Cooking is like love: it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.
Harriet Van Horne
Years ago, I was chillin’ with the Southern Mommy in the woods of Florida and we got to chewing on the subject of love. Not just the existence of it, naw, but more the concrete proof of this feeling that makes the world have meaning and meat. Momma sipped her wine, looked off and pondered upon a book she had happened upon called The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Marketed as a Christian work, I balked a bit as she attempted to explain its premise: that we all show love in disparate manners and that all of these were valid. Hhmmmm. I reckon that late afternoon, so crystallized in my memory complete with the way the sun lit her dark hair red, has risen itself to the surface skin of my thinking these days. Turns out? This Christian fella was on to sumpin’ real and thick. Turns out, I should have chilled a bit more and listened a bit harder.
Now, I’m not about to expound on Mr. Chapman’s book, on account of he’s a devout Christian and it would be ugly of me to lay his work out on a witchy blog. (I am Southern, y’all. No excuse for rudeness.) But the whole thing brings me ’round to kitchen witchery, in general, and the art of paying attention to love gifts in particular. It’s like this: last year I learned to make homemade ricotta cheese. One vat I spin with honey and nutmeg, the other is kissed with chives and parsley and they both land on my table with crusty bread for my loved ones about once per month. Now, I could go buy ricotta and it would most likely satisfy hungry mouths just the same. I’ve noticed something, though, about the deep grunts of contentment and the general magic of a family table in agreement when I steam milk, curd with white balsamic vinegar and strain with cheesecloth this divinity called ricotta cheese. Seems that something chemical about my adoration traverses the whole process in its holy little route to my beloveds’ mouths. It’s a gift, an art of giving that has become lost in the shuffle of pre-packaged goods and restaurant chains in our modern world.
Let’s try this another way.
I hate, I mean despise, failing my own expectations. Cooking for me is a risk: what if it doesn’t turn out? What if no one notices the love infusion? What if I have to scrape it out? I’ve been known to sling a hot iron skillet into the ivy, husband and son wailing behind me, on account of it just wasn’t quite right. I am my hardest critic, but I think the crux of the matter is that my heart must be in the food–and if it’s not–I shrunk away, chickened out and didn’t properly fuse my love to my work. I used to feel this way about my academic work back when the Ivory Tower still held my unadulterated esteem. I don’t remember the day She (that pretentious bitch) broke my heart or tore my dreams, but I figure: better now than after I had marred her fickle ass. While I can write, publish and tear the academy a new one, I choose not to feed an unappreciative and frigid dinner guest. SFW turned here to nourish other tummies–ones that like it when I deep fry a phrase, dig it when I whip up a little linguistic tap dance and variously burp in appreciation when dinner is served. See, it’s my love gift.
Now, why would I serve that to someone on a diet?
And this is how kitchen witchery works for me. Y’all know I have this little ritual called MND (Monday Night Dinner) with a little tribe of folks who engage in a little culinary hocus pocus. We’re four years in, kids and all, and the premise of our dinners is simply: cook anything (hell, make pb and j), but do it with love. It’s like, um, church. You can’t get that feeling by ordering pizza, y’all. I suppose it necessarily means the sacrifice of working hands, steaming waters and the feel of a wooden spoon with some sweet soul in mind while you stir. Mmm hmm. Now. How you gonna’ go and cheat that? Might as well drive through a window and holler out “no pickles.” Get on.
Lately, here in my older days, I’m leaning a might more toward doing it right or not doing it at all. Guess what that means to my relationships? Yupper. Starving a few dogs these days, feeding more lambs. After all, these are the moments of my life I will look back upon one day and want more of–and if they are squandered on needy vampires, crass brass bitches or greedy mongrels, there will be a deep, grievous hole in my heart.
We’re taught down here in the Deep South to be polite. I contend that this stricture, while valuable and honorable, has infected our right to our own true happiness. We suffer untold hours with asshats, serve up love-food to undeserving hungers and miss out on making cookies with children and grandmas. I believe that we do this because, regardless of what science has warned us, we sincerely believe there is always more time. Why must we waste our precious hours in asshatdom? Serve our energy and hearts up to the robotics of political correctness and its wasteland of doing the “right thing?”
Why, I don’t believe we have our britches on straight, y’all.
Look here: SFW abhors, detests, and other verbs of this nature any departmental function under the sun. I have found that pieces of my soul have been left on the tile floor of discussion that go a bit like:
Have you seen the new Handbook of Composition? Page 64 is just not designed to truly educate our freshman.
He doesn’t have tenure yet (eye roll.)
Really? He’s had years to publish in the academy. Removal from the graduate faculty will be of his own doing.
The eighteenth century ideal of citizenship had nothing to do with her presentation paper.
Well, I certainly wouldn’t vote for . . . he/she will run the department into the ground.
Right. You feel sustained? Moved? Alive? Me either. Stab my eyes out with a rusty spoon, y’all, before I use it on someone in a tie and a tweed jacket. (I tend to find the only smoker in the room, fill my wine glass and sneak outside to discuss the ramifications of AC/DC’s Back in Black tour on early 1980s youth. And snicker.) These little exchanges, all of us watching that our cleavage nor our childish ambitions show, leave everyone hungry for something with a little more bacon fat on it.
And for this old witch, such an evening is the equivalent to ordering pizza for a ritual dinner, or worse, feeding homemade ricotta to someone on the Adkins diet. Now, let me be fair here: I have deep, abiding friendships with folk in the academy. Usually, those whom I would save if the ship were going down are those I have drunk a bit of whiskey with while singing Glen Campbell songs, or gone berry picking when preggers and nauseous or those who have taken one precious moment to tell me about some dusty dream they remember having. It’s the hellish ritual I abhor, not the participants. Hell, they can’t help it the zombies bit them, any more than I could help it that I was immune.
And every now and again, I endeavor to fork a little ricotta in their mouths. Rouses them a bit.
But I’ll be damned if I’m going down like that.
Tonight is MND. Weren’t my turn, but my brother’s–and he’s been bitten by a daywalker. Because of the love that rips through my derma layer like acid, Imma cooking: Mexican sloppy joes with avocado crema, bacon tarragon potato salad and sliced maters. I may be tired, but the love transference is at risk . . . and I never miss a chance to put that phenomenon in the mouth of a family member.
For one day, far and away, I might be fragile and gray and miss the feel of my spirit reverberating on a table. I might miss the laughter against the tin of scraping forks. I might miss the way tomatoes smell, fresh-cut from the vine and drenched in truffle oil and fresh-cut basil. I might miss . . . living. It’s a gift.
And I never return those. Lose your receipts y’all . . . and eat with the simple abandon of someone who is dying. Because you are.
To life. ‘Cause of in the Deep South, it’s a family tradition.