Friday, December 9th, 2016...5:31 pm

Emily Dickinson’s Birthday Party: Cake, Hope & Camaraderie

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taking a piece of black cake

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. Photograph courtesy of Emilie Hardman.

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.

black cake recipe

Dickinson’s manuscript recipe for black cake. Houghton Library, MS Am 1118.7.

emily dickinson birthday party

Houghton Library’s Edison & Newman Room during the Emily Dickinson Birthday Party. Photo courtesy of Noelle Lopez/Derek Bok Center for Teaching & Learning.

In making the cake, in physically assembling the ingredients, in thinking through each one, in embodying the practice of someone we have an understanding of first and foremost as a mind, a pencil, a distinctive voice—our orientation to Dickinson and, maybe to all of the artists, thinkers, creators, history-makers in our collection, is changed. To make Emily Dickinson’s cake is to understand her as a person, a person who, though slightly built, appears to have beat 20 pounds of cake batter into submission! A person who, we believe, would have made this cake to share with family and friends.

This sharing is another motivator for us in making the cake. To have our diverse community assembled at this celebration, a room of people all, even if just for a few moments, considering the poetic legacy of Emily Dickinson and enjoying a piece of her unique cake, the recipe for which was saved through the course of 130 years, preserved in a letter Dickinson sent, is a special way to celebrate the contributions of our library to both cultural heritage and camaraderie.

The cake is not unlike the library. There is much work represented in each and every element of it and much of that work, if done well, more or less disappears into the whole. In this case, the milk pans, which Dickinson suggested the cake be baked in, were researched and recreated by hand—a commission my mother, a potter, generously took on.

Custom-made milk pans for baking the black cake. Photograph courtesy of Elaine Hardman.

Custom-made milk pans for baking the black cake. Photograph courtesy of Elaine Hardman.

To better approximate the flour of Emily Dickinson’s time, we ground ours from wheat grown in Eastern Massachusetts. We hand beat the sugar and butter with a wooden spoon. We cracked the 19 farm eggs. We candied our own citron, ground and grated whole spices, stirred and stirred and stirred, and then tended the cakes as they baked for six hours.  Over the past three months as the cakes aged in brandy-soaked cloths, we turned them, basted them, and wondered at them. It is work we did with pleasure: the pleasure of learning and embodying the experience, and the pleasure of knowing it would be shared. You can join in on a bit of our adventures in making the cake by watching the short video of its creation.

In addition to the black cake, our team also selected Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” for the occasion, featuring it on a large placard and highlighting the manuscript in a pop-up exhibition. We have taken this poem as a meditation for the season.

Hope, Dickinson tells us, is the thing. It is:

the thing with feathers  –

That perches in our souls  –

And sings a tune without words –

And never stops – at all –

hope buttons

“Hope is the thing with feathers” buttons. Photograph courtesy of Saul Urbina-Johanson/Derek Bok Center for Teaching & Learning.

Hope, she says, may be small, bird-like, fragile, but it is indefatigable and always available, always free for the asking.

It feels churlish, certainly, to argue with Emily Dickinson –and on her birthday!– but I have to say that, for myself at least, hope, lately, has not been that easy to come by. Hope has been hard, and yet, it is foundational. Some of us are scared, some angry, some demoralized. Some of us are all of those things in equal measure. And surely there are some who are not in these emotional straits, and are simply going about the business, which is hard enough, of just trying to live a good life. For a variety of reasons, we are all facing challenges and they may seem insurmountable, but as long as there is hope we cannot be defeated.

hope poster

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” placard at the Emily Dickinson birthday party. Photograph courtesy of Saul Urbina-Johanson/Derek Bok Center for Teaching & Learning.

While I cannot agree with Dickinson that hope has never asked a crumb of me, I can agree that hope is the thing and it is worth holding on to, fiercely. So, today we made a pin and distributed at the party to remind our guests of this and we hope that the message will serve our readers and friends here as well. Hope is the thing, it is that beautiful thing with feathers, and it can be there for you. You may need to reach for it, to work for it, nurture it, but when it is perched in your soul, it can carry you through the struggle ahead, and will, hopefully, see you safely to the other side.

Houghton Library has hope, hope for a future that is informed by knowledge of the past. In celebrating Emily Dickinson today, we’ve made use of materials that have been preserved, protected and shared with the world by the librarians here at Houghton. These materials are critical to our understanding of and orientation to the past and they allow us to bring those lessons forward to the future. May you have hope in your soul, poems in your mind, and cake on your plate through this season.

This post was contributed by Emilie Hardman, Houghton’s Research, Instruction, and Digital Initiatives Librarian.


  • Wonderful job, ladies: a fine time was had by all. Emilie, where did your mother take her form for the pans? Inquiring potters want to know!

  • The milk pans were thrown on my wheel using stoneware clay and were fired to a high temperature after being glazed with my own formula, affectionately named Tapioca.

    For guidance in creating the form I had an antique milk pan handed down from Aunt Clestie Hardman of West Virginia. (Aunt Clestie’s pan is no longer oven worthy.) Most probably Emily Dickinson’s milk pan would have been salt fired. I don’t have access to an atmospheric kiln so these were simply fired in oxidation.

  • Wonderful story and video Emilie! I will dream of making such a cake tonight. (But it may not come
    to fruition, so to speak.)
    You are doing such a wonderful job at the Houghton Library. They are so lucky to have you working for them.
    Joanne Allen

  • Andrea, and inquiring potters: Here’s a little slideshow of the making of the milk pans:

  • I was drawn to the recipe since I share a birthday with Ms. Dickinson. I’ve made it several times and everyone adores it. Most recently, I made it to use at a lecture on Victorian tea for a group of teens who were learning about the Civil War era. They loved it and asked for the recipe!