The Happy Booker is happily tired after attending last night's Pen/Faulkner reading and hearing so many writers offer their take on Revenge. We will send a complete report later, perhaps before we rush out to teach or pick up kids or have a second cup of coffee. For now we've got a guest essay by Janis Cooke Newman, author of Mary, a historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln. Newman will be reading at Chapters tomorrow night at 7pm.
Newman's essay on baking and the writer's process has sparked the very first Happy Booker Bake-Off Contest. The first person to follow Newman's recipe and send us a photo of the cake and quick report will win a free copy of Mary and one LBC nominated book of their choice.
Readers, start your ovens!
Guest Essay by Janis Cooke Newman
I am elbow-deep in almond-scented batter trying to figure out what Mary Todd Lincoln was thinking when the spirit of her dead son, Willie, came to her during a séance. The batter is for a white cake, which -- according to my cookbook, Lincoln’s Table by Donna D. McCreary, a volume that resides in what I have come to think of as my personal Lincoln Library – was invented by a Monsieur Giron of Lexington, Kentucky, Mary’s hometown. The cake was intended for the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825, and was such a triumph, the recipe was begged by the Todd ladies, who turned it into a family staple. Mary Todd made the vanilla/almond cake for Abraham Lincoln when they were courting. She continued to make it after she became a wife and a mother; and after she was a First Lady (although I suspect that by then, she had somebody else grate the almonds for her).
I know all this about Mary Todd Lincoln because I am also elbow-deep in a historical novel about the problematic wife of the 16th President. It’s a book I’m writing in first-person, in Mary’s voice, one that is nothing like my own. Mary Todd Lincoln was a well-educated woman from a Southern family. (I am from New Jersey.) She spoke French; and she possessed a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor. Each morning, before I begin writing, I open a book of her letters and read until I imagine I can sound like her.
Thinking like her is more challenging.
In most fiction, you create your characters, fill them with desires, and then send them off to do things. In historical fiction, your characters have already done everything, and it’s up to you to figure out why.
I’d spent the hour before tackling Monsieur Giron’s recipe staring at a blank computer screen trying to figure out why Mary Lincoln was so sure it was her son who came to her during séance. I’d gone through every book I had on Spiritualism, when I spotted, at the bottom of the pile, my copy of ‘Lincoln’s Table.’ (I had been researching the ingredients in buttered crab, a dish which was frequently served at the Lincoln White House). Suddenly, whipping up the white cake seems a very good idea, a sort of literary method acting -- and much easier than buttered crab.
Now, however, as I attempt to fold stiffened egg whites into thick batter, I am not so certain. And then it comes to me – almonds. Willie’s skin could smell like almonds. And that smell, the scent of her son’s skin, is what makes Mary know that the spirit is his.
It takes me two more years to write my novel. And many more white cakes. Mary’s cake becomes for me, a version of Proust’s madeleine, a way into her (fictional) memory. I bake it when I need to know how Mary felt when she watched her husband die, when she was called ‘the most hated woman in America,’ when she was committed by her eldest son to the lunatic asylum. And in the process, I discover why baking can be so satisfying for a writer – because after two hours, you KNOW you’ll have a cake.
The morning before my book release party, I am once again elbow-deep in almond-scented batter. I am making Mary’s white cake for that night’s reading, using it to entice my friends to come; telling them it isn’t often you have an author bake for you. But that isn’t the real reason I am turning my (very small) kitchen into a bakery. Feeding them the white cake feels necessary, a way of reaching across history, as if it would be impossible to understand Mary’s story unless you had first filled your mouth with the vanilla/almond sweetness of her cake. And as I fold in the egg whites (at which experience has made me no better) I find myself wishing I could bring a slice of white cake to everyone who reads the book.
Especially if I can get somebody else to make it.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s White Cake
(adapted from Lincoln’s Table by Donna D. McCreary)
1 cup blanched almonds, chopped in a food processor until they resemble a coarse flour.
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
6 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease & flour a bundt cake pan.
Cream butter and sugar. Sift flour and baking powder 3 time. Add to creamed butter and sugar, alternating with milk. Stir in almonds and beat well.
Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into the batter. Stir in vanilla extract.
Pour into prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Turn out on a wire rack and cool. When cool, sift confectionary sugar over top.