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Kitchen Witchery

By (February 1, 2015) No Comment

When I was a little girl, my maternal grandmother was the librarian at The Boys’ Home. It wasn’t the first library she had worked in, but she seemed to find it more rewarding than some of her previous, calmer gigs. kitchRuth (that was her name) was a tiny, birdlike woman, with short-cropped white-silver hair, bright blue eyes behind her glasses, and skin so pale you could see her aggressively azure veins as though they were adornment — though when it came to actual jewelry, she had a pronounced fondness for earth-toned scarabs. She was both a staunch Christian and an almost belligerently free thinker (“Being Episcopalian means that you can believe whatever you want to believe,” she was fond of telling me).

Possibly the single toughest, most sarcastic person I’ve ever known (but in a proper, WASP-y way), Ruth demanded respect and well-mannered behavior in a kind of continuous, up-front exchange for her kindness — and, on the rare occasion that she didn’t receive said respect and proper behavior, she could transform herself into a surprisingly — and tenaciously — unpleasant person. In some ways, it seemed to me that she was designed by God and nature to work in a library, particularly a library frequented by wayward young men who were slowly turning their lives around; it never occurred to me to question whether she might have wanted to do anything else with her life. It was only when I was older that my mother mentioned to me, in passing, that my grandmother had taken the foreign service exam, and had done exceedingly well on it — only to be told, at her job interview, that as an attractive young lady, she should marry into the service if she wanted to belong. She was then summarily dismissed and sent home “to her family and kitchen.”

Language-of-flowersAlthough my relationship with Grandmother Ruth was a tempestuous one, in our calmer moments together, she imparted many odd pieces of history and truth that imbedded themselves into the person I was and would become. All the cooking and baking skills that I learned as a small child came from her expertise in the kitchen to which she had been banished by her interviewer (and the society that he represented). In addition to cooking, Ruth taught me certain forms of magic — what I’ve long thought of as kitchen witchery: knowledge of the different traditional literary, social, symbolic, medicinal, and customary uses for various flowers, herbs, and other plants.

As a librarian and as my primary caregiver when I was a small child, Ruth was well-equipped to teach me from a young age about literature; I could read well before I entered kindergarten. And it was at Ruth’s suggestion that I began keeping a botanical “diary” when I was very small. One of the first things I wrote in it was a list of flowers and their meanings.

In my conversations with Ruth, these symbolic botanical meanings seemed to carry two similar but distinct undercurrents: what you could give someone a flower to symbolize (your intentions towards that person, e.g., as I give you a rose, so I am signifying that I love you, that I want you to love me), and what that flower and the energies it represented could do to sway that person (I give Hyou lavender because I want you to be comforted; you will feel comforted by what I have given you. I can cause you, with this flower-gift, to feel comfort).

This gradually evolved into a list of flowers that felt more magical than a mere catalogue of traditional botanical symbology. Some of it seemed to be rooted in the Victorian language of flowers, but other pieces of it came from other places — local rural customs, botanical knowledge that my grandmother learned in her own youth (spent in Hawai’i), and common threads of Southern herbalism drawn from a specific, regional practice of root-work (also known colloquially as “conjure”). I didn’t become particularly aware of any of these sources until I was a bit older — but even without such considerations, I could feel the power in what I knew. I began to feel excitement at the prospect of growing up, being old enough to fall in love or heal people — these lists seemed to give me interpersonal tools, an apparatus through which Flowto express agency in adult situations. When I finally mentioned these thoughts to my proper Southern grandmother, she hastened to explain to me that women never give flowers to men; men give flowers to women when they’re courting. After all, she asked me, what would a man want with a flower?

I could see her point; my younger brother certainly didn’t have any use for flowers, except for occasionally eating them, a tendency which more than once had resulted in adults making panicked telephone calls to the poison control center. My realization that I was limited in how I could use this botanical knowledge — my treasured diary lists — frustrated me to no end; when Ruth later began to teach me about the different medicinal uses of various herbs — knowledge she said, rather fussily, that my aunts and mother had no interest in, because they were doing other things with their lives — I wrote them down, unbidden. Just as my brothers were evidence that men didn’t know what to do with flowers, my grandmother was evidence that women were appreciated for their abilities to prepare food, make teas — to both create and archive family recipes. I didn’t need to wait for a man — or for anyone — to give these things to me, but rather I would be allowed — even, perhaps esteemed — for creating these things and giving them to others.

Perhaps this could have gone the way of my simply internalizing expectations for a future of domestic servitude, but it had rather the opposite effect: I felt I could write my own narratives with the information my grandmother was imparting to me. I could cook, on a practical level, but I knew the stories behind these recipes — and, more than family stories, it felt as though I possessed knowledge of certain types of American stories. All that I had learned about different plants, herbs, and blossoms made me part of something bigger than just me. It gave me a surprising sense of community — a sense of where I was from.

dec07As an adult, these herbalist lessons from my grandmother have also influenced how I understand myself as a writer. My brain makes connections between food and stories, the acts of cooking and storytelling, almost constantly — although I’m far from the first author to do so. It seems this human proclivity is hard-wired: our olfactory sense, which gives us both smell and taste, has been scientifically proven to trigger the strongest, most immediate and vivid types of memory. And before there was this kind of science, there was Marcel Proust, describing madeleine-induced flashbacks like a lucid dream made of psychic lace in Swann’s Way. In more contemporary popular culture, we have Like Water for Chocolate, French Women Don’t Get Fat, and Julie and Julia — just a few examples of a growing literary genre that combines plot with recipes, stories with conversations about the chemistry of cooking (or, as I still think of it, kitchen witchery). I think it is no accident that these books are usually female-authored and female-peopled; Ruth was one of many women who handed down a type of literacy through kitchen knowledge.

In addition to the above-mentioned literary fare, there are also pieces of American culture like Glamour magazine, which has offered a bundle of magical recipes over the years, perhaps the most (in)famous of which is called Engagement Chicken. This savory recipe always appeared accompanied by testimonials from women who each say they served this to “the one” instead of an ultimatum Propose!and received a marriage proposal soon after. There is, for better or worse, a certain kind of directed power in writing down a recipe that has a greater significance than mere sustenance, in preparing something with a purpose greater than itself. (Interestingly, not all of the widely-popular Glamour recipes come with romantic stories attached; they also offer such fare as Make New Friends Plum Cobbler, which is sweet and inviting, with a little tartness and not too much crunch.)

I don’t think I’m alone in recognizing both the literal and figurative kinds of alchemy that occur when we transform raw food materials into a meal (or a sauce, or a tincture, or a soup or a tea). There’s a certain sense of magic about it, and not just from gastronomical enjoyment — also from the transformative brand of creativity involved, and the accompanying stories — family stories, personal memory, sensory experience, intuitive sensibilities. It was nearly two hundred years ago that the French physician Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es,” which translates to “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” This quotation, which was appropriated into English about a hundred year later by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr as the enduring adage “You are what you eat” underscores the human tendency to conflate consumption with identity, and the rituals of recipe with influence and power. While its figurative value is obvious (if you eat healthy foods, you will possess a healthy mind and body, for instance), scientists have recently suggested other correlations between the temperaments and the preferred tastes of those who display marked proclivities for sweet or spicy foods, suggesting that sweets can make you sweeter and that a preference for spicy food may be reflective of higher libido, greater aggression, and increased propensity for risk-taking or thrill-seeking behaviors. If we create something edible and convince someone to eat it, perhaps we truly are influencing their identities, attitudes, or dispositions. This idea of such transference is at the crux of Southern herbalism (as well as, I think, at the core of many folk-magic traditions and superstitions).

likewaterforchocolateBy writing down these culinary rituals of kitchen chemistry, women have been writing social and personal spell-books. And maybe those who share recipes with names like “Let’s Be Friends Cobbler” aren’t so far off from the Southern herbalists who make the kinds of brownies my grandmother once told me how to make — Brownies to Punish and Banish a Bully. Laced with a few different types hot pepper, a sprinkling of graveyard dust, and some other symbolically repellent (as well as physically unpleasant, though in tiny, non-toxic doses) ingredients, and coupled with particular prayers, candles, and Bible verses, these brownies were guaranteed by superstition and conventional wisdom to run a mean-spirited person right out of your life. I am not aware of my grandmother ever having served these brownies to anyone, but — ever the librarian — she treasured the arcane knowledge of their ritualistic preparation and delivery.

On the other hand, I know more than one Southern gal who has, at some point in her life, made some variant of those “Punish and Banish a Bully” brownies (although a couple of them have also mixed in laxatives for a perhaps less-metaphysical brand of punishment), and served them up to devastating effect. Once in a while, similar kinds of tactics even make news. It seems to be just one example of how cooking, “kitchen witchery,” and the magic of creating recipes can help some people exert power in their
own lives, especially when (as in the example of being bullied — or dismissed from a job interview to the kitchen), they feel they have had their power diluted or even taken from them. Writing “alchemical” recipes that turn food into something more than food can give them a sense of taking their power back.

In this way, I see writing, literacy, and language itself as a kind of magic: such actions transform the mundane into something archived, elevated — something with a story, a viewpoint, voice, and precedents. Something for other people to read, absorb into their own minds, carry with them. If that Foreign Service officer who interviewed my grandmother had written “approved” on her application instead of “denied,” it would have transformed her identity, and her life as she knew it. And all the arcane botanical and culinary knowledge she passed on to me, preserved in these handwritten lists and journals, certainly shaped a lot of who I would become.



Fox Frazier-Foley is author of Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015).