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Emily Dickinson Bakes A Coconut Cake

Poetry of a different sort form the Belle of Amherst. I, myself, might add a tad or pad more of butter, for I'm a Julia Child kinda guy. But if you grate that coconut yourself, kudos.

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A Coconut Cake From Emily Dickinson: Reclusive Poet, Passionate Baker

by Nelly Lambert

A daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, taken in 1846.William C. North/University of Illinois at at Urbana-Champaign


A daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, taken in 1846.


Nelly Lambert is a PhD student in English at Catholic University. She's writing her dissertation on Emily Dickinson's poetry.

Poet Emily Dickinson withdrew from society for most of her adult life. And yet, she was known to lower a basket full of cakes from the window of the home she rarely left to crowds of expectant children on the street below. Dickinson probably never met these children, yet she connected with them through her baking.

I'm a Dickinson scholar, but even I was surprised to learn just how prominent a role baking played in her life — something that became evident during my summer visit to the Dickinson Archives in her hometown of Amherst, Mass.

Dickinson discussed baking in many of her letters — evincing both her trademark wit and a zest for life that belies the common image of her as a depressed figure. Note the animation in her letter to a friend about some burnt caramel rule: "I enclose Love's 'remainder biscuit,' somewhat scorched perhaps in baking, but 'Love's oven is warm.' Forgive the base proportions."


We know she baked at least a dozen different items, and we have recipes for at least five. When I returned from Amherst, I decided to try them.

Each of Dickinson's cakes is satisfying, but her coconut cake, perhaps because it has a layered taste and perhaps because it is both substantial and light at the same time, reminds me of the combination of whimsy and gravity in her poems.