The Messy History of Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake Recipe

667 people joined a video conference to celebrate Emily Dickinsons birthday and her black cake in the dark days of December last year. The recipe was given to participants, who were encouraged to make their own versions. Five years ago, the tradition began when Emily Walhout (a Harvard University reference assistant) decided to bake Dickinsons' recipe. Dickinsons original handwritten recipe is preserved in the library. It was a letter that she wrote to Nellie Sweetser. Walhout said that I knew about the recipe for decades and wondered why no one had made it. Walhout and Emilie Hardman, an ex-pâtissier chef, decided to try it.
Black cake is a Caribbean Christmas dessert, rich in spirits and sweetened with molasses. Dickinsons recipe is written in loopy letters on old-yellowed paper. Emily was a dedicated baker and her recipes were more popular than her poetry. This labor-intensive recipe and its journey from the Caribbean into Dickinsons elite New England environment reminds us about the harsh histories of colonization, enslavement, and the Black domestic workers who shaped her home and work. Dickinsons black-cake recipe helps us to reimagine Emily, not as an austere recluse that patriarchal literary establishments have long depicted, but as a sensuous, socially connected woman who shared poetry and cakes with her family, friends, as well as her long-lasting queer love.

Nelly Sweetser received Emily's black cake recipe from Houghton Library. Courtesy Houghton Library

Black cake is a relative to British fruit cake. It depends on how much sugar the colonizers made the Indigenous and African people slaves to produce. The Caribbean version usually contains rum and either brown sugar or molasses. This bitter liquid is the result of scalding sugar over a high flame. M. nourbeSe Philip, a Canadian poet, wrote an essay about Dickinsons black cake. Many Caribbean families make the preparation of the cake an annual joy. Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, philip saw her mother bake the cake. Her mother sent her a black cake each year after she moved to Canada.

It is likely that the recipe and the ingredients were brought from the Caribbean via the terrible triangular trade. Dickinsons' version uses molasses, and substitutes rum for brandy. Both Dickinsons' and Caribbean recipes are rich in dried fruits, such as currants and raisins. Dickinsons also uses candied citron. They are fragrant with cinnamon, nutmeg and mace that were brought to the Caribbean from the spice coasts in Malabar, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.

Black cake is meant for sharing, so recipes can be large. Dickinsons calls to make two pounds of butter, 19 eggs and five pounds of raisins. The finished batter, according the Houghton staff weighs in at 20 pounds. The cake can be kept in the fridge for several months, if it is not consumed by Christmas.

The recipe becomes stained and aged over time. Courtesy Houghton Library

Christine Jacobson, assistant curator modern books and manuscripts, describes how the Houghton annual gathering is a great place to make the cake. Jacobson says it is stained and imperfect. You can see that it was written in haste. Afe Murray, a Dickinson scholar, said that Dickinson often gave recipes to friends (including the black cake recipe) and that the batter she used in the recipe suggests that she probably made it with her sister and domestic workers. The lively picture of Dickinson in her white frock, mixing 20 pounds of batter with cinnamon and mace is stark contrast to the more mystical Emily Dickinson that the literary establishment has long portrayed.

Emily Dickinson was a prolific poet, with nearly 1,800 poems. However, she only published a handful of them in her lifetime. Although she was well-known as a baker, her poetry was obscure. She didn't choose to marry and instead lived in the farmhouse of her father in Amherst until she died. She was rarely seen, preferring to see her family from her bedroom window while she dropped baskets of gingerbread to the village children.

For nearly a century after her death, literary scholarswith the help of Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited Dickinsons work after her death and also happened to be her brothers mistressoverwhelmingly chose to interpret those facts in the most severe way possible. They portrayed Dickinsons reticence and singleness as self-effacement, Dickinsons reclusiveness, and her solitude as dainty misanthropy.

Martha Nell Smith, a Dickinson scholar from the University of Maryland, says that this waifish image was largely late Victorian propaganda. She asks, "You know how we have the image a rock star: drugs, sex, rock and roll?" The late 19th-century composite biography of a woman poetry states that she suffered from a secret sorrow, was reclusive, and probably wore white. Are you familiar with anyone?

This daguerrotype of a teenager Dickinson at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary is the only known portrait of the poet. Public Domain

Smith and other scholars have encouraged us to look beyond the myth of the white woman to see Dickinson the way she saw herself over the past 30 years. She was sensual, rebellious at times, and effervescently quer. It is clear that Dickinson portrays herself as this version. Her poetic voice often shifts between genders. She expresses intense desire (Might she but moor - tonight/in thee! she writes Wild nights – Wild nights!) as well as powerful declarations about autonomy (Im ceded, Ive stopped being Theirs! she writes poem 508).

Smith and other scholars argue that Dickinson chose not to go to work in order to prioritise her work. She was not socially isolated, they say, because of her extensive correspondence with dozens upon dozens over many decades. They also emphasize Emily's long-lasting relationship with Susan Gilbert Dickinson. She was Emilys sister-in law, her neighbor, primary editor, and likely lover.

Although Dickinson scholars have known for a long time that Emily and Susan were close friends, Smith's 1998 book Open Me Carefully revealed a shocking revelation. Smith found places in Dickinsons letters where Mabel Loomis Todd had cut up and smudged words. Most frequently erased or altered items are she/her pronouns in Sue's letters and poems, as well as affectionate lines about Sue.

Amherst College Archives and Special Collections has a large Dickinson collection. In 2012, they unveiled the daguerrotype, arguing it shows Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner. It is not confirmed to be a genuine Emily image. Public Domain

Although we don't know the reason Todd erased these lines from his diary, Victorian respectability seems a safe bet. Smith says that personal resentments are as common as the following: Mabel Loomis Todd had an affair with Emily's brother Austin Dickinson who was married Susan Dickinson. Emily was also likely to have an affair with Austin Dickinson.

Many of these lines were incredibly erotic. One can almost feel the electricity when one reads the Open Me Carefully letters: Sweet Sue. / There is/no first, nor last / in Forever, only one letter-poem begins. She continues the poem with, "For the Woman / whomever I prefer" / Here's Festival / My Hands, / have been cut, Her / fingers will / be found inside." Everybody else is prose.

Emily's love for Sue, poetry and baking are intertwined. Dickinson spent hours every week baking bread and cakes for her father's family. Smith claims that she was certainly writing on scraps paper in her kitchen. Dickinson manuscripts that are still extant have food stains on them, including currant wine splatters, which is a Emily specialty. Dickinson also left several recipes in handwritten form among her papers. Their line breaks have the same distinctive dashes as her poetry. The open-ended format of Dickinsons poetry sometimes resembles a recipe's terseness. Smith said they were recipes for reading.

Portrait of the Dickinson family, circa 1840. Emily is shown at the left. Otis Allen Bullard Public Domain

Dickinson shared baked goods often with friends along with flowers and affectionate letters. I have enclosed Loves restraint biscuit, slightly scorched in baking, that she wrote to a friend. Also included is a gift of lightly burnt caramels. But Loves oven remains warm.

Sue was Dickinsons most trusted correspondent. She often edited Emily's work. One exchange sees Susan thank Emily for the bouquet. (The flowers look like they'd kiss one another), and she also complains about having to make a bib for her child. Another exchange is when Emily goes away teaching. Emily sends her rice cakes among a series passionate love letters.

Dickinsons letters and poems also featured food in vividly sensuous language. In poem 214, she describes how she tries a new liquor. Sue's letter-poems show that food and drink are used to express longing and devotion. Sue, I couldn't drink it / until you had tried it / Although cooler than / Water was / The Thoughtfulness and / Thirst Dickinson wrote in one letter-poem. Sue's obituary to Emily mentions Emily's ambrosial recipes. Smith laughs because it emphasizes smell and taste.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a Union Civil War veteran who also served as an editor. He maintained a strong correspondence with Dickinson. Public Domain

Recent public opinion has been influenced by Smith's work and the work of feminist Dickinson scholars, who have brought to light the poets sexuality and sensuality. Two popular films and a television show, a highly stylized teen drama, have depicted Smith as queer since 2016. Fans and critics both point out that Taylor Swift's album Evermore includes references to the Emily-Sue marriage.

However, Dickinsons black-cake recipe allows us to reimagine Dickinson as a social and sensual being. It also forces us into dealing with the injustices she has benefited from.

When she heard Dickinsons' black cake recipe, Philips was just picking up their annual Christmas blackcake. She says, "I was stunned." She said, "I was just stunned." The brutal history of sugar and rum trades, as well as the enslavement of African slaves on which American wealth rests, quickly made philip realize that they were connected.

Houghton Library's 2015 celebration of Emily's 185th Birthday was marked with black cake Courtesy Houghton Library

Like all white Americans, the elite Dickinson family benefited economically from slavery. Their ancestors were colonizers in New England, and their Southern enslaver relatives fought for Confederacy. Edward, Emily's father was not an abolitionist. Dickinsons letters contained anti-Black and anti Irish statements. Austin Dickinson was her brother and a member of the xenophobic Know-Nothing.

As with other white poets, Dickinson's complicity is often glossed over in the conventional histories. According to philip, she was removed from this messy, unsympathetic context and is now a beacon, a symbol of purity. In her essay Making Black Cake in Combustible Spaces, however, philip says that black cake's ingredients, particularly the bitter burnt sugar are a challenge to readers to face their pasts and to create more just futures. She says we must remember the bitterness. It is what gives the cake its sweetness.

The black cake recipe for Dickinsons reminds us of the Black domestic workers and Irish women who made her family's home run. Although they were able to afford full-time domestic staff, Emily Dickinson was only able to employ part-time workers as her family did not have the means to pay for them. Emily's mother and sister, Lavinia Dickinson, would do the majority of the housework. Emily was frustrated by the constant demands for domestic labor.

Citron, a thick-skinned, knobby fruit, is the ancestor to many of today's citrus fruits. They can be ordered candied online or you can substitute lemon, lime or mixed candied fruits. Houghton Library

Margaret Maher, a long-term Irish maid, was eventually hired by the family. Maher was a close friend of Emily, who lived at the Dickinson home for more than thirty years. Afe Murray, who wrote an account of the impact of Black and Irish workers upon Emily's poetry, suggests that it is likely they baked together, including the black cake. This workers' labor allowed Dickinson to pursue poetry, which freed her time. Murray suggests that Emily's unique style of writing is due to her ear for language and their speaking styles. According to one family source Maher saved Emily's manuscripts from being incinerated after Dickinsons death. But Dickinson histories have largely excluded Maher. Murray writes that Dickinsons voice was dependent on Mahers silence.

This black cake recipe allows us to understand Dickinsons life, poetry, and passion. It also helps us to see her queerness. It also reminds us about other erasures, such as the unrecognized labor that helped Dickinson become the great poet we all know. We need to question the stereotype of Emily Dickinson as a poor woman in a white, spotless dress because of the messy history of black cakes. Instead, it asks us to picture the dresses fabric sticky with molasses, rumpled by the labor of baking and splashed with crimson wine. It asks us imagine the native land that grew the dress' cotton, the slave Black people who were forced into picking it, the immigrant laborers that spun it into fabric and the Irish laundress that boiled and beat the dress until it could be called white.

Emily Dickinsons Original Black Cake Recipe

The original manuscript and video of the Houghton recreation can be found here.

2 pounds Flour -

2 sugar -

2 butter -

19 Eggs

5 pounds Raisins -

1 Currants

1 Citron -

Pint Brandy

Molasses -

2 Nutmegs -


Cloves and Mace

Cinnamon -

2 teaspoons of Soda

Beat Butter



Without beating

Beat the

Mixture again

Bake 2

Three hours in

Or you can use cake pans

5-6 hours

in Milk pan

If you are full.

Mixing dry and wet ingredients to make the cake. Reina Gattuso for Gastro Obscura

Houghton Library Version

The original size is reduced to a quarter by Emily Walhout and Houghton Library.

8 ounces (227g) flour

8 ounces (227g) sugar

8 ounces (227g) butter

5 eggs

20 ounces (570 grams) raisins

6 ounces (170g) currants

6 ounces (170g) citron

2 ounces (60 milliliters) brandy

2 ounces (60 milliliters) molasses

Half a nutmeg grated (roughly 1 teaspoon grated nutsmeg).

1 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon mace

1 teaspoon cinnamon

One teaspoon baking soda

Mix the flour, soda, and spices in a small bowl. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Blend in the eggs unbeaten until well blended. Finally, add the brandy and molasses to the bowl. Mix in the dry ingredients. Mix in the currants, raisins, and citron. Continue mixing until all the ingredients are well combined. Place the batter in a 9 x 13 inch (23x33 cm) greased baking pan lined with parchment. Bake the batter at 250 F (120 C), for 3 hours. Let the cake cool completely before wrapping it in cheesecloth that has been soaked in brandy. It should be kept in an airtight container in a cool place. Over the next weeks and months, you can baste the cake with additional brandy every once in awhile. You can eat the cake as soon as it comes out of the oven. However, it tastes better if it is kept longer.

Emily Dickinson's version uses brandy and molasses instead of rum and browning. Reina Gattuso for Gastro Obscura

Gastro Obscura Tips

Compare Dickinsons black cakes to other Caribbean black cake recipes online. M. nourbeSe Philip has included an image of her mother's black cake recipe in Making Black Cake in Compustible Spaces. Her mother made her sugar.

The dried fruit can be played with. Citron can be difficult to find. You may need to order it online. You can also candy or buy your own orange or lemon peel. I used currants, raisins and mixed candied fruits from a Caribbean grocery shop.

Black cake recipes in the Caribbean, along with many British fruit cakes recipes, recommend that dried or candied fruits be soaked in liquor for at least a few hours before baking. For molasses you can substitute brown sugar (also known as browning) and rum for brandy. Refer to the Caribbean recipes for details on the proportions. Mixing essence is a sweetening and flavoring extract that can be added to the molasses. Follow Caribbean chefs' recipes.

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