Raising a Kitchen Witch From Scratch
Author: Seba O’Kiley
“In fact, people who posses not magic at all can instill their home-cooked meals with love and security and health, transforming ingredients and bringing disparate people together as family and friends. There’s a reason that when opening one’s home to guests, the first thing you do is offer food and drink. Cooking is a kind of everyday magic.” — Juliet Blackwell
When I was wee, I stayed with my Grandma quite a bit. She was my mentor, my teacher, my “other momma” and augmented my kitchen learnin’ in her own natural way. Her grapevines were teaching tools, as in: grow them slow, water daily, “feel” their skin for trouble and dry them, molasses-slow-like, in the hottest rays of the sun–then rest them in cool niches for storage. (Her own aunties were down-home wine makers over around Elk River, Alabama. We didn’t talk about that much.) Grandma was rightly specific about the element of touch when it came to process. I can still smell her favorite peach stand on Highway 72–that cloying, somehow musky aroma that smacks of pies and late afternoon sun and where all the best “picked anything” sat on rough wood shelves. The memory that resonates the most is:
Dusky, bruised pink horizon slung low under an already indigo sky . . . fireflies dancing in the dim outline of pines . . . and there, off the highway, a brightly lit “farm stand” called her name. A kitchen witch’s dream, complete with roughshod tables, sawdust floors, jams and jellies glimmering purple, red and golden under the hum of precariously hung light fixtures. And the process: her hand reaching out to melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, feeling the texture, feeling for a soft spot indicating hidden rot, running her chewed fingernails across the microscopic hairs of peaches and okra. I think I finally understand now, all these decades later, what she was teaching me back then. We were feeling our way through choices that otherwise might have been mislead by labels, presentation or advertisement.
If Paganism is the “Old Religion, ” then the cooking that we do down here in the Deep South is the “Old Kitchen Witchery.” It is marked by a disregard of measurements, tasting each and every step, burning our fingers and palms and tongues in our refusal to disconnect from each and every sacred step and the rustic presentation of soul-satisfying suppers. It is the art of seed preservation, pickling, canning, growing, sowing, harvesting and frying or simmering in hundred-year-old, seasoned iron skillets. It is the unabashed reverence for home and hearth, community and family and a well-fed body. For that, y’all, we need to feel our way.
Perhaps this is why we tend to keep our recipes within the family, pass them down in grease-stained books and reminisce on the soul who crafted it when its spell weaves its way onto our tables. They represent the sacred process, the sacred thump of someone’s divine presence in the realm of the living. Sometimes, that process was a journey as a momma. Sometimes, that process is the struggle through an economically crippling period of life. Most times?
Sustenance. Pure and simple.
One night, my grandma had suffered my whining on about being “hongry” about all she could. Before I knew it, flour was sifting through the air, butter was being melted slowly in a pot and cocoa met sugar across the plane of the most delicate crust, rolled and sliced like buns. Little more than pantry items had conjured themselves into a little soul food for her grandchild–and I never forgot the story with which I sopped it all down. Seems that, in the Depression, treats like Poptarts and Little Debbie cakes weren’t within the reach of chubby child fingers (imagine my shock) forcing mommas across the land to get a might creative. Love. Simple and sweet. Love manifested itself out of bare pantries and broken pocketbooks and landed on the tongues of country younguns and lit their hearts like butter on a biscuit.
Is that not an oral tradition? In more ways than one? Stories, legends, legacies weaving from farm to table, ancestors to children, echoing their way through time in fatback and the juice of the perfect peach, sliding down sticky Alabama fingers. I hear her voice every time touch a peach. I feel her warmth with every stir of a wooden spoon. I know my own thread in the tapestry as I write, by hand: pinch of salt, an egg or two (depending on their girth) , serves ’round six if fin they ain’t that ravished. Now, if that doesn’t represent tradition, the creek’s done gone dry and the fish have flopped uneaten on red clay.
And catfish is what’s for dinner tonight, y’all. (The Southern Fried Initiate/Daughter hankered for it and I plan to feed that sweet flesh of hers. Right after I teach her how to batter it, just so, with buttermilk and stone ground yellow meal.)
I reckon’ that night at the Limestone County Farm Stand taught me most of what I needed to get by in life. Lessee:
1. Support your locals. This builds a foundation for the community and helps sustain all in the circle.
2. Local sustenance tastes sweeter, brighter and fosters a connection between the dirt between our feet and the neighbor waving howdy from the yard.
3. Eating locally works in healing ways. Local honey can ease yor’ allergies. Backyard flowering vegetation is safer in a pollination drift.
4. Rotted fruit is best in the compost heap, so as it can be recycled into an element of growth.
5. Growing things your own self nurtures a sense of pride, wholeness and is sustainable for your wallet and the cheapest Prozac in town. (Get yor’ hands in the dirt. I guarantee that the cucumbers won’t be the only things fruiting soon.)
6. Share healthy seed, extra sprouts, bushels of harvest, recipes, preserves and suppers. Believe it or not, there is ALWAYS room for another set of feet under a table.
7. Thank the universe, and yor’ local farmer, for the bounty. Divine process made that dinner. Hit knees, bless sustenance and grab a fork.
8. Pay it forward. Share those potions and tricks to ward off caterpillars, aphids and rabbits. Get over to some soul’s house and help build that chicken house. (Good energy out, good energy in. This is true building of a community, y’all. And you never know when a wolf might blow YOUR house down. Re-read “Stone Soup.”)
9. Barter. Money sure ain’t everything, and in fact, it doesn’t represent much at all. Got a bushel of banana peppers, but sure would like some cayenne? Are you one helluva seamstress, but need someone who tinkers on cars? Well, skip the government taxes and get to trading! (This is a lost art in our community and one of the most Pagan things you can do.)
10. Revel, wildly and hopelessly, in the tastes and smells and textures of our sweet Mother Earth. We all think too damn much. Feel your way. Feel the grass beneath your toes. Feel the energy traversing through the veins of a spinach leave, the sweet burst of tomato seed, the vinegar tart of a pickled pear. We are so short for this world. What blasphemy do we enact when we forget to commune with it all?
Imagine, for one moment, if Gran hadn’t stopped there on Highway 72 with that young wile chile?
Kitchen Witchery: The art of sustaining legacy, legend, community and family through the sacred process of communion with Mother Earth. Produces magic, healthy bodies, balanced minds and promotes sustainability in all realms.
Serves . . . .
All of us.
Footnotes: This post first appeared at Southernkitchenwitch.com on August 12th, 2012.