Tag Archives: poetry

Emily Dickinson–Hello Cousin!

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson from Wiki Media, in the public domain.

I cannot think of a more exciting announcement to make during the month of Women. As the title indicates–I can now call poet Emily Dickinson, cousin.

The Belle of Amherst and Black Cake

Of course I had known the poetry of this premier American Poet since I started reading. But my close attraction with Emily really developed when I played the role of Emily in the one-woman play, Belle of Amherst at the Invisible Theater in Tucson, Arizona. Emily’s opening lines of that play:

This is my introduction. Black cake. My own special recipe.

(After some digressions and introducing herself, she proceeds to share her recipe.)

“Black Cake: two pounds of flour, two pounds of sugar, two pounds of butter, nineteen eggs, five pounds of raisins, one and a half pounds of currants, one and a half pounds of citron, one half pint of brandy–I never use Father’s best–one half pint of molasses, two nutmegs, five teaspoons of cloves, mace, and cinnamon, and–oh, yes, two teaspoons of soda, and one and a half teaspoons of salt.”

“Just beat the butter and sugar together, add the nineteen eggs one at a time–now this is very important–without beating. Then beat the mixture again adding the brandy alternately with the flour, soda, spices, and salt that you’ve sifted together. Then the molasses. Now, take your five pounds of raisins, and three pounds of currants and citron, and gently sprinkle in all eight pounds–slowly now–as you stir. Bake it for three hours if you use cake pans. If you use a milk pan, as I do, you’d better leave it in the oven six or seven hours.”

Now does that remind you of anyone? Someone who loves to cook and share recipes? Although she gained fame posthumously as a poet, during her lifetime, she was well known around Amherst for her skill at baking.

Emily Dickinson Black Cake
Emily Dickinson Black Cake

You can see my modernized version of Emily’s Black Cake here. In fact, Emily’s recipe intrigued me from the first time I read the play. And while I was rehearsing, I experimented with baking the cake. Then I made some to be sold during intermissions at my performance of Belle of Amherst. I have also made her ginger bread and her coconut cake. All delicious.

My Connection to Emily Dickinson

You don’t work so long on the development of a one-woman show without feeling very close to the subject, and I certainly felt close to Emily. As I’m sure you know, she was born, lived and died in Amherst, Massachusetts, where her family had been leaders in the community and the college of Amherst. When I did that play so many years ago, I never dreamed that I had more than just the connection that comes with acting.

A few years ago, as I was tracing my great-great-etc-grandparents from New England, I came across 6th great-grandmother Elizabeth Dickinson Belding. She came from Amherst. Surely she must have been related to Emily Dickinson and her family.

The Dickinson Family seemed to be bewilderingly large and spread out over New England, and I was at that time pursuing another line of ancestors, so I set aside the notion that I might be related to Emily. But I did not forget.

Today I looked for a family tree for Emily and compared her ancestors to the ancestors of my (much earlier) 6th great-grandmother, Elizabeth Dickinson Belding and her father (my 7th great-grandfather). II only had to go back one more generation to find my connection to Emily. Here is what I found, starting with our MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestor), Nathaniel Dickinson– my 8th great-grandfather, and Emily’s 5th great -grandfather.

My Tree

  • Nathaniel Dickinson 1601-1676
  • Hezekiah Dickinson 1646-1707
  • Elizabeth Dickinson Belding 1693-1797
  • Samuel Belding 1719-1793
  • Martha Belding Bassett 1756-1842
  • William Bassett 1779-1833
  • Mary Bassett Morgan 1810-1890
  • Harriette Morgan Stout 1842-1928
  • Vera Stout Anderson 1881-1964
  • Harriette Anderson Kaser 1906-2003
  • Vera Marie Badertscher

Emily Dickinson Tree

  • Nathaniel DIckinson 1601-1676
  • Samuel Dickinson 1638-1711
  • Ebenezer Dickinson 1690-?
  • Nathan Dickinson SR 1712-1796
  • Nathan Dickison Jr. 1735-1825
  • Samuel Dickinson 1775-1838
  • Edward DIckinson 1803-1874
  • Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

You will notice that my line comes down through the women in the tree, starting with Elizabeth Dickinson, the daughter of Hezekiah Dickinson. The only exception is William Bassett (1779-1833). Emily’s line, on the other hand, follows the male Dickinson line all the way. My 7th great-grandfather is the brother of her 4th great grandfather, Samuel DIckinson (1638-1711). Samuel is my 8x great uncle.

Emily’s family started in North America in Connecticut, but for four generations before Emily, they had lived in Amherst, Massachusetts.

How appropriate that my bookworm great-great grandmother turns out to be the same generation as Emily DIckinson! And had Emily, instead of being a recluse, had been married and had children, her great-great grandchildren would be in my generation.

The conclusion? Emily Dickinson is my 6th cousin, 3 times removed. Don’t get confused by the “removed”. The three times removed simply means that once you find our MRCA you look at how many generations difference there are between that person in my line and in her line. In this case it is 8x great grandfather and 5x great grandfather–so, 3x removed.

Emily Dickinson Has a Poem For It

How better to end this little tribute to my new-found cousin than with one of her poems. This one is used as the foreword to the printed Belle of Amherst.

Me--come! My dazzled face
In such a shining place!
Me--hear! My foreign Ear
The sounds of Welcome--there!

The Saints forget
Our bashful feet--

My Holiday, shall be
That They--remember me--
My Paradise--the fame
That They--pronounce my name--

Emily Dickinson

Christmas Baking: Emily Dickinson Black Cake

In December at Ancestors in Aprons we will talk about cookies, cookies, cookies. But first, a cake. A cake that is poetry on a plate.

Emily Dickinson Black Cake

Emily Dickinson Black Cake

What is Christmas without poetry? ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas; silly stuff like The Grinch; the lovely poetry of the Christmas carols; and even the poetry of popular songs like White Christmas.  

My mother and father both loved poetry. He (Paul Kaser) claimed that mother taught him to appreciate poetry, but we know that his mother liked to read and he learned to love words at her knee. Back when he was in school in the 20s, children were taught by memorization, and even in his later years, he could happily recite whole long poems.

Mother did influence a lot of people to read. I know that former students of my mother’s (Harriette Anderson Kaser) wrote to her even when she was in her 90s thanking her for teaching them to love poetry.

So, while Emily Dickinson may not pop to mind as a Christmas poet, and I can’t claim her as an ancestor–she was a very accomplished baker as well as poet, so it is appropriate for many reasons that we now have a family tradition of Emily Dickinson Black Cake for Christmas.

In another life, when I was acting in local theater, I played Emily in the play The Belle of Amherst: A One-Woman Play,and ever since, I have been making the Emily Dickinson black cake she talks about at the beginning of that play. I make it on Thanksgiving weekend, wrap it in cheesecloth dipped in brandy and serve it on Christmas Eve.

If you are intimidated by the volume of ingredients, cut the recipe in half or one-quarter if you must, but whatever you do, DO NOT call it a fruitcake.)

Emily Dickinson Black Cake

Emily Dickinson Black Cake. Can you smell the aroma?


Emily Dickinson's Black Cake

The famous recluse poet was also a baker of note. She left a recipe for this rich, fruit-packed cake that is so much better than fruitcake. (Adapted for modern ingredients)
Course Dessert
Keyword cake


  • 2 Pounds flour 8 cups
  • 2 pounds sugar 4 cups
  • 2 pounds butter 4 cups
  • 19 eggs
  • 5 pounds raisins
  • 1 1/2 pounds citron
  • 1 1/2 pounds currants [Be sure and get currants--they do taste different]
  • 1/2 pint brandy 1 cup Emily Says, "Not my father's BEST brandy."
  • 1/2 pint molasses 1 cup
  • 2 nutmegs 4-6 tablespoons, ground
  • 5 tablespoons total: cloves mace, cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt


  • Sift flour, soda, spices, salt.  Beat butter and sugar, add eggs a few at a time, beating after each addition.  Add brandy alternately with flour mixture.  Add molasses.  Sprinkle in fruit, slowly as you stir.
  • Bake at 250 degrees one and a half to three hours depending on the size of the pans you use. Full recipe makes one large "angel food cake" pan; plus 2-3 loaf pans.
  • Remove from pan to cool.  Wrap in cheesecloth dipped in brandy.  Store in air tight container for several weeks, dribbling on some more brandy from time to time.


 I have looked at other recipes on the Internet and immodestly believe this version is best. Slow baking and thorough basting are key.

A Little Black Cake History

I read some of the history of dried fruits at the Sun Maid website, but the article has since been removed. Here’s a particularly relevant passage from that old website article:

1683 – Merry fruitcake! Austrians encounter the bounty of Middle Eastern fruit when the Turks overrun Vienna. To celebrate their survival, the Viennese serve German turban cake, or “gugelhupf,” with a filling of raisins, lemon and orange peel, almonds, and spices, on Christmas morning.

Another website traces the history back to 1700 B.C.

It stands to reason that before American people could buy fruits grown in Central or South American to stretch the season all year round, they depended upon preserved and dried fruits during the winter.  Hence the raisin pie popular among Ken’s Mennonite relatives. And later  I’ll be sharing a raisin bar cookie recipe from Aunt Rhema.

Interestingly, Emily’s cake most closely resembles Jamaican Black Cake.  You can find several versions of recipes on line, but I first ran across it in a little cookbook that I have since misplaced, and seeing how similar the recipe was, I thought, “Aha! the Dickinson’s, being New Englanders where there was ample trade with the Caribbean, no doubt at some time had a cook who came from Jamaica.”  I’ve never been able to track down that supposition.

There is one major difference. The Jamaican cake is frosted. Which sounds very much like overkill to me. You can also buy commercially baked Jamaican black cakes on line. But I’ll stick with the Emily Dickinson black cake version.