Emily Dickinson’s Handwritten Coconut Cake Recipe Hints at How Baking Figured Into Her Creative Process

Emily Dickinson Coconut Cake

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
2 eggs
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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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’

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Comments (4)
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  • Emorie says:

    No fur­ther instruc­tions? She just list­ed the ingre­di­ents?

  • Lynn Otty says:

    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

  • Molly Fisk says:

    Where the heck and in what form did peo­ple in 1850s Mass­a­chu­setts get coconut?

  • Ellie says:

    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.

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