Eating Like Sylviaby Aurora Huiza
Sylvia Plath is talked about often in the same tired ways. She’s a cultural cipher for the sad and teenaged, as if it’s bad or immature for young people to like her writing. Plus, everyone compulsively thinks of her head in the oven. Like many girls in their early teens I was always drawn to her intensity, to the fluctuating moods in her writing. But all I actually knew about her personal life was her death. Later on, in college, my T.A. lectured for maybe five minutes about Plath, before concluding by saying “sometimes she romanticized her depression.” Then he moved onto Ginsberg for forty-five minutes. Knowing both Plath herself and her work more intimately was something I would do on my own.
Over the years, I read more. It was recently that I read through her journal entries and letters. She was introspective and sensitive, detailing things as simple and standard as dates with boys with an articulate grimness:
It was inestimably important for me to look at the lights of Amherst town in the rain, with the wet black tree-skeletons against the limpid streetlights and gray November mist, and then look at the boy beside me and feel all the hurting beauty go flat because he wasn’t the right one—not at all.
In other entries, I see a certain buoyant excitement for her future that sometimes surfaces, that someday she’d be happy. It also becomes clear that one source from which she consistently derives immense pleasure is food— not only in preparing and eating it, but also in searching for the exact language with which to describe it.
The white hard boiled egg, the green head of lettuce, the two suave pink veal chops dared me to do anything with them, to make a meal out of them, to alter their single, leaden identity into a digestible meal.
Like my T.A. mentioned off-hand, there are profuse accusations of her supposed romanticization of both sadness and of food. I personally think these accusations are dull and unnecessary, and that there’s no need to assign a good or bad label to romanticization in the first place. I like romanticization; I think sometimes that’s what people feel they must do with pain. I’m also not sure what anyone would do without reading their pain reflected back at them through others. More to the point, even to say that she romanticizes her depression is inaccurate and reductive. The act of mentioning sadness or mentioning food isn’t inherently romanticization, and neither are her dissections of her moods, nor the beauty and specificity of the language she uses. I actually think her talent lies in making her sadness seem exactly as horrible as it was.
She describes food meticulously and associates it with her emotional states. When things go wrong, she figures dread through bad food:
Some sleep is like a pile of garbage, with egg shells jagged, and vermin swarming over lurid orange peels, coffee grounds and sick wan lettuce leaves; that is the sleep of nightmare fragments, when the operation or the exam is coming the next day.
Sleep goes rotten and it’s alarming how the joy drops out and the menace of what’s to come magnifies.
Plath mentions her snacks and recipes frequently, so I decided to try some to see if it would make me feel more connected to her, somehow. I wanted to eat like her, and to think about this intimate aspect of her life; to know her better, to make up for the adolescent years gone by when I didn’t know her. Some food combinations that she documents are more bizarre than others, or maybe just seem off-beat given the decades of difference between us. I was pleased to discover her love of the savory and salty because that’s what I like too. I just wanted to know how her food might make me feel, how much comfort or discomfort it might bring, how food would magnify my moods or change them. I wondered where our tastes and feelings might intersect and what more I could learn. I’m also a terrible cook and don’t know a lot about preparing food, so I thought that also might make things interesting.
“I strolled into the kitchen, dropped a raw egg into a teacup of raw hamburger, mixed it up and ate it.” 1963
I decided to start out strong. This one isn’t technically Sylvia herself, but it’s from The Bell Jar. I enjoyed the thrill of maybe getting salmonella. I was a little bit drunk when I got home one night, not in a bad mood, but not in the best mood, and geared up to eat something that looked like cat food and would make me feel terrible, or small in a sad, feline way.
And then it was totally bland and inoffensive. I wanted it to be way more abject than it was. The egg broke apart and basically disappeared once mashed into the cup with the ground beef. My roommate made sure to purchase higher quality ground beef knowing I was planning to eat it raw but I wouldn’t have known the difference. I tried adding excessive amounts of spices—I shook out salt, pepper, chili flakes, and onion powder. I mixed it around with a fork and carved out a hearty chunk. It still tasted pretty much like nothing, just wet and vaguely unpleasant, absorbing and folding the spice into itself like a sponge. Then I spread it on toast, like pretending it was actually beef tartare. Still nothing. A genuinely flavorless dish.
I don’t know why she writes that Esther ate this. I was mildly annoyed it didn’t trigger something more wretched in me, because it seemed like one of the more fun, gross receipts. I felt weird after having eaten half of a teacup of raw meat.
“I drink sherry and wine by myself because I like it and I get the sensuous feeling of indulgence I do when I eat salted nuts or cheese; luxury, bliss, erotic-tinged.” 1953
I didn’t necessarily feel sensual eating cheese and nuts. I felt a little sad, actually. It was a Tuesday and I’d been busy, running around doing errands. I was sweaty and tired and hungry, so I stopped by my home to eat this combination, though I really just wanted a deli sandwich. It was nearing 6 so I poured some red wine to go along with it. I love cheese. This was Gruyere—richly harsh, stiff. I cut myself another slice or two. I actually could’ve eaten the whole block and wanted to put aside the knife and just bite into it, but I didn’t. Even though I was alone, I suspected it might’ve made me feel sick and vaguely disgusted with myself. I was contemplating whether maybe, sometimes, Plath did that. In a few entries she’d written about how she’d over-eaten because certain dishes were so good, so I know she, too, had a capacity — a proclivity — for indulgence.
I was swaying absent-mindedly in my kitchen and then the song, I Never Knew Love Like This Before took its turn on my playlist. The song and wine masked my stress after a few sips. I don’t usually like nuts, but with the cheese, it was paired nicely. I felt briefly meditative and pleasantly alone before leaving my apartment again. More errands to run.
“I had a revulsion at the cold herrings on cold toast.” 1962
The herring was amazing. I’d never tried it before. I could imagine being repulsed in a different mood, maybe, but not really; it wasn’t that gross even if I tried to see it as gross. It was kind of limp, just floating, and the liquid it was kept in was sort of murky, not exactly pleasant to look at. I could sometimes be revolted by pickle juice in a similar way. But the kind of herring I bought was from Whole Foods, soaked in a wine sauce—salty and delicious, kind of tangy on a piece of warm grilled sourdough toast. The sauce itself tasted great.
My roommate and I liked the herring so much we threw it last minute onto some sandwiches the next day. We constructed sourdough sandwiches with mozzarella slices, thick tomato, and arugula. We added balsamic, salt, and pepper. Then seeing that we had herring left over in the fridge, we decided to add it too. It was salty and briny, and though it was at first unclear if this would actually jive with the rest of the flavors, it thankfully did. Our sandwiches bulged with herring, leaking balsamic onto the kitchen table.
It satisfied the fishy craving I have a few times a week. We both finished the herring within a couple of days. It’s definitely all about how the fish is flavored. The sauce it was kept in was left in our fridge for a few days, kind of milky-looking, and then again maybe I could understand certain revulsion.
“By the age of nine I had developed a passionate taste for cold vichyssoise and caviar and anchovy paste.” 1963
I found this disgusting. I love savory, fishy stuff but this wasn’t like the herring. I should’ve put the anchovy paste on a cracker to mute the taste, but couldn’t really even bear to because I didn’t like it; it was so disconcertingly salty and grey. I like anchovies on pizza and in some other contexts but this tasted too concentrated.
The caviar was cheap caviar — 20 dollars at Whole Foods — so that’s probably why it tasted so terrible. It was bright orange and bulbous and fun to look at but I didn’t want to eat any more than a bite. It actually made me upset, like I was eating fake food. This seemed to definitely be a matter of price range. Plath had access to finer foods, and this is when I realized this. I don’t know if she ever realized it herself, that she regularly ate things others couldn’t. I probably could have been more creative with my consumption of these things, even if they weren’t the highest quality, but I didn’t want to even try because I was so genuinely disgusted.
“My favorite dishes are full of butter and cheese and sour cream.” 1963
I mashed potatoes and added cheddar cheese, a few blobs of butter, and some scoops of sour cream. That’s when I guess one does start to wonder about her eating habits, about how conscious she was of staying thin and what exactly she thought of her body. The thought seemed too intimate, like prying, but I did wonder. Having had mildly disordered eating in the past, I started thinking briefly about calorie counts, dropping shreds of cheddar cheese into the pot over the stove, watching them cling to the potatoes before mixing them away.
The potatoes turned out so cheesy they were tinted orange. This was a comfort food I remembered always loving, and my roommate and I scraped the pot clean eating all of it. I served it with breaded panko chicken and some green beans I lazily fried with butter, salt and pepper. It was more of a classic and satisfying dinner than I ever usually cook and I did it by myself, which made me feel vaguely accomplished, contentedly domestic. My roommate, shocked by my solo arrangement of a full course meal, told me it was like Christmas dinner.
“Making mayonnaise, and it coming out well.” 1957
I was warned by my friends it would be very difficult to make—all this talk about the emulsion—and that it would not come out well. I was nervous. Not too nervous, because I love mayo. But nervous because I don’t understand emulsion, and I knew it would be unsuccessful.
It was severely unsuccessful. It got tedious and my arm got tired, and it didn’t turn out well at all. I was whipping it best I could but it was stubborn. It was clear I needed an actual food processor to be able to mix vigorously while slowly incorporating the canola oil in a steady stream; regrettably, I have only two arms.
I tried tasting just a bit, and I thought I could see how this could potentially transmogrify into mayo. I couldn’t get the texture right at all—the thick consistency. I also realized that, as far as cooking goes, I give up too quickly. Sylvia worked at cooking the way she worked at getting the right words for things. In her journal, she’ll even string some through a sentence like she isn’t sure yet which one is quite right.
…the central need of my nature: to be articulate, to hammer out the great surges of experience jammed, dammed, crammed in me…
Persistence and exactness are both key and I guess I don’t always know how to make myself keep cooking when it’s going totally awry. It appears my friends were right.
Sylvia’s Heavenly Sponge Cake 1959
This was by far the most successful! I had my friend who’s a very talented cook help me make it. I’d never made a cake before because I’ve never liked it. It’s too sweet and I always turn it down at parties. But this was a sponge cake so I thought it might taste more muted, more lemony than outright sweet.
She told me I’d need to use a mixer to fluff up the egg whites successfully, so I went over and borrowed the one she owned. I realized how poorly I’d tried whisking the mayo and how naïve I’d been. We separated the egg whites and watched them fluff up in the KitchenAid like clouds, and it made me think it was right Plath called the cake heavenly. I learned whisking technique from my friend and forcefully stirred the yolks separately, making a figure-eight shape, and added the rest of the ingredients. We folded the batter into itself. We placed a glass in the center of the baking pan, then poured in the batter so there’d be a hole in the cake, like Plath writes in her recipe that there should be. It’s unclear why exactly, but we agreed it looked nicer that way. We sprinkled sugar on top and placed it in the oven. Then we made whipped cream and decorated it with blackberries.
The cake was heavenly—brightly flavored and yellowish and mildly sweet with baked sugar on top. It was lemony, and not too dry or moist. We were picturing Sylvia in heaven with wings watching us through the bright blue window in my friend’s kitchen, spilling light across the kitchen countertops. We imagined she would be happy that she made us happy with her cake. This was when I felt most connected to her, in a very simple way. I felt grateful for Plath and her cake, and knew then that she sought out pleasure and happiness where she could find it, and often tried baking it herself.
Aurora Huiza is from Los Angeles and most recently lived in Brooklyn. She studies fiction at the Syracuse MFA program. Her writing and interviews can be found online at Entropy Magazine and Neutral Spaces among others.