When J.D. Salinger passed away in 2010, a media frenzy broke loose, rehashing every lurid detail of the intensely private Salinger’s life, and adding previously unknown biographical tidbits—none of them particularly flattering. It was during this time that I learned about his tumultuous relationships with young girls, his religious practices, his work habits, his sexual dysfunctions, his paranoias. I learned, too, about his eating habits, which included a strict, organic and macrobiotic diet. He avoided cooking any of his food, if possible, believing that “cooking food robs it of all of its natural nutrients,” and when he did cook it, he was very specific about his methods and his cooking oils. He avoided pasteurized dairy products, “refined foods like sugar and white flour—even whole wheat flour, honey, and maple syrup.” His famously spurned lover, Joyce Maynard, said in her memoir that for breakfast they would eat whole grain bread and frozen peas, and for dinner, “bread, steamed fiddlehead ferns, apple slices, and sometimes popcorn.” If they had meat, it was “barely cooked organic ground lamb.” Maynard also claims that after going out to eat pizza with his son, Salinger would make himself vomit in order to “rid is body of impure food.”
This post has been a long time coming. I’ve baked and photographed and eaten this coconut cake three times with the intention of sharing the recipe here, but up until now, you have not seen it. The problem wasn’t that the cake or the photographs weren’t good enough, the problem was that I couldn’t decide which story to connect this cake to. There is coconut cake in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, it even recently got a small mention in Ruth Reichl’s new novel, Delicious! I’ve been avoiding what I know is the best option—Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Things that never can come back, are several”– which she wrote in scratchy but elegant handwriting on the back of a recipe for coconut cake. It is one of my favorite poems, but gut-wrenching enough that a giant, flamboyant coconut cake has never felt appropriate. This is hard when a giant, flamboyant coconut cake is what your heart craves, and nothing else—not even homeliest but most delicious coconut quickbread—will do.