Baking, especially baking bread, is one of those activities that is perennially nerdy-cool, like knitting or discussing artisan teas. If you’ve ever talked with rhapsodic satisfaction about your sourdough starter, you’re a part of it. But you’re not the first.
Elizabeth Bishop was one of the earliest to recognize the proto-hipster qualities of baking from scratch, after the 1920s inventions of Betty Crocker mixes and Wonder Bread made it unnecessary. “My part-time work at present seems to be baking bread,” she wrote to Robert Lowell in 1960, adding presciently, “it sounds food-faddish I’m afraid.”
Although she was always an occasional baker, making treats for cake sales and birthdays, it wasn’t until landing in Brazil in 1951 that Bishop made it a habit. Her trip, which began as a travel fellowship, turned into a 15-year stay, and she soon became a very popular neighbor thanks to one of her signature recipes: brownies.
The earliest published recipes for brownies appeared in Chicago and New England the early 1900s, but according to Bishop they hadn’t made it to South America by the 1950s. Her version was an instant hit. “Since Brazilians are mad about anything chocolate … I have been requested to bring along 4 dozen brownies (something I’ve introduced to Brazil) and a large chocolate cake,” she writes to Lowell in the fall of 1957. “You see how innocent our lives are here—just making money and eating sweets.”
There’s an intimacy about baking, which might be why I always like to celebrate Valentine’s Day with homemade desserts. But reading from the correspondence between Bishop and Lowell is just as romantic to me – no bodice-ripping, but plenty of wit, flirtation, and the kind of tenderness that bespeaks a very deep love.
* * *