Sylvia Plath’s Tomato Soup Cake (and other baking exploits)

plath tomato soup cake

‘Cake imagery in the writings of Sylvia Plath’ is an underexplored literary topic, but if anyone can take it on, marginalia maestro Jonathan Law can…

On a damp afternoon in May, enraged cake-obsessive ‘ianf’ posted a plea for more serious treatment of his favourite subject:

You seem to be stuck forever in some make-believe land where Humanity’s Primary Dessert, Cakes, DO NOT MATTER. Yet nothing could be further from the truth – which I’ll now expertly demonstrate by piling literary logick upon more literary logick—until you can’t take this anymo.

As part of his argument – which is far too complex and nuanced to be summarized here – Ian alluded to the baking exploits of the poet Sylvia Plath, and in particular her Tomato Soup Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (sounds disgusting but apparently delicious).

‘Cake Imagery in the Writings of Sylvia Plath’ is an underexplored literary topic but one that I am happy to broach here in the hope of placating Ian – and happy to pass on gratis to anyone casting about for that elusive PhD subject. Indeed, the failure to address this area of Plath’s sensibility seems quite puzzling, given the numerous references to cakes in her Journals and the wholly characteristic intensity she brings to descriptions of baking, frosting, and (of course) eating the things. Could it be that the subject of Plath and baking has been avoided out of a misplaced delicacy, because it sounds like some awful joke? (In case you’re not there yet, and to avoid circling the issue for the rest of this post: oven.)

As any reader of the unexpurgated Journals will know, cakes good, bad, and indigestible formed a major part of Plath’s daily experience – as was the case, no doubt, for millions of stay-at-home wives in those pre-feminist days of the 1950s and 60s. The poet was not only a keen baker but something of a connoisseur – a stern critic, too, when occasion demanded. Here, for example, are a moist handful of references from the last journal to survive, the one written in Devon (cream tea country) in early 1962:

a handsome fruit cake, with one quarter cut out … Green and red and brown fruit studded the bottom of the yellow slab sides, and it rose to a browned crown …

a big tea laid, scones, cream, cherry jelly; a chocolate cake with rich dark frosting …

a plate of absolutely indigestible “Black Walnut flavored” cupcakes from a Betty Crocker mix Mrs. Tyrer had dug out of her closet …

But there’s a lot more to it than this Keatsian responsiveness to the tastes and textures of our cake-crumb world. If Plath knew all about the Joy of Cakes, she was also aware of the dark side – the obsessive, immersive nature of the baker’s craft, the loaded associations with femininity and home-making, the trauma and shame of a bake gone bad. The earliest of her diaries, written at Smith College in 1951, contains this harrowing account of layer-cake disaster:

I headed back to the kitchen, where my layer cakes reposed. I couldn’t figure out how to turn them over so that the plates would hold the two cakes. I put the plates upside down on top of the layers as they sat on the rack and turned the racks over so that the plates would turn out rightside up … Lack of foresight was revealed when the heavy rack, turned over on top of the cakes, crushed deeply into them and crumbled large pieces from the edge. I had not made enough frosting to spread over the side of the cake to conceal the messy uneven edges, so I cut three pieces of the worst-looking part … They crumbled into little shapeless brown masses on the plates. So I hid them in a cupboard in order that no one would see them.

And then there is this sinister observation from the Plath-Hughes household in 1959 – an imagist poem in itself, as well as an omen suggesting more than culinary doom:

The chicken, raw, wrapped in paper in the icebox, dropped a drop of blood on my pristine white cheesecake.


More substantially, baking and kitchen-work figure in two ideas for short stories that Plath worked on in 1957-58 but never managed to complete. The lighter of these is a “modern pot & kettle story” called ‘Changeabout in Mrs. Cherry’s Kitchen’:

Shiny modern gadgets are overspecialized – long to do others’ tasks. Toaster, iron, waffle-maker, refrigerator, egg beater, electric fry-pan, blender. One midnight fairies or equivalent grant wish to change-about. Iron wants to make waffles … refrigerator tired of foods, decides to freeze clothes, toaster tired of toast, wants to bake fancy cake. Egg beater dizzy with whirring around decides to iron ruffly white blouse. Roasting spit wants to bake cookies. Dish-washer wants to cook. Disturbance caused by jealousy, return gladly after whirlwind experiment to doing best of own job.

If this sounds like a deeply conservative message – stick to what you know, you ‘tired’ toasters and dizzy egg-beaters! – a similar moral emerges from ‘The Day of the Twenty-four Cakes’, a tale of threatened yet victorious domesticity sketched out by Plath in July 1957:

THE DAY OF THE TWENTY-FOUR CAKES … woman at end of rope with husband, children: lost sense of order in universe, all meaningless, loss of hopes: quarrel with husband: loose ends, bills, problems, dead end. Wavering between running away or committing suicide: stayed by need to create an order: slowly, methodically begins to bake cakes, one each hour, calls store for eggs, etc. from midnight to midnight. Husband comes home: new understanding. She can go on making order in her limited way: beautiful cakes: can’t bear to leave them.

In her later development of the story, the wife (Ellen) is on the point of leaving her husband (Jock), who seems to be having an affair:

Compelled to leave something for children: their favorite cakes: starts baking. By compulsion, feels the need to keep on, orders four dozen eggs, confectioners sugar, measures out vanilla, baking powder: sense of order, neatness, creativeness. Born homemaker, sense of dignity, richness: knowledge that she’s what Jock really needs and wants. Trusts him to see it, too … Jock comes home, walks into kitchen: she is vital, flushed from baking, at peace with herself. Knows she will stick with him, and that he has truly come back to her. The last train to the city: she is dressed: just putting frosting on cupcakes.

Although this was written in the happiest days of the Plath-Hughes marriage, hindsight gives it a poignant edge; indeed, the denouement seems like a kind of wishful thinking before the event – in Sylvia’s case, there could be no “new understanding” through eggs, sugar, and baking powder, however manically deployed. ‘The Twenty-four Cakes’ is no great loss to literature, perhaps – but there’s something haunting in the compulsive nature of Ellen’s domesticity, her existential need to “go on making order in her limited way”. Plath seems both like and unlike the wife in the story: a kindred spirit in her craving for “order, neatness, creativeness” – and her need to please her husband – but unlike in having wider outlets for these urges. She could make cakes with the best of them, but she could also do the poems. A few days after writing this story sketch, Plath confided blissfully to her diary:

I feel good with my husband: I like his warmth and his bigness and his being-there and his making and his jokes and stories … and how he shows his gladness for what I cook him and joy for when I make something, a poem or a cake, and how he is troubled when I am unhappy and wants to do anything so I can fight out my soul-battles …

The equation cake = poem seems odd but on second thoughts is rather apt; in its combination of airiness and density a good cake is a lot like a decent poem, and no doubt vice versa.

That her fiercely undomesticated art might arise from the same impulse to order as her domestic goddess act is a paradox that Plath sometimes seemed to recognize. At other times, of course, household duties could feel like a dead weight choking any more adventurous form of creativity. In that same summer of 1957, after a day devoted to baking a pie, Plath worried that she was becoming:

too happily stodgily practical: instead of … writing – I go make an apple pie, or study the Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel. Whoa, I said to myself. You will escape into domesticity & stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.

But this feeling seems to have been the exception, not the rule. Even in the inspired desperate days that saw the writing of the Ariel poems, Plath carefully noted her baking routines in her daily calendar; this is how we know that she dug out her comforting tomato soup cake recipe on the day that she wrote Death & Co and that she made a lemon pudding cake – from that same Joy of Cooking – a few hours after releasing Lady Lazarus into the world.

Yes, baking is an art, like everything else. She did it exceptionally well. She did so it felt like hell. She did it so it felt real. I guess you could say she’d a call.

(OK, Ian?)

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor of reference books at Market House Books.
Share This Post

About Author Profile: Jonathan Law

Jonathan Law grew up in Westonzoyland, Somerset. He gained a degree in English from Oxford University and has subsequently followed a career in reference publishing. His books as editor or co-editor include European Culture: A Contemporary Companion (Cassell, 1993), The Cassell Companion to Cinema (1997), The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase and Fable (2002) , Perfect Readings for Weddings (Random House, 2007) and The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (2011). Since 2009 he has been a director of Market House Books Ltd. As well as being a regular contributor to The Dabbler, he has also written for the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed. His book The Whartons of Winchendon is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Jonathan lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and three children.

8 thoughts on “Sylvia Plath’s Tomato Soup Cake (and other baking exploits)

  1. Brit
    June 3, 2013 at 14:01

    Exhaustive, insightful, slightly barking – this is The Dabbler at its finest.

    Mind you, you should read Delia Smith’s poetry. Effing dark.

    June 3, 2013 at 14:46

    “Whatever you happen to think about when you think about Emily Dickinson, it’s probably unlikely that what first leaps to mind is an image of the Belle of Amherst stuffing her face with cake.” – unless, of course, you’re a Dabblerista – in which case it is probably the first image that springs to mind.

    Like Plath, Emily Dickinson was very, very keen on baking, and you can read more – following the above quotation – here:

    Rita Byrne Tull
    June 3, 2013 at 15:17

    Cakes and literature also feature in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. The 1950’s housewife who is reading Mrs. Dalloway has a baking disaster with a birthday cake. The scene symbolizes her frustration with her narrow life and leads to her running away, abandoning her husband and child to spend her time reading Virginia Woolf in a motel room.

  4. Worm
    June 3, 2013 at 18:47

    Genuinely fascinating JL, and truly dabbleresque!

    There must be a phd out there somewhere concerning the jungian implications of her demise culinaire, The Bell Jar especially is popular reading amongst ladies with eating disorders

    jonathan law
    June 4, 2013 at 12:05

    Should be added, perhaps, that Plath’s delight in the crusty, the crumbly, and the moist-but-strangely-resilient was not limited to cake crumb:

    As for minute joys … do you realize the illicit sensuous delight I get from picking my nose? I always have, ever since I was a child – there are so many subtle variations of sensation. A delicate, pointed-nailed fifth finger can catch under dry scabs and flakes of mucous in the nostril and draw them out to be looked at, crumbled between fingers, and flicked to the floor in minute crusts. Or a heavier, more determined forefinger can reach up and smear down-and-out the soft, resilient, elastic greenish-yellow smallish blobs of mucous, roll them round and jelly-like between thumb and forefinger, and spread them on the under surface of a desk or chair where they will harden into organic crusts. How many desks and chairs have I thus secretively befouled since childhood? Or sometimes there will be blood mingled with the mucous in dry brown scabs, or bright sudden wet red on the finger that scraped too rudely the nasal membranes. God, what a sexual satisfaction!

    • Brit
      June 4, 2013 at 13:11

      I feel ill.

    June 5, 2013 at 20:04

    Hi! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this site?
    I’m getting tired of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform. I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

Comments are closed.