is about the kinds of changes that had to take place socially, politically and economically in order for what was essentially British plum pudding to make its way into a tropical area, the Caribbean, and then become a much loved pie – what had to happen because that recipe traveled and then transformed with a slight change in ingredients. Instead of brandy, you have rum. You have dark brown brown sugar, you have some spices.

All those things that happen to bring food from one region of the world to another speak to our stories, for better or for worse: colonialism, forced labour, changes in agriculture, cash crops like rum and sugar, which they are both related to sugar cane. When the black pie has dawned in the drafting of the novel Black cakeI suddenly saw the full potential of symbolism: for family bonding, for identity, for culture transfer, for memory, and for what food tells us about what happens to people and cultures.

That’s why I found Marble, a character whose job as an “ethno-food guru” involves studying the “diaspora of food,” so interesting, because his job is to reveal all these connections. As I read, I was wondering if you felt like Marble in your quest. Have you thought about food this way before, or was it something you learned while writing this story?

I think a lot about food, partly because of the life I’ve lived. I was a journalist. I began reporting in a major agricultural area in the state of California. I live in Italy, need I say more? It’s not just about, oh, isn’t Italian food amazing? It’s all about agriculture here, its seasonality, the fact that a number of foods are recognized by UNESCO. I have also worked with a United Nations agency that mainly deals with agriculture, poverty alleviation and hunger reduction. Those problems have always been there in the back of my head.

Several years before I wrote Black cake, a younger member of my family wrote me for my mother’s black cake recipe. I was surprised that he asked and that was kind of an aha moment: Why was I surprised that he asked? In my family, in just two or three generations, very few of us grew up in the same place or in the same way. Many of us don’t even look alike, and this is sort of a microcosm of what it means to be multicultural and also multilocal.

I figured he wouldn’t care; well of course he did. He remembered the wedding cake and he remembered my mother, with whom he had a very close relationship. I think it’s as far as I’ve come to really come up with the idea of ​​a single food – like a cake – that represents a set of things about how we tell ourselves stories that help us form our identities, and the stories that maybe don’t I said so and why.

How has writing this book changed your relationship with black pie?

I still don’t bake black cake very often; I probably only do it once a year. I’d say I store fruits more often in my kitchen now, not least because I remember putting together a bottle while writing the book to remember that process. What I will say about a change is this. I’m not much of a social media user – I kind of dabble – but since the book came out, I’ve gotten so many messages from people sharing their stories about their experiences with their parents’ or grandparents’ black pie recipes, and often other things follow.

They might say the food is good, but they’re actually talking about being with other people in their family, inheriting something from an elder. It’s not necessarily black pie, nor is it Caribbean food. People start talking about recipes from other parts of the world, because we come from many cultures, but in the end we share the same few emotions.

Is there anything else you want to share about black pie and the holidays that I didn’t ask?

I just wonder what my mother would have thought, had she known that one day I would write a book with a title based on a recipe she transferred to me. My mother, back in 1990, wrote me a letter. She was in New York, I was in Los Angeles. She talked about a number of different things, some jokes, some complaints. Right in the middle of the letter was this recipe, and even then, I loved that letter more than any other she had written. When that younger relative of mine texted me a few years ago saying, “Do you have that prescription?” I knew where to find that recipe; I kept it with other precious things.

I think writing this book reminded me how special that recipe was and what made it special. That my mother wrote it, that she shared it – she also shared one with my sister – and that there are other things in that letter. It’s really about the relationship.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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