Emily Dick­in­son, baker

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?

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

You knew Emily Dick­in­son wrote a de­cent poem in her day, but have you tried her cakes?

If his­tory is a di­a­logue be­tween past and pre­sent, then his­tor­i­cal recipes are like love let­ters be­tween strangers across time.

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.

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”.

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.

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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