In October 2020, I stumbled across my now most-treasured twitter account, @whatsylviaate, or ‘Sylvia Plath’s Food Diary’, curated by writer Rebecca Brill. Having studied English Literature at university, my following list comprises a multitude of writers, publishers and literary researchers (and also Rihanna) and thus my discovery was welcomed, though not at all surprising. Sylvia Plath – poet, novelist, mother; author of The Bell Jar and Ariel, possesses a darkened and convoluted legacy, her literary brilliance often eclipsed by accounts of depression, isolation and suicide. And yet, her many diaries, journals and poems exemplify her unbounding adoration of life’s simplest pleasures: swimming, nature, animals, her infant children’s tiny bodies, and the creation and consumption of food.
Throughout the second (and possibly toughest) national lockdown across Britain, I found solace in the daily posts of Plath’s culinary ruminations, and was often amused at the obscure descriptions of the epicurean delights of ‘50’s and ‘60’s America. Think tinned hotdogs, her ‘soggy sludgy mass of daily starch foods’, ‘white fish paste [with] stewed fruit.’ Though to the modern reader her meals may not sound most appealing, the account foregrounds Plath’s literary aptitude – sophisticated, delicate descriptions of morning, afternoon and midnight meals reflect the poet’s tenacious attempt at mitigating – and surviving – her own mental illnesses: ‘I can also write a letter, bake a good pie. Victories, however small. 11/1/57’
Since its inception in early 2020, @whatsylviaate has amassed almost 35,000 twitter followers, acquiring an artistic partnership with New York-based artist Lily Taylor, who beautifully illustrates the Sunday installments of Plath’s food diary. I have been lucky enough to interview writer and literary curator Rebecca Brill, who also pens the equally brilliant account ‘Susan Sontag’s Diary’ (sontagdaily). Brill talks Lula through her relationship with Plath’s writing, notions of feminine consumption and how she came to create such a luscious, poignant, Twitter-based diary.
Hello Rebecca, thank you for speaking with me today. How did you become an expert on Sylvia’s eating life, and what drew you to her musings on the subject?
I wouldn’t deign to call myself an expert on Sylvia Plath since there are so many wonderful and seasoned Plath experts out there like Heather Clark, who recently published an amazing Plath biography, and Jacqueline Rose, an amazing feminist poetry scholar. I did study English literature and gender studies as an undergraduate and recently received my master’s in creative writing. I’m more of a writer than a scholar (I write essays and am at work on my first book-length collection), and a lot of my interest in Plath is related to my being a writer. I read her for the first time as an aspiring poet in my early teens and was struck by her startling imagery, her urgent and vibrant use of language, and her honesty about the experience of being a young, depressed woman.
I revisited Plath’s diaries during the pandemic because I was considering doing something with them similar to my Sontag project. I was struck this time around by her beautiful, delicious, detailed and often very joyful descriptions of food and thought it might be interesting to exclusively curate those passages. What had been most satisfying to me during my curation of Sontag’s journals was excerpting passages that seemed really counter to culture’s idea of Susan Sontag: she’s seen as a cool, aloof figure constantly smoking cigarettes in black turtlenecks, but her journal is rife with moments self-doubt and anxiety and well, general uncoolness.
Because culture often sees Plath as a caricature of a sad girl–wan, humorless, anemic, anorexic—I thought it’d be interesting to use Plath’s love of food to show this other side of Sylvia that doesn’t fit in neatly with the aforementioned trope. In the food diary excerpts, Sylvia is very, very alive—cooking and eating insane-sounding multi-course meals on the single burner of her Cambridge dorm room, complaining about Ted’s mother’s cooking, getting drunk on Manhattans at a frat party, breaking up with men over pizza, devouring fried chicken and biscuits on a camping trip, etc.
I think the other reason I wanted to start an account devoted exclusively to documenting everything Sylvia Plath ever ate is that it’s kind of a lunatic thing to do. I tend toward the obsessive, the frivolous, the exhaustive, and the ostensibly purposeless. I wanted to celebrate these qualities, or at least render them un-shameful.
The other thing is that for me, the best part of literature is the food. I think food scenes kind of embody what makes books so magical: they manage to provide, simultaneously, fantastical escapism and realism so real you can taste it.
I can see you created Sontag’s virtual diary a few years prior to Plath’s, may I ask if/how the pandemic aided the project?
I felt like I needed a new project during the pandemic, and I had the time on my hands to meticulously comb through Plath’s entire oeuvre in search of references to food. I was living alone at the time and am not particularly good at feeding myself, so I think I was also looking for culinary inspiration.
You tweet so many hilarious, poignant and obscure food-focussed quotes from Plath, but are there any that have stayed with you, and why?
This entry Plath wrote while visiting Paris is technically two tweets because of the character constraint, but it makes me laugh:
‘I felt very uncomfortable because I knew I couldn’t afford to pay and would have to go without supper to make up for the extravagance which I didn’t even enjoy. While Tony and Sally ate several courses and wine, I just had a rather meager cold chicken with salad and water and coffee. I almost hoped that someone would accost me on the Champs and give me a sandwich, I was starving and a little faint from no supper. 3/27/56’
Plath, as we know, had a dramatic streak, and characterizing chicken, a salad, and a beverage as “no supper” and then creating an imaginary scenario in which someone both accosts and feeds her is just really funny to me. It also speaks to Plath’s appetites. A lot of people who follow the account are really surprised by how much Sylvia ate and loved to eat. This is in part, I think, because of the anorexic-anemic-depressive-woman trope I cited above and in part because Plath was thin.
People tend to respond positively to Plath eating heartily, and I often wonder if her consumption of large (often “fattening” meals) would be celebrated less if she were not a thin, conventionally attractive, young, white woman. I think it’s something to be wary of, and I don’t want the account to perpetuate the notion that only people in privileged bodies are allowed to have appetites, and moreover, celebrate those appetites.
I like passages like the one below, because they tie Plath’s literary practices to her eating habits. I think the world that poetry inhabits can often feel really separate from the “real” world, the world where people eat soup and hamburgers and pizza or bake cakes or drink shitty beer or buy a certain kind of ice cream because the store ran out of the other kind. To me, all that stuff is the stuff of poetry (it’s why I like Frank O’Hara so much), and so what’s exciting to me about curating Plath’s food diary is the reminder that the burger, the shitty beer, the ice cream is the poem. Here, poetry is literally fueling (and also inhibiting) Plath’s lunch:
‘We had tea opposite King’s, and a delicious supper of soups, stuffed tomatoes, turkey, lemon mousse & Chablis at a new posh restaurant. We didn’t have enough money for snails and venison, but are going back to eat them if I win any poetry money soon.’ 2/24/57
Also, I love every tweet Lily illustrates because her paintings lend richness, color, and new meanings to Plath’s culinary dispatches.
Lastly, how do you consider the relationship between femininity and food creation/consumption?
I think because of the rhetoric of the women’s liberation movement and second-wave feminism, people might view female domestic work, food preparation included, as a form of oppression (which in some cases, it is). It’s why the iconography of Plath’s gas-oven suicide looms so large in culture: the image of the unhappy fifties housewife using the tool of her own oppression to liberate herself in the most tragic way possible is compelling in its legibility and in its drama. Obviously, Plath’s suicide was more complicated than that, as was her relationship to the domestic. Sometimes, her duties as a wife and homemaker were oppressive to her, and just as often, according to her journal and letters, she took real pleasure in them.
And a lot of times, Sylvia’s food experiences had nothing to do with her uxorial duties, either because she was cooking and baking just for herself or because she was eating somewhere outside her home (like a restaurant). Mostly, she just really loved eating good food, and to me, it is in her descriptions of good food that Sylvia seems truly free—unrestricted in her appetites and in her language and able to forget, at least momentarily, her suffering.