Confessions of a Kitchen Witch

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!”

Comments

  1. Lauren E Reynolds

    I am definitely a kitchen witch. From my impressive collection of mugs and teacups to my love of staying up late into the night to bake morning treats or scrumptious desserts or experiment with a new recipe. I love to cook. I love to bake. And I love to experiment.
    Ironically, I only got into it when I realized I was honestly sick of all the ordinary every day dinners my family use to make since we were a big family and it was impossible to please everyone. Deciding I wanted to eat healthier or needed a chocolate fix (chocolate and tea are my natural detoxers) I finally just started late night baking or cooking dinner recipes from a collection of recipes I found in craft books, cool book stories orb online that I put together in a binder (Tasty is one of the best), the Game Of Thrones cookbook which I love because I love comparing the medieval versions of cooking to their modern counterparts, or my Official Faerie Cookbooks and a plethora of enchanting recipes from my Faerie Magazine/Enchanted Living Magazines that I never had the heart to remove from their issue and put together in a separate book (thank God for Photocopy machines).
    I have fallen in love with old recipes, with older ancient ways of cooking, of using fresh herbs and vegetables, of experimenting with ingredients so odd they almost sound mystical (I have been dying to make a Moss cake once I learned you make it using spinach and fir for frosting (never thought that was even edible) or that you can make flour from acorns).
    The one thing I’m looking forward to returning to my own space once Covid ends is to finally be able to cook for myself and maybe have some like minded guests join in 😉

    Of my recipes personal favorites and most popular include:
    Cheesy herb muffins
    Selkie spinach/seaweed soup
    Lemon cookies (a fav)
    Pumpkin cheesecake muffins
    Apple cakes
    Honey biscuits (great for breakfast)
    and my brother’s favorite chocolate peanut butter brownie cookies

    Let me know if anyone is interested in recipes 😉

    1. Claire Thomas

      These sound amazing! I would love recipes, especially for the muffins! 🙂 And I have made that moss cake (admittedly not with the fir needles) and it is delicious!

  2. Amy

    My mother was a very careful cook and followed recipes exactly. My sister and me….not so much. The recipe is more of a…suggestion.

    My sister will call me up and say “I made the best thing for dinner last night! The recipe called for chicken. I didn’t have any chicken, but I did have leftover pork.” and my mind switches from chicken to the taste and texture of pork. “It called for oregano, which I didn’t have, so I used Italian seasoning instead, because, you know, it has oregano in it….” Okay, a little more complex flavor…”You were supposed to use white wine – I didn’t want to open a bottle, so I just used some beer and drank the rest.” Wine, beer…there IS a difference…but she’d continue “I didn’t have shredded mozzarella, so I used a combination of cheddar and parmesan (really???). It was great!”

    So we joke that her recipes read like this: Take white meat of choice. Add spices you have. Douse with alcohol of choice. Sprinkle whatever cheese you have in the fridge. Bake until done. The crazy thing is that whatever she makes is always good!

    1. I love this, and I tend to cook in a very similar way. A recipe is definitely just a suggestion, as far as I’m concerned 😀

  3. Jody Helme-Day

    Another kitchen witch chiming in! One of the first things I did when lock down here in Michigan started and I was laid off was to bake something every day, whether it was no-knead bread or cookies, brownies, muffins, etc. A habit I have cultivated over the years is to sit down one day a week and go through my recipe books, AllRecipes or Food52 account, or the plethora I have saved in my gmail folder and plan what I am going to make each night for dinner, then make my grocery list. Cooking is the way I relax, it is a moving meditation that gives (usually…) something delicious I can share with the ones I love.

    1. “Cooking is the way I relax, it is a moving meditation that gives (usually…) something delicious I can share with the ones I love.” YES, this, 100%!

  4. Claire Thomas

    This was lovely and very inspiring! I wish I liked cooking more, but I definitely love baking! Especially around the holidays, I go crazy making all kinds of delicious treats for friends and family. Every year, I try to make at least one new thing, and lately I’ve been trying historical recipes, too, in an attempt to rediscover some of the recipes that got lost over the generations in my family. It’s exhausting, but so satisfying when something comes out just right! Last Christmas, I made gingerbread souffles, which was a new challenge, and a big hit with my family!

    1. I’m the complete reverse – I love cooking, but baking makes me nervous (probably because actually following the recipes/ proportions are important!!) I’m working on it though and have made several successful batches of cookies in recent weeks!

  5. Lynn Ristau

    I guess I could qualify as a kitchen witch, at least in my past! I haven’t done as much cooking as I used to since I moved into an apartment with a small kitchen but I hope to start cooking more soon since it’s better for me and my pocketbook. I love to cook and bake. I’m obsessed with buying cookbooks (new and old) and need to take more time to cook from them, not just read them. That moss cake sounds intriguing, I just tasted spruce tips for the first time this spring.

    1. Cooking in a small kitchen can definitely make it challenging! I’ve had some pretty tiny apartment kitchens, and my husband once lived in an apartment with a kitchen so tiny that there literally was no counter space – it went fridge, stovetop, sink, the end! He ended up setting up a skinny folding table along the opposite wall and somehow made it work!

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