Emily Dickinson, Sweet Genius
By JEFF GORDINIER
The New York Times

Whatever you happen to think about when you think about Emily Dickinson,
it's probably unlikely that what first leaps to mind is an image of the
Belle of Amherst stuffing her face with cake.

In the public imagination, at least, this spectral titan of American
poetry comes across as a figure of austerity, mystery, luminosity,
seclusion. Somehow it's hard to envision her even eating a meal, let
alone taking delectable pleasure from it.

But as with many things about her, the truth is richer and more
fascinating than the cliché. Emily Dickinson, it turns out, was totally
into baking.

In fact, at a reception on Thursday evening in Battery Park City, New
Yorkers will get to sample a slice of one of her favorite treats.
Manuscripts, letters and fragments from the poet's life are going on
display at the Poets House, many for the first time, and among them is
her handwritten, bare-bones recipe for coconut cake, which a local
poetry collector and avid baker named Carolyn Smith is conjuring up for
the event.

Ms. Smith has made six of the cakes, which she baked at 350 degrees for
a little over an hour. Admittedly, she didn't have a whole lot of data
to go on; the recipe itself is really just a list of ingredients: 1 cup
coconut, 2 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup milk, 2
eggs, 1/2 teaspoon soda and 1 teaspoon cream of tartar.

"It looked like it was probably similar to a pound cake, so I treated it
like a pound cake," Ms. Smith, 69, said on the phone. "It's a very dense
cake, and it's not too cloyingly sweet, which is nice."

Just hearing about that coconut cake leads to a fresh perspective on how
Emily Dickinson lived and worked. Pay a visit to the Web site of the
Emily Dickinson Museum , and you'll learn that the poet seemed to do a
lot of her writing and thinking in the kitchen, even at one point
scrawling stray lines of verse on a wrapper of Parisian baking
chocolate.

"Emily Dickinson was known as quite an accomplished baker," said
Alexandra Mann, the publicity and marketing coordinator for Poets House.
"She won a competition for her rye bread and was known to have often
sent baked goods to friends and family for all sorts of occasions. In
fact, some of the letters on view in this exhibition were sent along
with baked delicacies that she made."

Could it be? Did this woman whom we've been led to think of as a prim
ascetic actually have a vibrant epicurean streak? "The tradition was
that she and her friends would dip the coconut cake into a little
sherry," Ms. Smith said. "So that's what we're doing tomorrow night."