IN THE DARK PANDEMIC DAYS of last December, 667 people gathered on a video call to celebrate Emily Dickinson’s birthday—and her black cake. Participants were invited to bake the recipe before the gathering, and many appeared on camera with their own rendition of the cake. The tradition had started five years before, when Emily Walhout, a reference assistant at Harvard University’s Houghton Library—which houses the largest collection of Dickinson’s poems, letters, and household artifacts in the world—finally decided to bake the poet’s recipe. The library owns Dickinson’s handwritten original recipe, from a letter she sent to her friend Nellie Sweetser. “I had been at Houghton for decades, knowing about this recipe and wondering why nobody made it,” Walhout says. When Emilie Hardman, a former pastry chef, joined the staff, she and Walhout decided to go for it.
Black cake is a Caribbean Christmas cake, piquant with spirits and velvety with molasses or burnt sugar. Dickinson’s recipe, written in loopy letters on age-yellowed paper, belies her biography: A dedicated baker, Emily was better known during her lifetime for her desserts than her poetry. The labor-intensive recipe, and its journey from the Caribbean to Dickinson’s elite New England milieu, reminds us of the brutal histories of colonization and enslavement that shaped her times, and the Black and immigrant domestic laborers who shaped her work and home. Dickinson’s black cake recipe also helps us reimagine Emily herself—not as the austere recluse the patriarchal literary establishment has long portrayed, but as a sensuous, socially connected woman who shared poems and cakes with family, friends, and her life-long queer love.