I’m working on a picture book that has small furry animals and birds in it. With the exception of Nuts to You (which is about squirrels), it’s a little different than what I usually do. There’s a part where Thomas (a small furry animal) and Lucy (a bird) make a cake together. I’m thinking of including their recipe in the illustration. Which is where I ran into trouble.
I always run into trouble. I have a gift for taking something simple and transforming it into something complicated. It’s just what my mind does. Then I am forced to think it all through, back down into something simple again.
In this case, it was the recipe.
Because I had no problem giving Thomas a picturesque abode inside a tree trunk, with a green door and furniture and rugs and quilts and whatnot — I had no problem giving him a backpack — why not? I will admit I debated about lighting. I decided he does not have electricity. He does have a beautiful hurricane lamp.
But I stumbled, while looking at recipes, on the use of baking powder and baking soda.
Sugar was easy — they could use honey. Or maple syrup. They could make flour from wild oats or wild rice. They could use nut oil for the fat, because, butter?
But how would they have baking soda? I looked it up — it’s basically ground-up rock, either a rock called “nahcolite” or one called “trona. So if they lived where these rocks occur naturally, that’s a possibility. Same for salt — there are salt mines not far from where they live. Or maybe they could chip some away from one of those blocks hunters put in the woods to attract deer. Wash the deer spit off and smash it into bits. Tiny little bits.
And then there is the problem of eggs. It seems really creepy for a bird to make a cake that uses eggs. Plus they would have to be tiny eggs. Hummingbird eggs maybe. And who wants to think about that? Because either they steal them, or mother hummingbird offers them up.
So I looked up “vegan fruitcakes.” Which I found plenty of. They still use baking soda.
I looked up “pioneer fruitcakes,” thinking they might have had some resourceful (or resource-less) recipes. But it turns out that those pioneers used lots of butter (or lard), eggs, and sugar.
I remembered a cake-like kind of bread, “essene bread,” that natural foods stores sometimes sell, that is made according to an ancient Biblical recipe. Really tasty. I used to toast it and put a poached egg on top. But it involves sprouting wheat, which takes time. And is not something my readers or their busy parents are likely to do.
I consulted Lorinda Bryan Cauley’s The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, which I adore. Her country mouse makes a soup of barley and corn and a root stew for dinner, with a “rich nut cake” for dessert. She offers no recipe. There is also mint tea — fair enough. Her country mouse wears overalls and a checkered shirt, and has a bundt pan! There is a stick of butter on his table. His log (literally) home has overstuffed furniture, a woodstove, and is lit with candles. I think we can all agree that electricity would be going too far.
I revisited Wind in the Willows. It had been awhile, but I seemed to remember champagne. First page: brooms, dusters, ladders, chairs, and whitewash. Mole and Rat’s luncheon basket contains cold chicken, as well as: “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinsaladfrenchrollscressandwidgespottedmeat-gingerbeerlemonadesodawater.”
Bright fires in the parlour. Dressing gowns and slippers. Off to the nearest village for milk and eggs and various necessaries. So. And of course, the very expensive motor car.
I think it’s interesting how we draw our lines.
All this to say, the eggs still creep me out too much. But I’m going to let them have baking soda. And even butter. I mean — he has a backpack.