Poet Emily Dickinson Was A Much Loved Baker Though a notorious recluse, Emily Dickinson shared her masterful creations with friends and neighbors. Early drafts of her poems are often found on the backs of cake recipes and flour labels.

Poet Emily Dickinson Was A Much Loved Baker

Poet Emily Dickinson Was A Much Loved Baker

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Though a notorious recluse, Emily Dickinson shared her masterful creations with friends and neighbors. Early drafts of her poems are often found on the backs of cake recipes and flour labels.



Ah, the theme for Hidden Kitchens. Producers Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, the Kitchen Sisters, explore how communities come together through food. And little did we know, the poet Emily Dickinson had a hidden kitchen.


HEATHER COLE: This is Emily Dickinson herself on the left. She's about 8 or 9 in that painting. Her sister Lavinia is holding a picture of a cat. Emily was more of a dog person. We don't often think of her as being a redhead, but there's a little lock of her hair and it's definitely that color.

EMILIE HARDMAN: Emily was referred to as the myth not often seen, notorious for wearing white. Some people knew that she wrote, but it wasn't what she was known for. She was probably better known as a baker than a poet in her lifetime.

JEAN MCCLURE MUDGE: Her gingerbread was the first thing that struck me. I'm Jean McClure Mudge, writer. I lived in Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst as a faculty wife, first resident curator. Emily would bake gingerbread, little oval cakes, put little flowers on top and lower them in a bread basket from her window to the children below. They couldn't see her - a mystery.

CHRISTOPHER BENFEY: Emily Dickinson liked to shock people. She liked to break rules. There was a kind of rebellious freedom in her inner world. She has a poem that begins, they shut me up in prose, as when a little girl, when they wanted her to be still. And she says, boy, they should have seen the wheels in my brain go round. My name is Christopher Benfey. I teach at Mount Holyoke College, where Emily Dickinson spent a year of her life.

COLE: She was very well educated for a woman of her time. She liked science and botany.

BENFEY: What she did not like was one of the stated purposes of the college - to convert young women to the Christian cause, finding Christ as their personal savior. She was one of the students who were declared without hope. She wrote, some keep the Sabbath going to church, I keep it staying at home with a bobolink for a chorister and an orchard for a dome.


JULIE HARRIS: (As Emily Dickinson) My name is Emily Elizabeth Dickinson. This is my introduction. Black cake, it's my own special recipe. I do all the baking here at Homestead. I even banged the spice for this cake. It's black cake. It's two pounds of flour...

HARDMAN: The black cake. This is a cake that calls for 19 eggs, five pounds of raisins, two pounds of currants, two pounds of butter. A substantial cake, all assembled it's 19 pounds and eight ounces. That's before you put the brandy in.


HARRIS: (As Emily Dickinson) Two nutmegs, five teaspoons of cloves...

HARDMAN: Black cake first appears in the 1840s in cookbooks. It's Caribbean in its origin - the cinnamon, the mace. And it's very tied up with the sugar trade and molasses.


HARRIS: (As Emily Dickinson) Gently sprinkle in all eight pounds.

HARDMAN: When you think about Emily Dickinson, the myth in the white dress, then you think about her in the kitchen, the physicality of making that cake, this is a social cake, so counter to Emily and her remove from the world.

HARDMAN: So I found the one Emily Dickinson poem that mentions a cake.

COLE: I'm Heather Cole.

EMILY WALHOUT: My name is Emily Walhout.

HARDMAN: Emilie Hardman. We work at Houghton Library at Harvard University.

COLE: The poem was sent to Nelly Sweetzer with a gift of cake and flowers.

Blossoms will run away, cakes reign but a day, but memory, like melody, is pink eternally.

This is one of Dickinson's poems from a fasical, these bound booklets that Dickinson copied her poems into and sewed with kitchen twine. Some of her poems were published in her lifetime, but they changed Emily's slant rhymes and gave the poems titles to make them more conventional and that's not how she wrote her poems.


PATTI SMITH: My life had stood a loaded gun, in corners...

MUDGE: She called them bulletins from immortality, as if, you know, a bolt had come down, the sky had parted and she was given this message.

BRENDA HILLMAN: People have wanted to turn her into a nice lady poet, a romantic version of her that is not untrue. It's just probably partial. I'm Brenda Hillman. I am a poet. She did stay in her room, and she did have what she refers to as her white election, putting on her white dress and going upstairs, not going out anymore. What choice did she have? In her time, she couldn't have gotten her writing done by being a spinster in the community that takes care of bodies coming home from the Civil War, goes on being a nice church lady. You know, she wrote 700 poems in two years. I mean, 700 for Pete's sake.


SMITH: This is poem 668 by Emily Dickinson.

Nature is what we see - the hill, the afternoon, squirrel, eclipse, the bumblebee. Nay, nature is heaven. Nature is what we hear...

HARDMAN: She actually would write on chocolate wrappers, write these envelope poems. It's sort of in the flotsam and jetsam of her life. The words move in the fragment of that paper.

HILLMAN: This poem was composed on the back of a coconut cake recipe.

The things that never can come back are several - childhood, some forms of hope, the dead...

MUDGE: Superbly and supremely, her cooking and her poetry were one. The way in which she gave friends not only poems but gifts of cake - they were offerings, attentions. That's what people called them between houses when friends gave something that they had made.

BENFEY: In the kitchen, in the bedroom, these secret spaces where she could be alone or with her own select society, that really was freedom. When Emily Dickinson bakes bread, there's something almost ecstatic about it, satisfaction of creativity. In one of her early letters sent 1850 to her best friend Abiah Root, she says, twin loaves of bread have just been born into the world under my auspices. Fine children, the image of their mother. And here, my dear friend, is the glory.

GREENE: That story was produced by The Kitchen Sisters. It was mixed by Jim McKee. You heard Julie Harris, Mary Jo Salter and Patti Smith. You can hear the Kitchen Sisters' stories on their podcast, Fugitive Waves, and also on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Rachel Martin.

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