Inside Sylvia Plath's Oven
An excerpt from Wicked Cake
Today is poet, writer, baker, and fellow Scorpio Sylvia Plath’s birthday. We’re celebrating by sharing an excerpt from Wicked Cake, our fall issue available for pre-order now, in which writer Eliza Dumais explores Plath’s intimate and vicious history with baking. Read on for a taste of her piece “Inside Sylvia Plath’s Oven,” with supporting sculpture art by Agnes Barton-Sabo.
Sylvia Plath is the sort of writer for whom the idiom “I’d read her grocery lists” was conceived. On this point, however, she has an edge: You can, indeed, read her grocery lists.
Plath’s journals, published posthumously, are filled with granular detail. Amidst dramatic entries on feminist doctrines and suicidal ideation, she penned shopping lists, recipes, and musings about what to bake for forthcoming dinner guests.
“The prospect of continually eating cake and continually having more of it always appeals to the feminine-logic side of my nature,” she mused in a 1954 entry— precisely the sort of intellectual mergance that characterizes her notebooks: part philosophical inquiry, part cake. And regardless of the tactile pleasure that comes with reading her copy on oranges, on steak, on glasses of milk, her note-taking tells us far more about her diet than it does about her prose.
We know, from the dates on her entries, that she made lemon pudding cake on the day she wrote “Lady Lazarus”—in which she grapples with her own repeated, unsuccessful suicide attempts. “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well,” she wrote, while beaten egg whites stiffened in the oven. In the process of drafting “Death & Co.”—a poem as cutting and nihilistic as its title suggests—she prepped tomato soup cake, blood red and bittersweet. A signature recipe of hers, it requires, among other things, two cups of butter and one can of condensed tomato soup. She hardly documented the details of her writing life: we don’t know where, exactly, she sat down to work, or the order in which her stanzas were drafted. We don’t know how many stray lines were conjured then cast aside. We do know, however, what the kitchen smelled like. Which cans lived, stacked like totem poles, in her pantry.