Emily Dickinson, food writer

Emily Dickinson was never famous in her lifetime, with only a handful of her poems published while she lived, and all of those anonymously. The prolific poet’s works were only discovered and published after her death at age 55. Despite authoring over 1,800 poems, Dickinson did not occupy all of her time with writing: she was known for both her botanical pursuits and her baking. The latter subject is explored in Gastro Obscura, which dives into the messy history of Emily Dickinson’s black cake.

According to historical accounts, Dickinson spent much of her time baking bread and cake for her family. Not surprisingly, then, some of the poet’s surviving manuscripts are splattered with food stains. “She certainly was writing in the kitchen on scraps of paper,” says Martha Nell Smith, a Dickinson scholar at the University of Maryland. Dickinson sent her black cake recipe to a friend, Nellie Sweetser, in a letter that is housed in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, home of the largest collection of Dickinson’s works. Reference assistant Emily Walhout had long wondered about the cake, and when former pastry chef Emilie Hardman joined the library’s staff, the two decided to have a go at the cake.

Although there are a few types of cake called ‘black cake‘, Dickenson’s version was a Caribbean Christmas cake, heavy on molasses and brandy and studded with copious amounts of dried fruit. If that sounds a lot like British fruit cake, that is not an accident – black cake “depends on the sugar English colonizers forced the Indigenous and African people they enslaved to produce,” according to the Gastro Obscura article.

Photo of Caribbean black cake from Delicious Magazine (UK)

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