Emily’s Carib Cake?

Black Cake comes readily to mind when thinking of Emily Dickinson with her hands on a mixing bowl, pencil and paper ready at the side of her pastry board.

Her recipe for Black Cake uses an enormous number of eggs, pounds of sugar and flour, dried fruits, brandy and molasses.

It’s extremely rich, nay intoxicating, and with Emily Dickinson’s baking skill, her version was no doubt superb.

Black Cake is sometimes called fruit cake or, in the England of her Dickinson ancestors, this cake would be a holiday pudding.

In fact, this holiday pudding associated with England seems to have arrived in the Caribbean by way of the English lured to those islands to turn a profit from the triangular slave trade: human beings for sugar for rum.

Emily Dickinson was baking her Black Cake in mid-19th century New England. She was several generations removed from her English ancestors and their holiday fruit pudding.

And it appears to not be the version of fruit cake she made famous and for which her family clamored.

Her Black Cake resembles the version that emerged out of triangle trade; a cake perfected before her by bakers who were enslaved in the Caribbean.

As I learned from the Canadian poet, NourbeSe Philip, what makes the Black Cake of Trinidad and Tobago (where she was born) so distinctive in color and in flavor — and so prized — is the process of burning the sugar and the use of rum.

Emily Dickinson’s recipe, above, doesn’t call for the triangle trade’s rum but it does use copious amounts of the traded-for molasses — a substance that seems to have kept industrial Boston humming in profits in that same era (and beyond until the molasses flood anyway).

Slavery and its spectre were everywhere around this poet.

These thoughts about Emily Dickinson and her possible Caribbean-originated Black Cake were inspired by the evocative essay by NourbeSe Philip titled “Making Black Cake in Combustible Spaces” (in 21 – 19 from Milkweed). Highly recommended!

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