While most well-known for her idiosyncratic poetry, Emily Dickinson won no awards or acclaim for her writing in her lifetime. Her Rye and Indian Round Bread is another story entirely. The homemade loaf claimed second prize at the 1856 Amherst Cattle Show. The prize was awarded with 75 cents, and celebrated a recipe that she had most likely baked since childhood.
When I discovered that Emily, a favorite poet, loved to bake, I was determined to try out some of her recipes. With the help of a booklet produced by the Emily Dickinson Museum, Profile of the Poet as Cook, I dug a little deeper into Emily’s domestic past.
Emily was especially fond of making sweet things. The local general store was her source for ordering exotic ingredients like coconuts and Parisian chocolate. This affinity for sweets endeared the poet even more both to me and her loved ones. She once dreamily commented to her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, ‘People must have puddings.’ Higginson said she spoke of desserts ‘as if they were comets.’
I first made Emily’s Coconut Cake—a nicely sweet, buttery, spongy confection that has become one of my go-to recipes for a quick, fuss-free cake. Next, I attempted her famous Gingerbread, which she used to lower in a basket tied to a rope from her bedroom window to the neighborhood children. One of those children later remembered Emily’s gingerbread as ‘long, oval cakes, crisp and brown or yellow, and delicately sweet and gummy.’ My own efforts produced a tart and slightly dry cake, which I dusted with powdered sugar and smothered in fresh cream. My family ate it politely, saying ‘No, no – it’s lovely!’ to my enquiries. (‘No’ being a very Irish way to say ‘yes’.)
Emily’s Black Cake—a Christmas favorite of hers—calls for 19 eggs and five pounds of raisins. I made a more manageable quarter-recipe version of the pastry. The finished cake was certainly black, as the name implies, but the texture and taste was more akin to a plum pudding. It was delicious nonetheless.
One of Emily’s main ways of sharing intimacy, and staying in touch with her community, was to bake for people. ‘Affection is like bread,’ she once wrote, ‘unnoticed till we starve and then we dream of it…’ When sending treats to family and friends, Emily would often enclose the recipe or a note with the confection. With a gift of chocolatey caramel rule, to a Mrs. Tuckerman, she placed a note that said ‘Love’s oven is warm.’ A sweet sentiment for a woman who valued sweet things in edible form but who also wrote ‘Fame is a fickle food…Men eat of it and die.’ To her beloved friend, and future sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Emily sent homemade rice cakes, when Sue was teaching in Baltimore. Emily wrote: ‘How happy I am to send you anything you love.’
These two sides of Emily, the baker and the poet, sat happily side-by-side. The floured-to-the-elbows kitchen dweller baked bread and sticky treats for all. And the inward-looking woman would often snatch up a discarded sugar packet to jot down her insights on the bigger things that occupied her: death, existence, the afterlife, time, and nature.
Though she did not like to leave her house in later years, Emily was a gregarious person who took her friendships seriously. None who knew her well would ever starve for lack of Emily’s bread, literally or metaphorically.
Nuala O’Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in East Galway. Already well-known under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, she has published four short story collections, two poetry collections and two novels. Her third novel, Miss Emily (Penguin Books), about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, is out now. She keeps a cooking blog called The Hungry Veggie. For more information, visit www.nualaoconnor.com.