friday feast: black cake from the woman in white

“Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate.” ~ Emily Dickinson

Only authenticated daggeureotype, circa 1846-47,
taken at Mt. Holyhoke Seminary.

Most of the time, when I think of Emily Dickinson, I imagine her in a white dress, sitting at the little writing table in her upstairs bedroom at the Homestead in Amherst, pouring her heart out in a letter, or fearlessly penning another one of her flaming, pithy gems.

Dickinson Homestead, Amherst, MA (Emily’s bedroom = 2 windows, upper left). photo by Water Rat

Somehow it never occurred to me before that she probably also wrote a fair amount of poems in the kitchen or pantry, scribbling stray thoughts down on scraps of paper or in the margins of newspapers. Surely while she was gathering, adding, or mixing ingredients, inhaling aromas fruity, pungent, spicy, or sweet –she was also mentally combining fleeting images and impressions according to her prevailing mood. Writers, after all, are usually bound by 24-hour recipes.

Handwritten manuscript of “Wild Nights.”

While Emily celebrated the domestic realm as Amherst’s most well-known recluse and eccentric, she did not hesitate to defy certain traditional expectations to meet her own ends, especially with regard to writing. In The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson (Cambridge University Press, 2007), Wendy Martin states, “Unable to have an office or workplace of her own, Dickinson created one out of the kitchen hearth, the verdant garden, and the small writing table in her upstairs bedroom.”

Emily’s cousin, Louise Norcross, once said, “I know (she) wrote most emphatic things in the pantry, so cool, so quiet, while she skimmed the milk; because I sat on the footstool behind the door, in delight, as she read them to me.”

I like this idea of the kitchen as a proving ground for concocting victuals as well as verse. Emily was a prize-winning baker; her father would eat no other bread but hers. She lowered baskets of gingerbread to neighborhood children from her bedroom window, and apparently was famous for her soulfully satisfying Black Cake, which like her poetry, required only one small taste to deliver an unforgettable punch.

This is how the late, beloved food writer, Laurie Colwin, described Black Cake:

There is fruitcake, and there is Black Cake, which is to fruitcake what the Brahms piano quartets are to Muzak. Its closest relatives are plum pudding and black bun, but it leaves both in the dust. Black Cake, like truffles and vintage Burgundy, is deep, complicated, and intense. It has taste and aftertaste. It demands to be eaten in a slow, meditative way. The texture is complicated, too — dense and light at the same time.

No surprise that Emily baked a thinking person’s cake, that engaged both taste buds and brain cells, as rich and condensed as her poetry. UC Davis English Professor, Poet, and renowned feminist literary critic, Sandra M. Gilbert, was also fascinated by Emily’s Black Cake recipe, which calls for ‘2 pounds flour, 2 sugar, 2 butter, 19 eggs, and 5 pounds of raisins, among other ingredients, requiring 5-6 hours to bake.’ It sounds massive and imposing, sufficient to feed all the citizens of Amherst in one fell swoop. Emily herself referred to it as “the swarthy Cake baked only in Domingo,” (referencing her kitchen as the ancient spice capital).

Gilbert views Emily as an alchemist, a genius of metamorphosis, who “kept a basket of language handy — snippets of sentences, odd usages, off rhymes — as she brooded over batter and butter. We know that she probably salted phrases while snipping herbs, sweetened quatrains and quarts of cream at the same time.”

About the following poem, Gilbert says, “To me, this poem says that the poet/cook is a magician, her kitchen centered on the dangers and desires of the oven in which quotidian reality miraculously reshapes itself to emerge in loaves of solace sufficient to the appetites of all who hunger for the strength they provide.”

by Sandra M. Gilbert

photo by Wendy Maeda, Boston Globe.

Black cake, black Uncle Emily cake,
I tunnel among your grains of darkness
fierce as a mouse: your riches
are all my purpose, your currants and death’s eye raisins
wrinkling and thickening blackness,
and the single almond of light she buried
somewhere under layers of shadow . . .

One day I too will be Uncle Sandra:
iambic and terse. I’ll hobble the tough sidewalks,
the alleys that moan go on, go on.
O when I reach those late-night streets,
when acorns and twigs
litter my path like sentences
the oaks no longer choose to say,

I want that cake in my wallet.
I want to nibble as I hobble.
I want to smile and nibble
that infinite black cake,
                       and lean
on Uncle Emily’s salt-white
ice-bright sugar cane.

~ from Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1999 (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2001).

1850’s daggeureotype discovered in 2000,
authenticity still in question.

To top off this delicious meal, here is one of my favorite Emily poems, which beautifully displays her ability to pursue every living moment in a homebound existence, and turn it into gold.

God gave a loaf to every bird,
but just a crumb to me;
I dare not eat it, though I starve,–
My poignant luxury
To own it, touch it, prove the feat
that made the pellet mine,–
Too happy in my sparrow chance
For ampler coveting.

It might be famine all around,
I could not miss an ear,
Such plenty smiles upon my board,
My garner shows so fair.
I wonder how the rich may feel,–
An Indiaman–an Earl?
I deem that I with but a crumb
Am sovereign of them all.

If you’re courageous enough to attempt Emily’s Black Cake recipe, click here. She will watch you, with “eyes like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.”

For young readers, an excellent introduction to Emily is, The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires (FSG, 1999). A charming novella with Emily’s poems interwoven in the narrative for ages 8 and up!

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Becky’s Book Reviews.

*Sandra M. Gilbert quotes from her excellent article, “Dickinson in the Kitchen,” Emily Dickinson Journal (Johns Hopkins University Press: Vol.15, No.2, Fall 2006), pp. 1-3.

“The brain is wider than the sky.” ~ E.D.

33 thoughts on “friday feast: black cake from the woman in white

  1. Emily wrote in the pantry while skimming milk? The things I didn’t know. You never fail to serve up great poems and sweet insight, Jama. Thank you for the nourishment.

    I dare not try a cake that takes 5-6 hours. But I love looking at a piece of it.


  2. Cake & Poetry

    Elaine M.

    Ah! Cake and poetry–two of my favorite things.
    I enjoyed reading about Emily in the pantry–and about her baking prowess.

    That cake sounds like a killer. I think I’ll stick to baking two of my specialties–sour cream chocolate cake and almond cake.


  3. This was wonnnderful. Thanks for posting. There’s a woman (an English professor) in my area who “does” Emily Dickenson so beautifully. She spoke at our SCBWI conference last spring, and she is so totally Emily – in clothing, mannerisms, speech – that it’s extremely easy to find yourself utterly lost in her presentation, believing she IS Emily. Amazing.


  4. Well, the modern, adapted version of the recipe only calls for 13 eggs, I think. But still. It’s fascinating to me that a diminutive woman could bake such an intense whopper of a cake!


  5. Re: Cake & Poetry

    It does sound like a killer cake. Some people soak the fruit in brandy/rum for 6 months! Yum – sour cream chocolate and almond (one of my absolute favorite flavors)!


  6. Yes, just six miles and it’s where I teach and where my writing group meets. My favorite coffee shop has a view of her house. Whole wheat cherry scones and a view of her garden. I have no excuse not to be creative!

    One more reason for you to visit….

    And one day I’ll remember to bring my camera! Of course it will be nicer now that the grass is almost green.


  7. Ooh – that Black Cake sounds good. I make an excellent fruitcake, and an excellent plum pudding, but I may have to give black cake a try. Thanks for this post, Jama – it was cool to see the MS for Wild Nights!


  8. I think I would need some lemon-whiskey sauce with black cake. I’m glad to see some icing in the picture! Intense doesn’t begin to describe it. Thank you for providing such detail and insight into these snippets of Dickenson’s life.

    Hungry, despite myself…


  9. I remember the Dickinson poem from a class. I smiled reading it again here. Enjoyed your post. Thank you.


  10. The poetry in recipes cracks me up! My favorite part of the Black Cake recipe is when the mixing begins:

    “In a very large bowl…”

    So understated. So…DUH! You’re using POUNDS of flour and sugar and butter, and a DOZEN eggs!!

    And yet, Emily celebrates her crumb. Hmm.


  11. Emily’s recipe doesn’t call for any icing, but the traditional West Indies recipes I came across called for white icing/frosting — a lemon-whiskey sauce sounds like it would be very interesting — even more intense and multi-layered!


  12. Karen Edmisten said:

    Jama, your posts are like the description of black cake: the texture is both dense and light, and ultimately, completely satisfying. 🙂


  13. Thank you for this post. Wonderful reading! Love the images you included, too — Emily’s hand followed by the cake. Would would love to try to some black cake while reading her poems!


  14. Very interesting to learn about Emily’s baking habits and see her beautiful home. Thanks for sharing, Jama! (the recipe looks too complicated for me….I’m a cake in a box kind of girl 😉
    Loved the poems, too!


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