There is a smell that haunts me. I’m sure we all have these, right? When pine needles and leaves warm up and crisp like bacon around October I think of Halloween, jasmine and fig trees take me to my third pregnancy and Spring, cinnamon and cloves are my mother’s perfume when I was small and she was the prettiest thing I ever knew. You know how this goes, right? Try to deny that the salty-clay odor of Playdough is preschool, or that carved end of a new pencil isn’t second grade. Right then. And then there’s sage.
As a Southern Pagan who grew up nurtured by Christian food, it was the smell of powdered sage that birthed out a foodie. And a kitchen witch.
Somewhere around 1976 in Athens, Alabama I stood in a kitchen with three matriarchs and learned about athames. Granma preferred a wooden spoon, Mom a slotted steel one with a wooden handle, my aunt the giant ladle thingy with no holes. And it was dressing time. The whole process hypnotized and seduced me: hearty laughter, competitive ribbing (“you ain’t got sense then, move over”), cornbread laced with McCormick sage, celery, and onion crisping and popping in an iron skillet. Music to me. With a beat. Thick and oily and old. The whole process knocked me flat:
1. Argue, but wink first, about how long at 350 and whether or not to open the door to check for brown.
2. The footwear: one bare, one sandaled, one encased in sturdy nursing shoes (in taupe).
3. The occasional manfolk peeking ’round, sniffing, and the resulting half-angry admonishment, wink notwithstanding.
4. Negotiations on the number of eggs to add, whether or not it needed more salt (Grandma) or whether or not to taste it (Aunt) before adding that little umph of pepper (Momma).
5. Storytelling that somehow informed whether or not the dressing would rise proper.
6. The soul-food moment of laying it out, giblet gravy as wingman, and knowing it bubbled love in its four corners.
I was a goner. No turning back. And it took decades for me to figure out why, try as I may to replicate that dressing, it was never going to taste like 1976 again. They had put their foot in it. Hard and without hesitation. Although I am quite certain only one would admit it, they concocted, cast, and sent forth quite a spell that Betty Crocker could not emulate even with her best apron on. It haunts me.
When does a recipe morph into such a vessel of memory and history? I contend that, here in the South at least, kitchen witchery has always had its roots in those ingredients.
I had a class, about 2005, of freshmen who were so parceled up in grief and longing for their roots that when Thanksgiving showed up like a belligerent salesmen I ended up performing a little kitchen magic in retaliation. A little girl (they all are, to me) sitting in the front row with her Columbia jacket and a two-day ponytail began to cry at 9 a.m. for her momma. Like dominos, the rest of the class fell into reverie of “just one more week” and “I’m so tired of ramen” and “where are you from?” until I had no choice but to address the issue, next class day, with a plate of chocolate walnut cookies. And storytime. I believe it was Dr. Seuss’s The Lomax or some such. (Needless to say, and with no reasonable regard for my tenuous employment, I canceled that Friday and sent my babies home to their respective home kitchens.) I think I was trying to heal them. Not Jerry Falwell style, or anything. Just heal them back to their history, memory, and home.
A little sage burning never hurt anyone, right?
So I sit here, out of respect to both my Christian roots (I never knew a one of my folk who wouldn’t scare up a cheesy casserole for a wake) and my own pagan spirit and wonder: is magic an exclusive bitch? Or does she show up, athame in hand, wherever someone is hurting or lost, or maybe just real hungry? I certainly can only feed about one mouth with a fish, personally. But I endeavor . . .
Either way, the sun is going down, there’s a roast that’s been simmering in wine and garlic for about three hours, and the people I love are coming back, bruised from the world of books and money, and they are starving.