Sylvia Plath, Baking and Feminism: There have been a number of articles on the web lately about Kate Moses new book Wintering, a fictional account of Sylvia Plath’s last months when she was writing Ariel. The piece that got me thinking was the essay Kate Moses wrote for the Guardian called “Baking with Sylvia”. In this essay, Moses talks about how for both herself and for Sylvia Plath, baking was a way of creating order out of chaos, and how as she found herself up against her deadline for the book, Moses also found herself baking on a near-daily basis, much as Plath had those last months while living in London and writing Ariel.
Baking is one of those things that tends to sort cooks into categories, because in order to be a good baker, you have to be able to really follow the directions. I’m an okay baker — I have a couple of standbys — simple fruit tarts, a fluffy yellow sponge cake filled with fresh fruit and iced with whipped cream that I cribbed from Dom Deluise’s fabulous cookbook: Eat This…It’ll Make You Feel Better:…. But even that cake, a cake so good I’ve had strange men look up at potlucks and say “who made this, I want to marry her,” belies my essential inability to follow a recipe with exactitude. Dom’s sainted mother, whose recipe this is, uses canned peaches with heavy syrup, and sliced almonds; I like defrosted frozen raspberries and mint leaves, and sometimes I put custard in the middle like Dom’s mom, sometimes I don’t. Real bakers don’t improvise like this. Real bakers weigh the flour. Real bakers actually take the knife and level off the flour in the measuring cup. My brother is a real baker, and has wowed Christmas crowds with stunning renditions of Jacques Pepin’s Paris Brest. In high school, we could always tell when my beautiful cousin Dede was having trouble with food again because she’d start baking, turning out exquisite cakes that she wouldn’t dream of eating. Me, I’m a sloppier cook — which is why I bake bread. Bread is forgiving of improvisation, even the sourdough bread I’ve been experimenting with the past couple of months. There were a few brick-like loaves, and the round loaves keep coming out too flat, but for the most part, it’s all bread. Nice clean wholesome bread made with sourdough starter, locally grown and milled wheat, and a little salt.
So what does any of this have to do with Plath? Nothing I guess, except that it struck me as I read Moses’ essay about her own baking, and its relationship to the inevitable tension between writing and family life (“As I neared the end, my husband and two children were getting used to my conspicuous absence, or my thousand-mile stare when I was physically present … My five-year-old was sometimes heard muttering in the hallway, ‘Mommy’s behind the door.'”), I became sad for Plath, sad for Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich, sad for all those women who lived in a world where baking and intellectual activity, where home life and poetry were considered mutually exclusive. I remember my own terror, my own worries that if I got married, had kids, had a domestic life, I’d never be a writer — and this was thirty years after Plath, Sexton, Rich, Lessing. Despite my fears, I was living in a world where this juggling act was at least possible. How much more difficult must it have been for them? The continual juggling between family life and intellectual life?
Salon ran an excerpt from Wintering, and it looks interesting. I seem to keep blogging about books I haven’t read yet, and neglecting the ones I have read.I’m not sure what that’s all about — as I work my way through the pile I’ll try to reoprt back more regularly.