Emily Dickinson, A Poet in the Kitchen

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all…

- Emily Dickinson, 1861

Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830-May 15, 1886) is best known as one of the greatest poets in American history. But did you know that she was also an accomplished cook? Emily seems to have been most at home in the kitchen, as evidenced by letters and documents from her family estate. She took great pride in making delicate cakes, cookies, and candies, both for her family and as gifts for friends.

Emily found the kitchen to be a creatively nourishing place, where inspiration would strike at a moment’s notice. Often she would draft poems on wrappers and other kitchen papers. Her poem, “The Things that can never come back, are several,” was first composed on the back of a friend’s recipe for Coconut Cake:

The Things that never can come back, are several—
Childhood—some forms of Hope—the Dead—
Though Joys—like Men—may sometimes make a Journey—
And still abide…

Emily especially loved to bake, and was quite accomplished in the art of making bread and desserts. Her Rye and Indian round bread won second prize at the 1856 Amherst Cattle Show (to be fair, her sister Lavinia was one of the judges). When the Dickinson family’s housekeeper quit, Emily took it upon herself to bake the family’s daily bread. She kept up the responsibility, even after a replacement was hired, because her father preferred the flavor of her bread to all others.

Emily talked about baking in many of her letters to family and friends, and described her food with warm, loving words. This is an Emily far different from the one we imagine from her darker poetry… she is often painted as a somewhat morose, sad figure, but her letters and frequent baked gifts for friends tell a different story. Here are some excerpts from her letters:

I have got a nice cake of Sugar, to send you by Mr. Green, and shall put some big, sound Apples, if there is any room…

Thank you, dear, for the quickness which is the blossom of request, and for the definiteness– for a new rule (recipe) is a chance. The bread resulted charmingly, and such pretty little proportions, quaint as a druggist’s formula…

With it, I enclose Love’s “remainder biscuit,” somewhat scorched perhaps in baking, but “Love’s oven is warm”…

I send you a taste Jennie, of E. Kellogg’s wedding cake– you remember her, don’t you? Eat it tearfully, Jennie, for it came all the way from me!

You thank me for the Rice cake– you tell me Susie, you have just been tasting it– and how happy I am to send you anything you love…

Emily was also known for standing at her window and lowering baskets of treats to the neighborhood children, like cakes and gingerbread. In fact, in her lifetime she may have been better known for her baked goods than her poetry– Emily’s poetic talent was not fully recognized till after her death.

To learn more about Emily in the kitchen, and to try her recipe for Coconut Cake, click here.

Comments (10)Post a Comment

  1. thank you for sharing this great part of history. it would also be good to be able toshare her recipes if they are not hard to find.

  2. This is the best thing I’ve read all year. Loving the recipe, loving the cake and most importantly, loving the fact I can experience the authentic nineteenth-century taste of Emily Dickinson in my mouth.

  3. Thank you for my very enjoyable introduction to your site, for the wonderful research/article and recipe you did for and about Emily and her “cocoanut” cake. I love, love Emily Dickinson – I stumbled across your writing of her only by lucky accident. Glad I did. I made a variation of this cake today. Using 8 X 12 flat glass pan, instead of loaf pan (still took 45 mins. at 325*) , pre-soaked the dried coconut in canned coconut milk first to hydrate it, also, used canned coconut milk in place of the whole milk called for in the recipe, toasted a little extra coconut on the side in the oven for 5 min and scattered this across the top of the cake just before baking. I used both some sweetened and some unsweetened coconut. Turned out paler than yours (so was glad for the toasted coconut on top), NOT cracked on top, NOT overly-sweet and a LITTLE dense/heavy-bodied. Good though. Thanks for your writing and sharing. It was enjoyed, all-round.

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