Tagged with " ethnic food"

Witchin’ in the Kitchen

I wrote this essay almost 15 years ago, deeper in the dark of winter than I am right now. But at a friend’s request, and because every word of it still rings as true today as it did when I wrote it. The only thing that’s changed in all this time is that I’m a better, more inspired cook than I was when I was just starting out. I’ve delved into ethnic cuisines, and I’ve learned to trust my senses and my reading skill when combining ingredients. That’s another kind of magic: the confidence that comes with age and practice. But that’s a different blog post.


The time for ritual is at hand. I stand in the place of my power, tools of the magic I will work laid out before me– silver, wood, and steel. Fire and water are at my command, earth and air held back by my will. In this time, I will draw on the forces of creation, shaping elements. Here, I am an alchemist, a hand of the goddess herself.

For I am a kitchen witch.

I embrace this title proudly, despite lingering associations with the silly wizened dolls on brooms available at most craft fairs. As a name, it covers it all–my faith, my pleasure, the locus of my greatest power. No hallowed circle, no standing stones could imbue me with more strength or more possibilities. One friend firmly maintains that, when it comes to the Craft, if I can’t do it with Morton’s salt and a wooden spoon, it can’t be done.

While I am not so bold as to commit to such a statement myself, the power of the kitchen, and what it summons and creates, is not to be denied. Though I began down the path of Wicca in solitude, I learned the magic of cooking as all good magics are best learned : at the elbow of a wise and laughing grandmother. The rules were simple. Wash your hands. Clean as you go. Read the whole recipe before you start. Measure with care. And, most importantly, share the joy as often as possible–that’s why there are always enough beaters and spatulas and bowls for everyone. If you abide by that last rule, no spills or scorches can spell failure. Just vacuum up the oatmeal, wash the egg out of your hair, and laugh about the fun you had.

I know, it doesn’t sound much like the holy tenets of any faith, or even much of a New Age philosophy. But the results simply could not be missed. Even as a child, I recognized the phenomenal power of what we created in that tidy sanctuary of counters and appliances. We’re talking full sensory miracles here, folks. The smell hits you when you walk in the door, enveloping you in a warm blanket of knowledge that, here, you will not go hungry. Someone cares enough to spend time and energy to refresh and nourish you. That simple understanding, at the most primal level, cuts loose the weight of the world, letting your spirit rise. The sight of flushed skin and flour smudges brings light and laughter, and sneaky little dips into aromatic steam and unfinished delights allow you to keep a greedy secret that heightens anticipation. All these things seal the feeling of community as you finally join in the simple pleasure of sharing tastes, sensations, and satisfaction, even if only with one other person. No wonder “communion” takes place with food in so many religions.

But I have to be honest about something, and it’ll probably blow the lid right off any sort of “kitchen witch mystique” I may have managed to build. I am no gourmet. I’ve never taken a cooking class. Those brownies which my friends and co-workers steadfastly maintain are the best they’ve ever tasted? Betty Crocker, Fudge Supreme, $2.49 with coupon. That chili whose aroma wafts out like tickling fingers when I open the door on a cold winter night, drawing my husband in all the quicker? Packet of spices, canned beans and tomatoes. Simmer on low for 20 minutes. That’s it. And I’ve never made a secret of it.

The rave reviews continue, with every potluck dish and party treat. Is it because I always stir clockwise, letting goodwill flow into the smooth batters and sauces? Most likely not. And I’d feel terribly silly if I sprinkled water and invocations over my electric oven to ward off burnt bottoms or mushy middles. My power as a kitchen witch, so far as I can tell, comes solely the enjoyment I take in doing something simple that will produce happiness in others. As I skim my finger down the well-worn page of my favourite cookbook, I’m already thinking of the smiles and hums of pleasure that my “magic potion” will summon into existence. As I clean shortbread dough from my utensils and fingernails, I can already hear the surprised exclamations of delight ringing in the doorway as visitors first hit that gorgeous wall of aroma. And hours later, after the cupboards are closed and the counters are clean, I can still smell the lingering scent of crushed herbs and sweet essences on my fingers, and I fold them beneath my nose and breathe prayers of thanksgiving for the chance to bring joy to those I’ve fed.

So I may not always remember all the poetic invocations when I call the Watchtowers in a Circle, but I remember the favourite food for every loved one in my life, and most of the recipes. And so I might be dreadful at keeping a proper herbal grimoire stocked–my spice racks are the envy of all who survey. I consider myself well on the road to the Lord and Lady’s wisdom, because I know the seat and value of a generous, abundant power within myself, one of the greatest signposts on everyone’s spiritual journey. And when I get there, I’ll be sure to have a dish to pass.

Jan 3, 2012 - Geography    No Comments

Eat the World: Reverb Broads 2011 #30

Reverb Broads 2011, December 30: If you could go on a trip regardless of cost, where would you go and what would you see? (courtesy of Dana at http://simply-walking.com)

I’ve already been crazy fortunate in how much of the world I’ve seen. I’d been to all 48 contiguous states, most of the provinces of Canada, and across the Mexican border before I graduated from high school. By the time I got married at 21, I’d added England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy, and New Zealand to the list. Like I said, crazy fortunate.

Still, there’s a whole lot of world left to see, and I’m an adventurous traveller. There are loads of things I want to see and do out there. Here are just a few:

• I want to see the wooden shrine at Ise in Japan. It’s the principal shrine for the Japanese Imperial Cult, and every twenty years, they completely rebuild the entire shrine complex on an adjoining plot because Shintos believe natural spirits live in trees, and renewing the wood rejuvenates the spiritual power of the temple.

• I want to sleep on a rooftop in Greece under that blue, blue Mediterranean summer sky.

• I want to eat my way across India, and wrap myself in its bright silk, and bathe in the holy Ganges, and let the liquid syllables of Hindi and all its dialects wash over me in the breathtaking heat.

• I want to take my family to the parts of America that stick in my memory like splinters: Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, the Black Hills, the Colorado Rockies, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, Vermont, Bar Harbor.

• I want to go alone to a storm-washed rock in the North Atlantic or Irish Sea and let the ascetic austerity settle deep in my spirit: Skye, Skellig Michael, Iona.

• I want to steep myself in the spices and the history of Morocco and Egypt.

• I want to hear the crackle and chime of the Aurora Borealis, or the eerie midnight sun, across the skies of Iceland and Sweden.

There are a few places I have relatively less interest in visiting (Russia, South America), but were I offered the opportunity, I’d be on a plane in a heartbeat, because I love the adventure of it all. And there are places I want to go, not for pleasure, but to help with the meager skills I have to leverage: Haiti, Congo, or Senegal.

In short, I want to keep travelling. I want to see everything.

Dec 16, 2011 - Physical Ed    4 Comments

How Sweet It Is: Reverb Broads 2011 #15

Dol sot bi bim bop. It tastes like it looks, not like it sounds.

Reverb Broads 2011, December 15: Did you taste any new flavors this year? Did you love or hate them or something in between? Will you incorporate these new flavors into your life? (courtesy of Bethany at http://bethanyactually.com)

I’m a slightly weird eater. I adore ethnic food and exotic spices, but I hate a lot of the foods that most kids subsist on: graham crackers, peanut butter & jelly, chocolate ice cream, bananas, applesauce. I’ve also got sensory issues with some foods; for instance, I hate the dry-mouth feeling cranberries give me. And I’m convinced some tastes are genetically keyed, too — it’s the only possible explanation for my utter inability to tolerate blue cheese.

But I love new things, and I found two new favorites this year. I also discovered the best way to taste one of Minnesota’s great food treasures.

I have this strange ordering habit which crops up from time to time; it usually happens when I’m equally torn between two choices. When it’s actually time to order, I’ll suddenly blurt out whatever my gaze snags on as I look up at the server. This has been mostly disastrous. I once ended up with some Southwest egg dish, at a breakfast with brand-new friends, from which I extracted at least a full cup of fresh jalapeño slices after I reached the point where I could take no more heat.

But for once, it worked out, when I visited Sebastian Joe’s for the first time with my good friend Karin. As always, there was a long line, which gave me plenty of time to ponder the offerings. I had pretty much settled on the raspberry chip, but at the last moment, I asked for a sample of the salted caramel. Yeah, I know salted caramel is Old News to foodies, but I’d just never had occasion to try it. The tiny spoon went in my mouth, and as they say, that was all she wrote. My heart even sank a little, as I tasted something so good that I knew it would drive me to eat too much of delicious, unhealthy treats well into the future.

The second new taste I got hooked on this year has one of the funniest names of anything I can think of: dol sot bi bim bop. It’s Korean food: a rice, veggie, pork and egg dish, served in a hot stone bowl (the dol sot) that sizzles and browns the rice it touches, making a gorgeous, slightly crunchy crust that’s a little reward for patience and finishing your supper. My dear friend Lana, who has a Korean sister-in-law and therefore knew all the secrets of Korean restaurant ordering, has promised me a return to the fabulous Sole Café soon, and I can’t wait to go.

Finally, I went to the Minnesota State Fair for the first time this year, and that’s a place that’s all about food. We didn’t bother waiting in line for Sweet Martha’s cookies — it was a quarter of a mile long, I swear. And my experience of deep fried foods at the fair began and ended with the fried pickles (surprisingly good, actually). No deep fried butter or candy bars; this isn’t fricking Iowa.

But what made the trip truly sweet was how I spent that day. My friend Heidi is a nurse at a facility for disabled adults, and her clients look forward to their trip to the State Fair all year long. They pretty much need a one-to-one volunteer/client ratio for that trip, so she asked if I wanted to come help during the day, and get my hand stamped so we could go back that night for a girls’ night out. I couldn’t think of a better way to experience the fair (what, like I was going to take my family?! Just kidding; we went together later that weekend).

I was assigned to a young man in his 20s who had cerebral palsy. We hit it off right away; he has a hilarious sense of humor, and we totally cracked each other up. He had his eye on barbeque for lunch, so I helped him get his fill of Famous Dave’s baby back ribs. I had sauce all over my fingers (not all over him!) by the time I was done, and when I licked them clean, I had to agree that it was outstanding. Later, when we were getting really annoyed with the crowds that kept cutting him off — seriously, if you see a wheelchair, get the eff out of the way, please — we consoled ourselves with freshly made fudge that tasted like the best hot cocoa you can imagine.

I loved being with a veteran, and I loved being with a person who really wanted to be there. The whole experience made everything taste better.

Sep 18, 2011 - AV Club    1 Comment

It’s a Geek World, After All

I debated for days what to write my last Speak Out with your Geek Out post about, and it seemed like there were still too many important topics to reconcile. But it hit me yesterday: really, they’re all one topic. I’m a World Geek.

Not a geek about other worlds, just this one, the big blue marble. After a week with so much glorification of the realms of fantasy and fiction, creativity and imagination, I know this sounds like cheating, but bear with me — this really does cover so much about me and all the things that make have made my gears tick faster, my whole life through.

I was never destined to be much of a homebody. I come from a traveling family: every three-day weekend, spring break, teachers’ convention, and summer vacation, we were on the road, in station wagon and pop-up camper with my grandparents, or RV with my stepdad. I was one of those kids you used to see in the backseat sometimes, lying down with legs up the backseat, reading a thick book (iron stomachs, all of us, I tell you). By the time I’d graduated from high school,  I’d been to all 48 contiguous states, all the provinces of Canada, and even dipped into Mexico; we did the “it’s Thursday, it must be Belgium” 22-day trip to Europe the following summer. Living in France for a year as part of my degree program only seemed logical, and I was on the train every time we had a break, dashing off to the corners of the continent least likely to be explored by any of the other American students I knew.

And I was generally enraptured with ancient and foreign cultures from an early age. I collected dolls, and my favorites were the ones in ethnic and period costumes. I pored over Peter Spier’s fabulous book People, and my collection of 1880’s Harper’s Bazaar fashionplates. I had a Hollie Hobbie dress for the Bicentennial that I wore long past both the event and the day I outgrew it. In the mobcap and hornbook I got at a Colonial War encampment, I spent hours as Dollie Madison, eventually deciding that the Wisconsin state capital was named for her (what did James ever do, really?). The more I learned, the more it wound the clock back and broadened the map, until the limitations of the American timeline and continent became too restrictive, and I drifted back into the ancient and medieval histories of Europe and even Asia.

My love affair with languages started early, too. My mom says that I would babble polysyllabic nonsense around age 2 or 3, and when told to speak clearly, I would sigh condescendingly and inform the adult, “I’m speaking French.” She says she wishes she’d known someone whom she could ask if I really was, because I took to the language like a duck to water when I started it in junior high. Once I’d unlocked the mechanisms of learning language, I got greedy in my acquisitions and spoiled by the access to primary sources it granted me. I went after them like Pokemon: Old Irish, Welsh, Latin, German, Anglo-Saxon … gotta catch ’em all! I’m still enchanted by the look and sound of other languages, and I’m in the market for a new one to study, but as always, it’s so hard to choose. I can’t be the only one with both a list of languages I should learn for my studies, and ones I’d like to learn just for fun.

(And don’t get me started on the wonderful nexus of my two loves, history and language: the etymological dictionary. Very shortly after Cam arrived in the U.S. to marry me, we were sitting around after a family dinner, and everyone was talking about how we liked to keep reading other entries in the dictionary after we’d found the one we’d gone in for. Yes, that’s the kind of family I’m from. I mentioned that my very favorite dictionary to read for fun was the etymological kind. Cam said that was his favorite kind of dictionary too! We got all swoony, and made googly eyes at each other for a while. Mom decided that we were, in fact, made for each other, and that this crazy Internet marriage thing would probably work just fine.)

Mustn’t forget the food, either. While the American versions of ethnic food don’t usually have much to recommend them, I was as adventurous as possible, right from the start. I loved enchiladas, lasagna, chow mein, venison stroganoff, pirogis, and rinderrouladen. And Milwaukee was a great place to grow up steeped in real ethnic food, although back in the ’70s and ’80s, that was mostly just every variety of white people the Old World had to offer. Still, not many towns that size give you your choice of Serbian restaurants, and I consider myself to have been spoiled. As I grew, both my tastes and my willingness to experiment in the kitchen expanded, especially as I encountered my true loves, Mediterranean and Indian foods. Tabouli and gyros and dal, oh my!

Now, with kids of my own, practical considerations take hold, and we haven’t done as much traveling for the sake of travel as I would’ve liked to. My kids will probably get excited when they see Mount Rushmore because they’ll know it from North by Northwest, instead of the other way around, like it was for me. But my kids know the cooking smells of a dozen different cuisines, and the feel of falling asleep with lullabies of a dozen languages in their ears.

But can a subject as literally global as this really count as geekiness? Well, let’s see. Relentless pursuit of (some may say, nearly useless) knowledge, in an increasingly broad array of minute specializations? Check. Uncontrollable urge to share this knowledge, both practical and trivial, with those who show the slightest bit of interest? I think a career in teaching (not to mention the recent urge to blog) is a fair indication of that. Not to mention the practice of parenting, which is one long exercise in imposing my interests on those too young to fight me off effectively yet. Flights of wild delight at new discoveries of related tangents and others’ creative contributions? On a daily basis; those who know me at all (and probably, by now, those who’ve ready any of my blog posts) are familiar with my regular paroxysms of joy over new words, cultural workarounds, historical facts, research revelations, and gustatory novelties.

This place isn’t perfect, and like most intelligent people, there are days when I’m about ready to give up on the whole muddy ball and every so-called higher species on it. But for the most part, the marvel of diversity is my ultimate geek. What gets me most? The same things that bring people to their favorite TV shows, movies, sci-fi/fantasy, and comics. It’s the richness of the stories, and the unexpected twists and turns as they weave together in a greater tapestry. It’s the infinte complexity of detail: the patterns, colors, flavors, spices, textures. It’s the constellation of decision points on a thousand moral continuums, each branching into so many possibilities for beauty and cruelty and creation and destruction.

The best art imitates life. But I guess, for me, the best life is as good as the best art, and I can’t help but be a world-class geek about it all.