If you don’t know anything else about Sylvia Plath, you probably know how she died. Although she remains one of America’s best-known and best-loved poets, her literary legacy is often overshadowed by her death, the mental health issues that led to it, and her troubled marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes. As readers, or even just members of a mainstream audience in which it is hard to avoid being aware of Plath to some extent, we tend to assume that she lived as she died: a shell of a cold and constantly depressed woman, a ghost even when she was alive.
This is partly because of the transparency and eloquence with which Plath wrote about her experience with mental illness, but also because, as a society, we love our women who are dead, tragic and beautiful. Given our cultural obsession with beautiful doomed women, it’s easy to fetishize Plath’s death and the tragic circumstances of her life and mental state that precipitated it. Much like Marilyn Monroe, Plath has become the poster child for a certain kind of sad, troubled femininity, characterized by a brand of intellectualized desperation embraced by female students who read performatively. The glass bell and I love Lana del Rey. When you think of Sylvia Plath, you think of depression and the absence of life.
In a certain increasingly popular corner of Twitter, however, we see a different version of Sylvia Plath, one who reveled in earthly pleasures and relished the opportunity to provide and consume her sustenance. Sylvia Plath’s food diary, which goes by the handle @whatsylviaate, is an ongoing anthology of whenever Plath mentioned food in his writings — which, as it happens, was quite often. Since March 2020, writer Rebecca Brill organized Plath’s “taste dispatches” in the form of decontextualized quotations from the poet’s diaries and letters, as well as his published works, including short stories, essays, poems, and The glass bell (Plath’s only published novel). Each week, the artist Lily Taylor illustrates a tweet from the account.
In Sylvia Plath’s Food Diary, the artist raves about “gooey macaroni and cheese”, enjoying “a delicious steak dinner” or “devouring raspberry pies”. There are mid-century oddities, of course – “white fish paste [with] fruit compote” or a raw egg dropped into “a cup of raw burger tea” – and not all of his gourmet dishes the experiences are entirely positive: sometimes she suffers from “bad minestrones in Soho” or vomits meatloaf. But overall, the result is a delightful, surprisingly soothing, and generally joyful portrait of a woman who lived, loved it, and embraced the beauty and pleasure of taste indulgence.
“Plath really loved food, and I think her love of food sums up her zest for life, which people don’t often associate with Sylvia Plath,” Brill says, noting that food and cooking figured prominently. in the published works of Plath. “For Plath, food was often a source of pure pleasure.”
Since Brill launched the project in 2020, the account has amassed nearly 45,000 followers. While Brill – who is also behind a similar account called Susan Sontag’s Diary — says she “definitely didn’t expect it to take off like this,” she has a few theories as to why Sylvia Plath’s food diary has become so popular.
“I think part of the appeal here is the unexpected. In popular culture, Plath, because of the morbidity of her poetry and because of her famous suicide, is often seen as lifeless and anemic, dead even while alive,” Brill says. “His food writing counters that trope and demonstrates that other side of his character that truly relished earthly delights.”
For many of the casual Plath admirers who stumbled across Brill’s account, myself included, Plath’s seemingly uncontrolled love of food is perhaps the most surprising part of Sylvia Plath’s food diary. In excerpts from Brill’s tweets, Plath’s odes to food rarely, if ever, seem encumbered with the guilt, shame or self-censorship with which we tend to assume that women – especially of the time of Plath – address food.
This burdenless embrace of consummation contradicts another common misconception about Plath’s life: that in addition to being fundamentally lifeless, joyless, and ascetic, Plath was also anorexic. This notion is driven, in part, by the fact that Plath was thin, but also because we tend to assume that all women, especially the sadder ones, have eating disorders. The internet remains plagued with speculation — or sometimes outright guesses — that Plath was battling an eating disorder. As Jean Fain noted in a 2013 Huffpost article, “legions of women with eating disorders” online identify with the poet.
And yet, no compelling evidence to suggest that Plath struggled with eating disorders appears to exist. We know that she gained weight while on insulin treatment following a suicide attempt, was aware of it, and then lost the weight. But overall, Plath’s relationship with food seems to have been pure joy. Even when she writes about excess, it is happily: I ate so much I couldn’t handle supper and left feeling most at home and happy 3/17/55.
As biographer Plath Elizabeth Winder, author of Pain, Holidays, Work, told Fain, “Sylvia Plath simply loved food as she loved the material world so much. From her journals, you could tell she liked to eat. According to Winder, “She didn’t see food as fuel, she saw it as an experience to be enjoyed.”
That’s not to say that people who have struggled with eating disorders can’t and don’t enjoy food – many of us do and do it immensely – and, of course, there’s always the possibility that Plath struggled with eating disorders at times. point in his life. (Some of us may have found our interest a little too piqued by a recent out-of-context food diary Tweeter in which Plath writes about “knee[eling] over a toilet bowl and vomit[ing] cake and ice cream. Still, Plath’s experience with food, at least as it appears in her writings, seems refreshing and joyful and untainted by the shame and rebuke that still so often mar women’s relationship to food. .
Of course, as Brill noted in an interview with Lula, one has to wonder if this revelation of Plath’s hearty appetite would be so well received if it weren’t for a thin woman. “I often wonder if her consumption of large (often ‘fattening’) meals would be less appreciated if she weren’t a slim, conventionally attractive young white woman,” Brill told the magazine. Yet it is refreshing to see a woman – especially one from Plath’s time, and especially a walking dead, too acetic and ethereal to be troubled by the joys of the physical world – enjoying food with the enthusiasm poetics of Plath.
By documenting Plath’s zeal for food and cooking, the project also liberates the poet from the distressed mid-century housewife stereotype she is so often drawn to embody. Brill notes that Plath’s writing sometimes reveals a tension between his art and his domestic obligations: God, do I have to waste it cooking scrambled eggs for a man? 1951. But on the whole, Plath seems to have enjoyed cooking, turning to it for peace, distraction and pleasure, rather than as an obligation of his home chains.
“Like many female writers, she saw cooking as a calming creative practice, something to retreat to when writing was difficult or tense,” says Brill, adding that Plath’s descriptions of the food she prepared in avoiding writing are often “some of his most vibrant, exciting, and bizarre poems – even though they weren’t meant that way.
For Brill, Plath’s true love for eating and preparing food also helps him reclaim his kitchen space: “The oven does not become a site just for death, but also a site for cakes and stews, pies and legs of lamb, that is, life.”
Through the eyes of Sylvia Plath’s food diary, Plath is not just one of our tortured dead beautiful girls, nor the desperate ’60s housewife killed by the instrument of her oppression. She is a woman who eats and drinks with relish, sometimes to excess, who craves and delights in earthly pleasures both simple and extravagant. In short, the one who lives.
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