Emily Dickinson and Bread

To continue with Shenandoah’s apparent and impromptu Emily Dickinson theme this week (see our most recent Poem of the Week, Dickinson’s “To Tell the Beauty Would Decrease,” here: https://shenandoahliterary.org/blog/2017/10/to-tell-the-beauty-would-decrease/), I thought it only appropriate to talk gluten. Dickinson herself was, after all, a skilled baker of bread.


Am I the only one who is fed up with the gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo/Whole 30/high-fat, low-carb whatever-else-there-is food fad? Growing up, I ate what my mother put on the table – there were no “special dietary needs” (save legitimate allergies and the month I would only consume blue foods) in my adolescent vocabulary. A stable of my diet – and one that is evidently now considered blasphemous – was bread. In all shapes and sizes, savory and sweet, as an accompanying player or the star of the show, I loved bread.

The poet Emily Dickinson evidently loved bread, too. During her life, which began with her birth in Massachusetts in 1830 and ended with her death in 1886, Dickinson could most reliably be found in her kitchen, the place in the house she thought most “creatively nourishing.” I can’t say I disagree – I’m writing this very post hunched over my kitchen counter, watching a cast-iron pot in the oven. Dickinson was a prize-winning baker, a well-known giver of sweets, and a benevolent fattener of children with her famous gingerbread. She was responsible for rising early and baking the family’s daily bread, as her father preferred the taste of his daughter’s bread to any other.


She also loved the chance to experiment with new recipes. An excerpt from a letter to her friend reads, “thank you, dear, for the quickness which is the blossom of request, and for the definiteness – for a new rule (Recipe) is a chance. The bread resulted charmingly…” Dickinson is right – a new recipe is a chance: a chance to negotiate. Every person who really loves to cook knows this. A rule (recipe) is no hard-and-fast rule, per se, they’re meant to be broken, changed, and edited. You receive a recipe from a friend or acquaintance, you try it out, you make changes and personalize it.

What Dickinson understood is that baking, and baking bread, is an imperfect science. Not only in the obvious way, meaning that bread almost always contains some sort of leavening agent that forces a chemical reaction (yeast, by the way, is quite literally a living fungus that feeds on the sugars in flour, facilitating the “rising” action of bread dough – ah, science), but also in the more subtle way – there involves a question, a series of experiments, and a conclusion. Take the bread I am currently watching bake in the oven, for instance: my question – did I let this dough rise long enough on the counter, in the right climate, before I baked it? My experiment – let’s bake this thing and see how it turns out. My conclusion – to be determined, when this bread comes out of the oven. If my experiments prove fruitless (i.e., this bread is awful), then it’s time to edit some part of the recipe or methodology. Go back to the drawing board, and try something else. It’s supposed to be fun.

I see writing in the same light. We have a subject that we want to explore, we set about exploring it in a series of experiments, and either we are happy with the conclusion or we are not. So writing is a lot like cooking bread, in my opinion. People are intimidated by them both, myself included. The great things is, both can be edited. And poetry, like bread, can bring people together.

Being in the kitchen reminds me of this. When writing, like baking bread, was fun, not stressful or obligatory. Just filling journals in my childhood bedroom with countless short stories and angst-y poetry. When bread was an ally, not suddenly public enemy number one. For Dickinson, the kitchen acted in the same way, as an inspiration incubator. She often wrote early versions of poetry on the backs of flour labels. Like this one:

The Things that never can come back, are several —
Childhood — some forms of Hope — the Dead —
Though Joys — like Men — may sometimes make a Journey —
And still abide

Written on the back of a recipe for coconut cake. Baking is considered a traditionally “female” enterprise. Maybe poetry should be, too. Both  are nourishing, and quite forgiving.

I just got my bread out of the oven and sliced it. Today is one of my dearest friends 22nd birthday. I gave her a piece and her eyes closed with the audible crunch of the bread. “All I want for my birthday is this entire loaf to myself,” she said. No edits necessary this time, it appears.  

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