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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Sylvia Plath & Tomato Soup Cake

Cooking was the other important activity in her life. It was a passion in the same way that poetry was a passion. Something she couldn’t leave alone. Between and along with writing her great poems, Lady Lazarus, Daddy, or Medusa, Sylvia would be thinking on custard or banana bread or buying the lamb for the evening meal, or, perhaps, poring over another of her recipe books.

Sylvia’s favourite recipe book was The Joy of Cooking, the book that was put together by the widowed Irma S. Rombauer, who collected recipes from her neighbours, and self-published it in 1931.

At the beginning of her relationship with Ted Hughes, Sylvia was cooking complicated meals on a single gas ring in the kitchen they shared together. It was then that she wrote home to her mother asking her to put the “blessed Rombauer” in the post.

When she discovered that Virginia Woolf got over her depressions by cleaning the kitchen, and cooking haddock and sausage, Sylvia understood completely. “Bless her,” she said.

On the 11th February 1963 Sylvia Plath put a cushion on a shelf in the oven. She knelt in front of the oven, switched on the gas and laid her head on the cushion. She was found dead several hours later. Bless her.

Sylvia used the recipe from the Joy of Cooking. My recipe may be slightly different:
Sift two cups Organic plain white flour with
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon each of nutmeg and mixed spice
1 teaspoon baking soda
In a separate bowl cream until soft 75 grams butter
Gradually stir in 1 cup Demerara sugar and cream the two together.
Stir the flour mixture in thee parts into the sugar mixture, alternating with
10 and ½ fluid ounces Organic tomato soup
and stir until smooth after each addition.
Finally, fold in 1 cup mixed sultanas and chopped prunes
and 1 cup almonds chopped in half (if you like it crunchy) or smaller.
Bake at gas mark 4 for 45-50 minutes in the centre of the oven.
When cool you can serve with cream cheese, a dash of lemon juice and whatever liqueur you fancy.
But I enjoy the cake unadorned with a small chunk of sweet and nutty flavoured Jarlsberg cheese from Norway.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
(from Lady Lazarus )

14 Responses to “Sylvia Plath & Tomato Soup Cake”

  1. Did you intend the reader (this one anyway) to undergo a visceral disconnect? By dispensing with any break between between Sylvia’s Plath’s cushion in the oven–never heard the suicide described quite like that–and the very peculiar blood-red soup transformed into cake, for a microsecond you led me to wonder if the soup and sultanas through miraculous alchemy were going to recall the woman poet so that there she was in your kitchen, adjusting the cushion on the middle rack of your oven, set to 350 degrees. This followed immediately by the quote from Lady Lazarus compounded my fleeting impression. Fantastic technique for fiction, John.

    jb says: No, I didn’t ‘get’ any of that. What I did get was the strange irony between a woman who spent a lot of time in her kitchen, who was hooked on putting things into the oven and transforming them from one state to another, who, finally, put herself into the thing.

  2. MissMeliss says:

    I was going to write, rather lamely, that I ‘like’ this post, but that’s not the right word. Forgive my stumbling – I’m hopped up on Nyquil (which is largely green dye, alcohol, and licorice flavoring) and so congested my hearing’s all off-balance.

    I like that she cooked. I like that you followed this entry with a recipe, though for a moment, I thought it was your suicide note, which would have been extremely creepy.

    And yes I see the irony, of quietly killing oneself with the oven one has used to feed others.

    jb says: Are you looking after yourself? I had some of the cake today. I see you’re another user of The Joy of Cooking. (It’s known in the trade as The Joy, did you know that?) Amazing how many people still use that book.

  3. […] slept a lot, tried to breathe. Slept more, finished a book, went blog cruising and found a great John Baker about Sylvia Plath and cooking. (I also turn to The Joy of Cooking for recipe help at […]

  4. amy says:

    An extremely interesting look into Sylvia’s life – thanks for posting. On a separate note, tomato soup cake was always what I wanted (and got) as a birthday cake growing up. I’m 32 now and I still make it on occasion.

    jb says: We never had tomato soup cake when I was a kid, Amy. Had to wait until I was fully grown up and make it myself.

  5. Diane says:

    Kind of an odd comment here…. but I accidentally stumbled across your blog and felt a kinship. You see my blog is titled Tomato Soup Cake. Yep, that’s really the name! I’m afraid it’s no way near as sophisticated and literary as yours though;-)

    jb says: Hi Diane. Sylvia would’ve just loved your site. I certainly do.

  6. ninchce says:

    Your recipe is so interesting and I’d like to try!

    jb says: Don’t forget to tell us how it works out, ninchce

  7. Jessica says:

    stumbled upon this blig and feel compelled to say it is one of the few i can bear, i like it keep it up. meanwhile i will delve through the archive

    jb says: I hope you don’t change your mind while in them there archives, Jessica.

  8. Christina says:

    The ingredients are easy to get for me. Guess I’m going to try it out for myself.

    jb says: Hi Christina. I don’t find cakes easy. Need more practise I guess. But it’s a way of focussing on Sylvia, thinking about her thinking her way through it. Plus, you can eat it later.

  9. Gabriel says:

    John… I used to read Slyvia Plath back in University in South America… the idea of mixing poetry, irony and cooking is simply fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

    jb says: Some things just fit together, Gabriel.

  10. Claire says:

    The recipe is kind of odd… and interresting!

    Cooking is an adventure, it is those kind of recipes that makes cooking an art. Tomato and cake just do not sound right to my ear, and that is exactly why I will try your recipe, and I am pretty sure it will be one of the tastiest cakes I will ever bake.

    Thank you!

  11. T, says:

    We’re having a Plath party with dinner and a double feature film (Sylvia and The Bell Jar). I’ll make this for dessert, thanks.

  12. May Smit says:

    so I’m doing a report for school and was curious if was a cake or a soup. it sounded to me like it was a cake not a soup. But i’m not quite sure if someone would please tell me that would help me much. it sounds good. of only i were a good cook.

  13. […] to the following takes on the Tomato Soup Cake which I used to inform my own: John Baker’s Blog and Kate Moses writing for The […]

  14. jane agustian says:

    a nice blog about the bell jar and sylvia