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Baking with Emily Dickinson

You knew Emily Dickinson wrote a decent poem in her day and didn’t get out much, writes Alecia Simmonds, but have you tried her cakes?
Illustration by Dawn Tan

Cooking is a way of communing with the dead. Recipes are passed on like family heirlooms and time collapses with each lick of the cooking bowl; we mix and stir our way back to the reassuring rhythms of childhood. I’ve been transported to my late-nanna’s home with a whiff of cloves, and sometimes fancy I’ve seen her rise spectre-like from the dust of bran and cinnamon. It’s for this reason that I leapt at the opportunity to bake 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson’s desserts – not because we were related, but because sharing her food felt deliciously intimate. If history is a dialogue between past and present, then historical recipes are like love letters between strangers across time. And the recipes left by these cooks from the past comprise an archive of the palate.

Of course, I initially had no idea of Dickinson’s mastery of the oven. I knew her to be that monolithically serious woman with perfectly parted hair who composed reams of poetry (1,800 poems to be exact) while striding moodily across a wintry New England landscape. We first met when I was an angst-ridden teenager sitting my Higher School Certificate and I fell for her hymnal rhythms, her meditations on mortality and her unruly grammar. It made no sense to think of her as a baker: her verse was unladylike, she refused marriage and children – the only respectable vocation for 19th-century women – and she withdrew almost entirely from social life from her mid-20s, making her one of literature’s most famous recluses.

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And yet in her lifetime Dickinson was more famous for her baking than her poetry. She won second prize at the 1856 Amherst Cattle Show, in Massachusetts, for her Indian and rye loaf; her father apparently approved of no bread other than hers, and friends frequently received gingerbread. She would bake little oval cakes at her homestead in Amherst, and then lower them in a bread basket from her window to the children below. Dickinson’s recipes, like her poetry, were scribbled on the back of shopping dockets and old chocolate wrappers – her timeless words written on life’s papery detritus.

I undertook the task of baking one of Dickinson’s recipes with reverence. I felt drawn to her black cake because of a lovely conversation I read about between Dickinson and her friend Thomas Higginson. “People must have puddings,” he reported her saying “very dreamily”; he said she spoke of them “as if they were comets”.

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A transcendent pudding it would be. My vision was to source the ingredients, banish my partner from the house, shut the blinds and submit to the alchemy of baking – that mystical transformation of brittle commands into syrupy cake dripping with molasses and bliss. I would glide between mixing bowl, oven and poetry book while composer Judith Weir’s chorus of celestial sopranos would sing me “Moon and Star”, a score inspired by Dickinson’s poem “Ah, Moon – and Star!”

I first realised that all was not as it should be when my shopping basket seemed unduly heavy. “Thirteen eggs?” I marvelled to myself. “Six cups of sugar!” I reached into the fridge for three blocks of unsalted butter, tallying the grams in my head with alarm. Still, in spite of this American fattiness, the rest of the recipe (an adaptation of the original that I’d found in a cookbook by Maryland baker Margery K Friedman) looked superb – a cornucopia of dried pear, currants, raisins, apricots, dates and prunes luxuriating in brandy.

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Things continued to go awry – when I arrived home I found that none of my very large bowls seemed quite large enough. As I put the electric beaters on low, the heavy mixture, spiced with mace, ground cloves and cardamom, brimmed and spilled over, splattering the kitchen. The sopranos became shrill, my fingers irritatingly sticky, the poetry book fouled with butter and my patience – so necessary to baking – was gone. Dickinson and I were not communing, we were feuding. I stomped back to my computer to check the recipe and scrolled down the page until I saw a line that read “Servings: 60”.

Why would a recluse create a recipe for 60? A communal town dinner after the Amherst Cattle Show? Dessert for a midnight coven of poetesses? Treats for domestic servants? Secret gluttony? We may never know, but after making four cakes I can testify that this black cake is, to use Dickinson’s words, a glory. It’s less fruit cake than sticky date pudding; the molasses bubbles beneath the surface with a bright sesame glow and the prunes and dates swell, burst and caramelise. And for all the frustrations one may encounter when unwittingly baking for half of Amherst, there’s still something magical about breathing in the same spicy scents as an immortal poet, in measuring, stirring, beating and drizzling as she must have done, and in collapsing centuries to eat together across time.

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