26 October 2011

I had been hungry all the years

Back at Burns Night, Charlotte commented on the fact that Americans don't celebrate their literary figures the way people in other countries do. We don't have Whitman Night parties, for instance. Nobody celebrates Moby-Dick Day (the novel was published 18 October, 1851) by reciting Ahab's last words and cutting into a whale cake.

Though that would be awesome. Maybe next year we can do that?

By now most people have probably seen the announcements about how Emily Dickinson liked to bake -- the story has been covered in the New York Times as well as on NPR's food blog and doubtless other outlets as well.

Like most of the commenters on the NPR piece, I am appalled by the 'modernised' version of the cake presented. I believe that other people's food choices are their own business, and certainly have no objection to making treats for people with food restrictions. People with celiac disease deserve cake too. But that modernised recipe made me angry.

Why? Because it is exactly like the people on recipe sites who change everything about a recipe and then write a review. My sister recently pointed me to what may be the most epic chain of these sorts of review either of us have ever seen, Ina Garten's Turkey Meatloaf, wherein the reviews go on for 35 pages (at last count), and almost all involve swapping out a significant number of ingredients.

Let me point out the painfully obvious:  by the time you've halved most of the ingredients, swapped the turkey for veal, the bread crumbs for oatmeal, the stock for Madeira, and quadrupled the onions, you are no longer making Ina Garten's Turkey Meatloaf.

You may have made something delicious. You may indeed have made the most perfect meatloaf the world has ever seen. But you did not make the meatloaf in the recipe, and cannot extrapolate that, made as written, the finished product would merit 5 stars.

Nor, in the case of the 'modernised' coconut cake, can you expect that the author of the recipe would even recognise it. Brown rice flour, coconut sap, and Earth Balance® butter substitute weren't available in mid 19th-C New England. The 'modernised' version might be wonderful, but it's not Emily Dickinson's coconut cake.


Miss Dickinson's birthday is coming up -- it's 10 December -- and I can think of no better way to celebrate it than by making her coconut cake. Preferably the way she wrote it, though if you prefer to make the 'modernised' version I won't judge you. Much.

1 cup coconut
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Who's with me?

Emily Dickinson


  1. I'm with you. Emily Dickinson did not use rice flour or butter substitute, dangit.

    For all the American authors and poets I love, I can't think of one whose birthday I'd like to institutionalize. It's a nice idea, though, isn't it?

  2. Nor did she use a coconut sap sweetener in place of flaked coconut.

    I was both ashamed and outraged when I saw the author of the NPR piece is a PhD student at CUA.

    I don't think it's just authors, but that Americans are generally awkward about building national holidays around people. I mean, is there anything left of Washington's Birthday outside of appliance sales?


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