Bake a Novel

I’m washing sand from kale and blousy leaves of spinach for a winter greens soup when a notion comes into my head for a new writing project.

It drops like a gift and I’m reminded of how I compose best when my hands are busy doing something else.

Like the poem that must have been written when Emily Dickinson made coconut cake from a recipe passed on by Mrs. Carmichael.

I can see ED standing at the pastry board in the butter yellow pantry with a hammer and nail spilled off to the side, pieces of hard coconut, a tin grater, and snowy piles, hard shells swaying on the pastry board as her hand pushes coconut meat hard into ragged teeth.

The coconut cake recipe that ED copied onto lined stationary calls for

1 pound sugar

1/2 pound of butter

1/2 pound flour

6 eggs

1 grated coconut.

Absently grating when the words arrive in her head: “The Things that neverĀ  can come back” and she scrambles to turn over the recipe, Mrs. Carmichael’s recipe for coconut cake, to jot down:

The Things that never
can come back, are
several –
Childhood – some
forms of Hope – the Dead –

Back and forth, grating and writing, the words pile up:

Though Joys – like Men – may sometimes make a
Journey –
And still abide –

We do not mourn
for Traveler, or Sailor,
Their Routes are fair –
But think enlarged
of all that they will
tell us
Returning here –

“Here”! There are
typic “Heres” –
Foretold Locations –
The Spirit does
not stand –
Himself – at what –
soever Fathom
His Native Land –

The recipe, as copied down on the reverse side of this poem (with its original line breaks), calls for no leavening. Was it understood to put in a teaspoon of baking powder or soda? Or perhaps she knew to separate the eggs, beating the whites til they formed stiff peaks for folding into the batter?

I made them as cupcakes (leavening is less of an issue) with butter cream icing and dusted with flakes of toasted coconut. Lucky patrons of Copperfield’s and Diesel Bookstores ate them when I read from Maid As Muse last spring.

The modernized version of Mrs. Carmichael’s / Emily Dickinson’s recipe that I used to sustain the bookstores masses included

2 cups of sugar

1 cup of butter

2 cups of flour

6 eggs

1 to 2 cups of grated coconut

1 cup coconut milk.

Because I’m now excited by the new writing project, I’ll try the coconut cake recipe again with either separated eggs or baking powder or soda.

Keep cooking, I tell myself, and you’ll keep writing.

This must be why ED never gave over all the kitchen tasks to her maid (just the hardest ones) keeping some of the cooking to stir up the next poem.

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