One of the most enduring and personal ways of showing love is making food for someone. There is something so magical and gentle about sitting up one day and going, “I’m gonna bake a pie for my friend and I,” or “I have that party next week, I’m gonna bake some cookies,” or even “today was absolute garbage, some brownies might turn my mood around.” Taking time and effort to make something delicious that is meant to be shared with other people (or just yourself) is so connecting and loving, and Yummy: A History of Desserts is a love letter to our favorite sweet treats, their creators, and where they come from.
A Cup of Characters
In the debut graphic novel of Victoria Grace Elliot (balderdash! or, a tale of two witches), Yummy is a time travel tour of humankind’s favorite desserts. Led by food sprites Peri, Fee, and Fada, the reader learns about a different dessert every chapter, starting from its earliest known origin and its transformations over the years, the science behind baked goods, and their importance in different cultures. Geared toward younger audiences but able to be enjoyed by anyone, the book is very approachable in its delivery — accessible and easy to read, but never talks down to the reader. Peri’s enthusiasm for desserts and their history is very charming. When she is sharing facts and figures, her eyes are lit up and her smile is wide; it reminds me of whenever a friend would talk about their hobby or current creative passion, you just want to sit there and learn from them.
The chapters are framed as part history lesson, part science lesson, part sheer appreciation, and part recipe which keeps the reader engaged with all the ways information is presented. Each chapter starts with a map that acts as both an atlas and a timeline, as each location tracks a dish from its earliest appearance to the more modern versions we enjoy today. When it’s time to discuss the moments a famous dessert was made, we are transported to “Story Time,” where Fee and Fada sit on a rug while Peri literally reads from a book and shares a sometimes cheeky, sometimes heartfelt story of a certain dessert, whether it is the (alleged) origin of the waffle cone to the role mooncakes played in ancient China. When the book highlights a specific icon in dessert innovation, for example Antonio Latini in the “Ice Cream” chapter, Fee dresses up as him and answers questions in “Interview Corner,” bringing someone people might not have known (like me) to life, instead of just talking about him in a passive way. The active way the information is portrayed doesn’t stop there; most chapters end with a recipe that is easy to follow and just as engaging as the rest of the book, as if to say, “okay, you read about this enough, let’s try making it now!”
The food science portions are also a treat. Led by Fada, they tell you everything you need to know about the ways different leaveners work, the way moisture in sugar plays a role in cookie baking, and the importance of butter for flaky pie crust. While the whole book is great, the science portions are when, I think, the genius really comes alive in terms of presenting information. Elliot could have made terms too lofty, illustrations too complex, and the payoff nonexistent for these sections, but she used words anyone could understand, kept the depictions consistent with the rest of the book, and actually explained why these things are good to know for baking.
While the book is a real delight, I will say that I would have appreciated a table of contents at the beginning. Though nothing lessened my enjoyment in reading it, a table of contents would have made for an easier flow and would give me a chance to know what was coming. I admit there were moments when I began reading where I thought that the whole book was going to be about one specific dessert, and experienced a startle of sorts when I learned that wasn’t the case. Again, nothing dampened by ability to read this book; a table of contents would have made an already great thing even greater.
A Dash of Design
The art and design is, in one word, adorable. In more words than that, it’s colorful and fun and welcoming and bright. There is a really approachable, almost doodle-like quality to the character designs that makes the whole book feel like something casual, like something your friend would draw in the margins of a notebook. The designs of the food sprites are distinct and simply darling. The fact that they are illustrated to be the same size or smaller than the desserts is truly whimsical, like there’s a world full of them that we aren’t privy to. With every starry eye, confident pose and wide smile, everyone’s personalities and passions shine through, and you can’t help but smile along with them. Additionally, the little wings on their backs are some of the cutest things I’ve seen all year.
The history is only amplified through the art. When a specific person is highlighted, there is a portrait of them that corresponds to the art style popular with that time period. Whether it’s a bust of a Roman, a silhouette of a French nobleman, or a framed photograph of a contemporary American, the art style walks hand-in-hand with the rest of material.
The illustrations of the desserts are where Elliot shines the brightest. She makes every single dish and ingredient look inviting — you can almost taste it from the page. All of the desserts look distinct from each other, as well. It would have been so easy to draw one kind of cake or one kind of cookie and have that represent the dessert and move on, but no, she made sure to draw each and every one a certain way to highlight how they vary depending on region, ingredients, and time period. Whether something called for honey, nuts, fruit, or sprinkles, each bit and piece was drawn with care and intent. A personal favorite of mine was how glossy she made honey look. Along with the illustrations and speech bubbles, nearly every page is wrapped in swirly ribbons, which sort of acts as a way to track the dialogue and which way to read. While there is a lot happening per page, it doesn’t get chaotic and overwhelming, it just stays vibrant and enriching.
A Pinch of the Personal
From the first couple of pages, it is clear that Yummy was well-researched and loved in its creation. I was pleasantly surprised and enthused during my reading of it how far back the research went. Sometimes, the history of desserts (or anything for that matter) can skew towards only focusing on modern history, starting when an object got big in the west and just calling it a day. Not here. This book celebrates the more accurate origins of the dishes and how nearly all of them had their roots in places like India, Egypt, Latin America, Iran, and more. A component of the material that I always got excited to see was how the desserts changed based on access to money and technology. In almost every chapter, Elliot makes note of how certain desserts were only accessible to wealthy folks for a time due to sugar being expensive, or how people in different regions only had access to honey or fruit or whatever was local to them. This information served as a way to dispel whatever myths there might be about everyone having access to the same stuff and acting as a reminder that the world is not a monolith.
Additionally, Elliot acknowledges the ways colonization, imperialism, and enslavement led to adaptations and regional variations of dishes, shedding light on the darker parts of food history. Though certainly not pretty, I greatly appreciated that she did not shy away from bringing those points up, as leaving those parts out would be unproductive at best and revisionist at worst. And, like everything in the book, these topics are discussed in a manner that can be understood by all, especially the younger audiences the book is perfect for. I also appreciated the very nice Acknowledgement page at the end of the book where she makes note of the indigenous land on which she was writing.
Maybe it’s because I’m a cancer sign who is prone to be emotional, or it could be because of this time of year, but I must admit that there were times reading this book that I teared up. I think that, for a lot of us, it is easy to forget that whole civilizations existed before us, that people from thousands of years ago had the same problems and wants and needs as us. Folks have always had a need and want to make things, build things, bake things. We aren’t the first people who woke up one day and decided to make something delicious for another person or a special gathering or just because. I don’t know, there is something about learning the history of a craft (or a dessert in this case) and hearing that people have been doing it forever in some capacity that makes me feel a deep, profound connection to a time in which I’ve never lived and to people I will never see.
There is an odd immortality in the art of creation that binds us all together long after they, or we, are gone. And Yummy is a testament to that immortality in the way it says, “look, look at how people are still making the things you came up with; it’s not going anywhere.”
I am very, very glad this book exists, and I am so looking forward to Elliot’s upcoming installment, Yummy: A History of Tasty Experiments.
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