In the novel Black Cake, when Eleanor Bennett dies, her two adult children inherit a note, a USB drive holding an audio recording, and in the freezer, one of her classic black cakes — that rum-soaked Caribbean dessert that can take months to make and is often served at the holidays and other celebrations. “I want you to sit down and share the cake together when the time is right,” Eleanor’s note reads. “You’ll know when.” From here, Charmaine Wilkerson’s continent- and generation-spanning story, the paperback edition of which hit shelves on November 29, unfolds as a family’s secrets finally come to light.
A former journalist, Wilkerson’s debut novel came together as she scribbled short stories outside her nonfiction work. When black cake worked its way into one of these stories, it became clear that the dessert could weave together her different threads and characters. “That’s when I realized: That’s it. This is a novel, it’s multigenerational, and I can see a great deal of symbolism tied to this cake,” Wilkerson says. “Even though this is a fictional story — not autobiographical, wildly inventive — the emotions and ideas of transferring culture and stories through food, that’s a real thing.”
With the fruits for her Christmas cakes having been soaked in rum all year — she showed me the jar over Zoom — Wilkerson sat down to talk about black cake, its role during the holidays, and how food gives insight into family history.
Eater: I’d love to hear a little bit more about your history with black cake. Is this something you ate growing up, especially around this time of year?
Charmaine Wilkerson: I associate black cake with Christmas and my mother who’s no longer with us. My mother, who was born and raised in Jamaica in the West Indies, always had a few cakes going for that 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 mother called it plum pudding, and depending upon where you live in the Caribbean, you might call it just Christmas cake. But black cake comes from the color obviously; it’s very dark. My aunt and other people who knew my mother, who also made this cake, always said, “Oh, your mother’s is the best.” My mother also made wedding cakes: It’s that particular role of the black cake that is more prominent in the novel Black Cake; it’s more associated with the idea of wedding pageantry.
Is black cake something that you now make yourself?
Usually I make a black cake or two toward the end of the year. Also I do live in Italy, where this cake has zero significance, so I’ll just make it to share it with friends or to take it to my in-laws and they enjoy that. It’s remembering my mother, and it’s also because I really do love black cake; not everyone does.
It’s not, for me, of the same importance that it held for my mother, because my mother was very good at it and she really made it something that she would give to other people. When I lived far away from my mother, she would send it, and to this day, there are former roommates who get misty-eyed when they think about my mother’s black cake. I’m not sure I have the same impact with my own. But I do enjoy it and it’s a connection to someone I loved. A number of years ago when I was writing notes about the idea of the importance of a recipe like this, I didn’t know that I would write a work of fiction using the name of this cake.
Was there ever another food you considered to take the role black cake plays in the novel, or did it click as soon as the black cake entered the story?
The moment it popped up in the imagination and on the page, I immediately saw a connection between that fictional cake and the ideas that were already rolling around in the back of my head regarding the ways in which food can be not only about recipes or ingredients, or even the act of making food, but how it’s a kind of language.
At its heart, 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 really is about is the ways in which we form our identities because of the stories that have been handed down to us, and the stories that we tell ourselves and others about ourselves, and also the stories that are not told.
Because of my familiarity with Caribbean culture, I recognized that this cake also has a kind of untold story. The history of the cake speaks to the kinds of changes that had to take place socially, politically, and economically for what was essentially a British plum pudding to make its way to a tropical zone, the Caribbean, and then become a much-loved cake — what had to happen for that recipe to travel and then become transformed by a slight change in ingredients. Instead of brandy, you have rum. You have the dark brown cane sugar, you have certain spices.
All of those things that happen to bring one food from one region of the world to another speak to our histories, for better or worse: colonialism, forced labor, changes in agriculture, cash crops like rum and sugar, which are both tied to sugarcane. When the black cake popped up in the writing of the novel Black Cake, I suddenly saw all of the potential for symbolism: for family connection, for identity, for transfer of culture, for memory, and for what food tells us about what happens to people and cultures.
That’s why I found Marble, a character whose work as an “ethno-food guru” involves studying the “diaspora of food,” so interesting, because her work is to reveal all of those connections. As I was reading, I wondered if you felt like Marble in your research. Had you been thinking this way about food before, or were these things that you learned about as you wrote this story?
I think about food quite a bit, in part because of the life I’ve lived. I was a journalist. I began reporting in a major agricultural area of the state of California. I live in Italy — need I say more? It’s not just about, oh, isn’t Italian food great? It’s about the agriculture here, the seasonality of it, the fact that a number of foods are recognized by UNESCO. I also worked with a United Nations agency that focuses to a great extent on agriculture, poverty reduction, and hunger reduction. Those issues have always been there in the back of my head.
Several years before I wrote Black Cake, a younger member of my family texted me for my mother’s black cake recipe. I was surprised that he would ask and that was kind of an aha moment: Why was I surprised that he would ask? In my family, across just two or three generations, very few of us have grown up in the same place, or in the same way. We don’t even look alike, many of us, and that’s sort of a microcosm of what it means to be multicultural, and also multi-local.
I assumed that 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 that was the closest that I came to really elaborating on the idea of a single food — like a cake — representing a number of things about how we tell ourselves stories that help us form our identity, and the stories maybe that aren’t told and why.
How did writing this book change your relationship to black cake?
I still don’t bake black cake very often; I probably only do it once a year. I would say that I keep the fruits more often now in my kitchen, also because I remember putting together a bottle as I was writing the book to sort of remember that process. What I will say about a change is this. I’m not a huge user of social media — I sort of dabble — but since the book has come out, I have received so many messages from people who are sharing their own stories about their experiences with their parents’ or grandparents’ black cake recipes, and often they segue into other things.
They might say the food is nice, but they’re really talking about being with other people in their family, inheriting something from an elder. It’s not necessarily black cake, or even Caribbean food. People begin to talk about recipes from other parts of the world, because we are of many cultures, but we’re ultimately of the same few emotions.
Is there anything else that you want to share about black cake and the holidays that I didn’t ask?
Only that I wonder what my mother would have thought, if she’d known that one day I would write a book that bore a title based on a recipe that she transferred to me. My mother, back in 1990, wrote me a letter. She was in New York, I was in LA. She talked about a number of different things, a few quips, a few complaints. Right in the middle of the letter was this recipe, and even then, I cherished that letter more than others that she’d written. When that younger relative of mine wrote to me a few years ago saying, “Do you have that recipe?” I knew where to find that recipe; I kept it with other precious things.
I think writing this book has 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 in that letter, there are other things there. It’s really about the relationship.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.