Cooking with Sylvia

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Apricots and cream cheese, basil and bay leaves – Sylvia Plath’s shopping-lists were works of art in themselves. Sally Bayley delves into her diaries to find out more…

Writing from Cambridge, England, in 1957, the budding future writer Sylvia Plath tells herself to ‘set each scene deep, love it like a faceted jewel.’ Plath’s writing instructor persona is very firm: ‘Set the scene the night before. Sleep on it, write it in the morning.’ But the 25-year-old graduate student and newly-wed writer is distracted. Moments later she wanders off into a list of morning errands she has run, which include sending off a batch of her husband’s (Ted Hughes) poems to The Saturday Review of Literature and filling her ‘black patent leather bag with sherry, cream cheese’ (to accompany her Grandmother’s apricot tart), ‘thyme, basil, bay leaves . . . golden wafers . . . apples and pears.’

In truth, Plath would rather go on a picnic than sit down to one of her virtuously planned exercises. She would rather be crossing Grantchester Meadows laden with souvenir edibles – ‘Grammy’s apricot tart’ and one of her friend’s ‘Wendy’s exotic stews’ – than accumulating written reports of Cambridge for the sake of her future (writer) self.

For Plath, food is a return to a younger body. Her picnic foray is an Enid Blyton version of herself; an exuberant school girl indulged by a beneficent Aunt Fanny who doles out lashings of ginger beer and Eccles cakes. Plath loves food because food is imaginatively generous. It is exotic, like Wendy’s stew, but also indulgent. Food is related to a juvenile form of freedom, a Pickwickian style of roaming that happily marries decadent picnics and the picturesque: the ‘hawthorn hedges and the squirrel tree’ with sherry and cream cheese.

But before long Plath interrupts her decadent dream and turns to the ‘stodgily practical’ business of domestic life. She wonders how on earth she can combine the roles of housewife and writer. How will the two ever live happily ever after? She anxiously searches for role models. Then she remembers Virginia Woolf who, days before her death, is writing up a home-cooked menu of haddock and sausages. She feels relieved. Writers, she concludes, can turn to cooking as a treatment for the pain of rejection and anxiety. Writers can also be practical or fanciful cooks.

Sally Bayley is the author of the recently published, The Private Life of the Diary, from Pepys to Tweets (Unbound, 2016), which tells a coming of age story through diary-writing. The Private Life of the Diary was a Penguin Must-Read book: ; you can also hear Sally talking about the art of diary writing on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought

To make an apricot tart similar to Sylvia’s Grammy’s, visit: