Trillim Cooks Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake

Well, the year is ending, and with it comes the end of my posting Trillim’s work on BCC, much to the sorrow of both of you reading them. I gave myself until the end of the year to post those I thought most amenable to separate short (ha ha) postings. I will go back to more regular posts (I’ve actually been on a bit of hiatus), with diatribes on Climate Change, Evolution, and Ecology as I sees her.

However the Trillim work continues and I hope a volume of selections from the Trillim Archives will appear in the near future. However, the other entries are far longer even than the longer postings I’ve provided. These will likely be removed should the Archive go to press, so read them soon. They may be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and a recent book can be found here.

The following was written shortly after her cruise to Rome in which she discovered what people-objects were, and prior to Trillim’s losing her right hand and her two year imprisonment in Southeast Asia. As always her life’s work has been to explore the connections between things: People, ecologies, and objects of all types large and small. This is one of my favorites because of the pictures that scholars found in an envelope tucked in her journal.

I went down, down, down to the heart of an apple seed. I searched its depths, scouring under every stairway, to find its truth. I swept out the cobwebs of appearance, and dug into its hard subterranean earth to strike some vein of richness yielding its essence. Beyond color. Beyond size. Beyond smell, touch, and sound, and at its middle of being I found its unlimited capacity to hide, to withdraw into hidden passages, and to mask all its coordinates such that no map could be drawn. No logic yielded its ways and in the end what it yielded of itself was naught but a meager caricature–a smudge and a line drawing sketched from perceptions from what it was willing to disclose. I sigh at my failure.

Perhaps my approach was wrong. Perhaps to go in, to go down, I must go up. I must find all its fellows. Maybe, I’ll expand, and swell and enlarge myself and discover first hand the root of connecting patterns and in such webs see what can be netted. Perhaps as always, the best approach is to start with baking a cake.

How about this one? Sent to a friend by verdant and bright Emily Dickinson with this note and recipe:

Dear Nellie

Your sweet beneficence of bulbs I return as Flowers, with a bit of the swarthy Cake baked only in Domingo.


2 pounds Flour–
2 Sugar–
2 Butter–
19 Eggs–
5 pounds Raisins–
1 1/2 Currants–
1 1/2 Citron–
1/2 pint Brandy–
1/2 Molasses–
2 Nutmegs–
5 teaspoons–
2 teaspoons– Soda–

Beat Butter and Sugar together–
Add Eggs without beating–and beat the mixture again–
Bake 2 1/2 hours, or three hours, in cake Pan Cake pans or 5 to 6 hours in Milk pan, if full– [1]

And what is a recipe? The blueprint of an ecology. A harmony of relationships. The ideal form which every kitchen demiurge must try to instantiate in matter (so imperfect a substance!)–an act of creation from the unorganized material floating among the carbon/nitrogen offerings budding from the earth: flours, sugars, eggs, spices, flavors rich and varied. Endless mixtures and combinations creating worlds, nations, and countries undiscovered and lying curled snuggly in the capacious ether misting in cupboards and pantries well-stocked.

I start by taking raisins fashioned by grapes grown in the warmth of the San Joaquin Valley by a family who cherish their tended vines. These offerings are laid out on newspapers (published in Fresno) by workers from Mexico who have come to bless their wives and children back home and make for themselves a finer life then they would have otherwise. Graced by the sun, water is pulled through the fruit’s hide initiating chemical changes that draw into being flavors delicate and distinctly raisiny, signalled by a delectable dark blackening. Raisins, a gift from: grapes, sun, growers, Mexico, and a universe’s chemical underpinnings, and pulled from a box brought to me by a trucker and a grocer who have conspired under the rules of symbiosis to bring them dancing to my countertop.

I put these to soak in a brandy whose genesis was framed in a distant distillery in France from grapes of a different lineage, reared in soils whose ecology was conditioned by millions of years separation from the raisin’s sister-soil in California, each with communities of fungi and bacteria adding and enriching what flavors will emerge from the dark underpinnings of a thousand-trillion accidents. Then, aged in oak grown in the Tronçais forest, whose unique climate, soil, and woodland ecology create an oak with a density just so, to make a wooden plank which will author forth a firm and sturdy barrel, fashioned by a craftsman with the ken of five generations of barrel makers stored in his soul, a barrel which will slowly leach its own essence and nature into the brandy.

These are mixed and placed in a jar, made from the glass of sands, carved by modern ocean water lifted and transported by wind to rain down upon the pressed sedimentary sandstone of Jurassic river deposits themselves torn from ancient mountains long ago weathered to plains. Then beyond the material, scores upon scores of stories of how the glass factory was born through someone’s dreams, pain, and determination.

Trillim II

And so from around the world, gathered from ecologies many, from materials, objects, and substances with properties wrapped thick with the stuff of deep time and cantered across many spaces, and whose myriad stories of genesis and regenesis call and peep to one another in tangled networks, sits my jar upon the shelf with raisins soaking, creating a new flavor in the world.

And so it goes for the batter, with nutmeg from exotic islands grown among the palms of distant shores,

Trillim 1

And the sifted flour,

Trillim III

And the mixed and completed dough,

Trillim IV

Until after baking, this object, this cake is born into the world.

Trillim V

And the taste is subtle, a unique mix finished from staggering complexity, its creation an accident of unimaginable improbabilities and a network of earth processes and history. I picture in my mind the network of associations strung from wires connecting and fashioning the flavors. Wires running among the grapes of California, their growers, the newspapers which provided substrate for the ripening fruit, the oak of France, and on and on from the wheat farmer who grew the flour, to the sea captain who brought the cinnamon, to cows who provided milk for the butter from the grasses the bovines fed upon, to the slopes of Mauna Kea where sugarcane was grown and harvested. The wires may vary in thickness like the strings of a guitar, with thick wires between say the citron and current where the flavor connections are strong and thin wires between the wheat made into flour and the man who delivered the gasoline for the tractor which harvested the crop. I imagine these wires stretching into the past, perhaps to the Pleistocene which provided the material substrate for the soils of France, which add subtle shifts in the nuances of flavor gracing the cake. I wonder. Were I to pluck any string somewhere in this web of connection, how far would the vibrations propagate? Would there be any end to the music that would issue forth? The music expressed now as flavor. In my cake.

Which all started with some tulip bulbs gifted by a friend and a favor returned.

[1] Recipe from– Millar, J. 2011. Black Cake (A Recipe from Emily Dickinson, for Emily Dickinson). Collapse VII. July. p. 411.


  1. I, for one, would love to read a book of Trillim.

  2. Oh how I’ll miss these posts!

  3. I just wonder where Ms. Trillim finds brandy in Utah Valley, and what the BYU thought police have to say about it.

  4. The wonderful Ms. Trillim’s fascination with causes, proximate and distant, is positively Buddhist. May we meet Gilda again in a future incarnation!

  5. I have loved all of Ms Trillims posts, many of which lead me to believe she might have quantum leaped into my childhood a time or two. Reading these posts is like visiting with an old friend and I can’t wait to get my hands on a hard copy.


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