Confessions of a Kitchen Witch
July 14, 2020
Sometimes, you just have to step into your kitchen and be a witch.
My job means that I spend a lot of time in front of my computer or crouched over a book. I read stories and do research. I write a truly ridiculous number of emails and respond to student questions. Almost everything I do during a workday involves reading or writing. Which I love. If you’ve read any other blog post Brittany and I have written or been to one of our courses or lectures, you know that we know that words are magic. They’re my most well-trodden path into folklore and the foundation for most of my creative practices and hobbies: writing poetry and fiction, gobbling up all the fairy-tale retellings and gothic novels I can find, even reading a good book out loud.
Though I’ve dabbled with other branches of folklore, I’m a narrative scholar at heart. I love stories and how they can change and shape the world. But sometimes, at the end of the day, I just feel like a disembodied brain that’s short-circuiting.
Well, a disembodied brain lightly tethered to a body that feels more like a haunted house than flesh and blood, complete with startling cracks and creaks and maybe a little dust from not moving enough all day. And my brain is the ghost haunting it, strangely diaphanous and only half-there.
(I can’t be the only one who feels like this by nightfall, right? Haunted and full of brain-bats?)
There are things I do to reconnect the pieces of myself. I love to dance, and the video game Just Dance has been a lifesaver these last few months. I’ll grudgingly do a yoga video here and there (cursing at the perfectly lovely Adrienne whenever she moves into Downward Dog. Worst.)
But nothing seems to help quite as much as cooking. There’s a whole branch of folklore called foodways, the study of the culture and tradition of what we eat and why we eat it. My first-ever folklore paper dabbled in foodways – my family’s unconventional Thanksgiving celebration – so perhaps it’s not a surprise that food has always been a path into folklore and identity for me. Few things are as comforting to me as a cup of miso soup on a cold day or as intoxicating as the first bite of my family’s carrot cake recipes, smothered in cream cheese icing (the secret to taking it from “great” to “licking the bowl like an animal” is to add a little lemon juice!)
When I step into the kitchen, I’m not a haunted house. I’m a queen surveying her domain, drawing the unruly pots and pans in line. I’m a witch firing up her cauldron because she knows just the spell the evening calls for.
I can let the busiest part of my brain just relax for a while and do something creative, something a little messy. Something that comes closer to alchemy than anything else I’ve ever experienced.
Midori Snyder gets it. She says that “the very best of cooks are sorcerers, wizards, shamans and tricksters. They must be, for they are capable of powerful acts of transformation. All manner of life, mammal, aquatic, vegetable, seeds and nuts pass through their hands and are transformed by spells – some secret, some written in books annotated with splashes of grease and broth.”
When I’m in the kitchen, I cast a spell of transformation. Mostly, the ingredients cooperate and coalesce into their desired shape. (Though there was one time I used a habanero instead of a jalapeno. No matter what I did, I couldn’t balance the heat, and my poor husband had to call half-time during dinner to eat a popsicle.)
Cook books are spellbooks to me. You know you’ve found a true match when you use it so much that the scent of the spices rises from the pages because your fingers have anointed them with sesame oil and paprika.
Admittedly, I have just as much fun winging it, crafting a dish from whatever’s left in the fridge and tipping seasoning into the pot willy nilly without consulting a teaspoon. There’s something strangely comforting in creating a satisfying dish from chaos. Just because you don’t have a plan doesn’t mean it won’t come together beautifully.
My bat-brain gets to take a backseat to my nose, to the color of the tomatoes, to a certain instinct, honed over time, as to whether the spell-dish is coming together the way that it ought. And cooking involves so much movement, at least when I do it, that it might as well be dancing.
One step, two step, open the fridge, twirl, raid the spice drawer, step step, stir stir, chop chop chop, STIR!
Last week, I made a few dishes from Chetna Makan’s gorgeous new vegetarian cookbook. (Fans of The Great British Baking Show, yes, that Chetna! Her recipes are flawless, and the book is a visual delight.) One of the recipes called for masala, pounded in a mortar and pestle.
I gathered up fresh garlic and ginger, chillies and cloves, and half a dozen other ingredients, cackling as I lined them up by the stove. My cats watched, one from the floor, one with her paws on the forbidden edge of the counter, both disgusted that I wasn’t sharing my spoils. As I pounded together my ingredients, the scents intensified, sharp and a little sweet. So of course I pounded them harder, grinning wildly and thinking of Baba Yaga.
My husband, who was working nearby (and who is a fabulous cook in his own right), looked up as the banging got louder. “You look pretty happy,” he said.
“I am happy. I’m a kitchen witch!”