The Poetry Of Sylvia Plath's Grocery List

Some believe that shopping lists reveal bits and pieces of a person's life, home, and comfort zones. Famous chefs such as Ina Garten and Rachael Ray have even shared their grocery lists, with included side notes, highlights, and handwritten scribbles. Ordinary folks' grocery lists have been collected and turned into art exhibits, books, and even character creations for performance artists. But few grocery lists are more revelatory than those of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sylvia Plath.

Plath was by no means considered "ordinary" in her professional or personal life. But the seemingly simple act of cooking often served as a connection between her poetry and inner struggles, and she worked through personal demons via her recipes. Her grocery lists themselves took on a poetic quality, reflecting a larger life dynamic that she recorded in her ongoing journals, which were later published posthumously. 

Plath's kitchen takes center stage in the journals, with myriad references to food, baking, shopping lists, and ingredients while planning meals and desserts. However, the entries were also interwoven with musings on feminism, motherhood, manuscripts, infidelity, domesticity, and deeply disturbing thoughts on death and her suicide attempts.

In 1961, Plath wrote that "We should have nothing to do but write and dream of strawberries and cream," via Lit Hub. But two years later, at age 30, Plath died by suicide in her kitchen.

Baking with struggles and hopes

Sylvia Plath's struggles and hopes were expressed equally through her sensory experience with food ingredients. The "smell of vanilla in a brown bottle" became "where magic mountains begin," while another day found her concerned about escaping into domesticity and stifling herself "by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter," via Lit Hub. 

Some journal dates link poems with her daily cooking. While writing "Death & Co.," a despairing and fatalistic poem, Plath was mixing up one of her go-to recipes, a red tomato soup cake handed down by her mother. That same mother gets criticized in the poem "Medusa," written the same day Plath whipped up some custard and banana bread

Even when merely describing a meal she'd eaten, Plath punctured the page with poetically biting words. In a 1952 journal entry, she described her coffee as scalding and her port wine as sharp, sweet, and startling, with a "sudden good sting behind the eyes," via Twitter. But she also wrote warmly of grape pie, ice cream, and easy laughter. Other entries in the ongoing diary include mundane grocery lists with items like quarts of milk, mayonnaise, and tomatoes, followed by descriptions of how she felt when purchasing them: "competent and matronly." Those feelings then propelled her to clean and reorganize her refrigerator.

The Joy of Cooking

From home kitchens to professional chefs, there's a fascination with the poetry of Sylvia Plath's cooking and grocery lists. Many conjure her memory by recreating renowned desserts such as lemon pudding cake, which Plath was baking while penning her dazzling dark "Lady Lazarus" poem.

Fortunately, Plath devotees can make their own dishes inspired by the poet. In a 1957 journal entry, Plath wrote that she was worried about becoming "too stodgily practical" after marrying fellow poet Ted Hughes, per The Guardian. So, instead of writing, she'd cook or study "The Joy of Cooking" by Irma S. Rombauer "like a rare novel." Earlier versions of the cookbook still exist, including one from 1975 that chefs have used to recreate their own versions of dishes Plath mentions in her journals.

Many have waxed poetic about Sylvia Plath's grocery lists and her obsession with baking. By 1957, the literary artist herself had described baking as a sort of taming mechanism. In a journal entry titled "TWENTY-FOUR CAKES," Plath wrote (per Lit Hub): "Wavering between running away or committing suicide. Stayed by need to create an order: slowly, methodically begin 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..."

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[Featured image by Bindingtheory via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 4.0]