The Emily Dickinson Museum will tell you that “The kitchen appears to be one of the rooms where [Emily] Dickinson felt most comfortable, perhaps most at home.” But the “many drafts of poems written on kitchen papers tell us also that this was a space of creative ferment for her, and that the writing of poetry mixed in her life with the making of delicate treats.”
We still have access to Dickinson’s gingerbread and doughnut recipes. But if you want to see an example of how baking nourished her creative process, then look no further than Emily’s recipe for Coconut Cake. The image above shows the ingredients scratched out in her handwriting:
1 cup coconut
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
On the flip side of the recipe, Dickinson then wrote the beginning of a poem, “The Things that never can come back, are several” (read the transcript here). Presumably the recipe inspired the poem, but perhaps it was the other way around?
If you’re looking for your own source of creative inspiration, you can try out Dickinson’s recipes for Black Cake and also Rye and Indian Bread here. (According to The Public Domain Review, “her loaf of Indian and Rye won second prize in the Amherst Cattle Show of 1856.”) And you can even head up to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA and take part in their annual baking contest.
Over at NPR, Dickinson scholar Nelly Lambert has more on the poet’s relationship to baking and food.
The Online Emily Dickinson Archive Makes Thousands of the Poet’s Manuscripts Freely Available
The Second Known Photo of Emily Dickinson Emerges
Watch an Animated Film of Emily Dickinson’s Poem ‘I Started Early–Took My Dog’
No further instructions? She just listed the ingredients?
Beat the sugar and butter together into a cream
Add eggs one at a time, beating all the while and add the milk
Sift the three dry ingredients together and add to the mixture
Fold in the coconut
Put in a greased tin and bake in a 180C oven for 50 minutes
Where the heck and in what form did people in 1850s Massachusetts get coconut?
Speaking as a writer and a baker, I have a notebook full of lists of ingredients, backed by bits of my novel … the two are completely unrelated. Writers will scrawl on any available bit of paper when an idea hits: it doesn’t mean there’s a connection.