Having a piece of Emily Dickinson’s black cake. Photograph courtesy of Noelle Lopez/Derek Bok Center for Teaching & Learning.
Today at Houghton Library, we celebrated the birthday of Emily Dickinson a day before her actual birthday of December 10th with an inspiring gathering of colleagues, scholars and students, faculty and friends. A feature-focus of the party was the serving of Dickinson’s own black cake made by Houghton staff from the manuscript recipe in our keeping.
At Houghton we have an ad hoc Committee for Fun and Good Wille, and as is the fashion of librarians the world over, that committee charged a subcommittee which we affectionately refer to as “Team Cake.” Team Cake consists of myself, my fellow Emily, Emily Walhout, and our colleague Heather Cole, who for these particular purposes, we consider an honorary Emily.
Team Cake has deployed twice now on a mission to recreate Dickinson’s challenging black cake. It would not be untrue to say that we are motivated to make these cakes because we are highly motivated to eat cake, but there are other reasons. And in a world that has seen undeniable improvements in the ease of cake-creation, given the supremely labor intensive proposition of this particular cake, those reasons are really our prime motivators.
Black cake, freshly baked before aging.
Others have certainly baked Emily Dickinson’s black cake, but most scale the recipe down or alter ingredients —both very reasonable 21st century reactions to the recipe’s insistence on including five pounds of raisins. We, however, have wanted to stick closely to the original recipe, to experience what Emily Dickinson may have experienced in making it, to taste what she may have tasted. As we learned last year, this is a process that generates more questions than it answers and even after a year of following the intriguing trails and rabbit holes those questions have opened up, we still have questions, curiosity, blank places on the map that we can only fill in with the tools of the historian, the archival explorer. This is not a complaint: it is a feature, not a bug, as they say.
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