ROTTEN TOMATOES AND ROD STEWART
If necessity is the mother of invention, then being slap-wore-out and not feeling like getting out of your ‘jams’ is the mother of down-home cooking. You know the feeling? The laundry got the best of you, an offspring needs help with a project, your job beat the crap out of your ability to hold a decent conversation and . . . it’s dinner time. Well, damn. You’ve Oathed to be a good steward of your money at this time of the year, so Papa John’s gets the shaft. There’s only two fish sticks left in the freeze and if you have to look at leftovers again, someone’s gonna get shot. Probably the refrigerator, it’s been acting up, anyway. What to do, what to do.
Well. That’s how shepherd’s pie, breakfast-for-dinner and some downright fine soups have come into being. A good Kitchen Witch doesn’t let a little grocery shopping get in the way of some fine sustenance–in fact, this is a superb moment for a lesson in magic. It has to do with waxing and waning, ironically, bringing things in and pushing stuff out–and some seriously righteous Divination. Grab your spoons, this is gonna’ be a bumpy ride.
Say you’ve had some bad energy shot at you. You’re not gonna’ leave that flopping around on the floor like a downed catfish, are you? Slap that sucker up on a cutting board, dust it off with a bit of smoked paprika and some salt and sear it in an iron skillet. (Serve with cole slaw.) It’s not about creating something out of nothing, y’all, as we ALL know that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Naw, it’s more of a “turn shit into steak” kind of skill. This kind of redirection works especially fine with what my friend Cam calls “pantry cookin,'” wherein you become the responsible Pagan you should be and ‘roust up those bits and pieces around the kitchen and turn them into sweet, Southern (or whatever region in which you abide) gold.
For instance, recently I had been glued to my computer, writing away on my upcoming book Boondock Witch, when one of the manfolk in my abode announced that he was “hon-gree.” As it was already getting late (and no one in this house is allowed to cook but me), I had to make some concessions: I would not drive a car, we would not call delivery, therefore I would get my ass in gear and whip up some grub. I had:
1. Four yellow tomatoes, one day from rotten
2. A bag of wilting spinach
3. Ground chicken
4. Three bruised pears
5. Bisquick and a bag of shredded cheddar
I also had a mean headache, a Bad Friend acting a stone-cold-fool and a looming deadline. Sigh. This translated to: I was waning. Right then. About three curses later (Mom! Watch your mouth!) I got my hypothetical tired butt together, poured myself a nice glass of red, turned up a little Nina Simone on Pandora and revved up my athame. My mental diatribe went something like “damn things rotten before you ever notice why the hell do I live this far North it’s as cold as a witch’s titty that stupid bitch is never going to let me go wtf would she write about if she didn’t have me why does chicken look white until its shredded it’s frickin cold as balls stupid dog done pooped on the rug again is that my period coming on damnit damnit damnit.” Uh huh. The Southern Kitchen Witch almost, almost I say, conjured up some “bad” food. But, hold up. Suddenly (like magic?) Rod Stewart showed up on Pandora. (I sometimes think Pandora might be run by a very skilled witch.) “The First Cut is the Deepest” wailed out of my little phone, teetering precariously on top of a pepper grinder, and put my head back on straight.
Ain’t right to cook like that, I heard somewhere in my core, so I backed up a second and took a good, hard look around. What is your purpose here? it postured. Why, to fill the bellies of my loved ones. You gonna’ do that with spite and bitterness on your hands? Sigh. NO. Alright, then how can you take this collage of almost-spoiled foodstuff and transform it into something nourishing and a product of love? Sigh. By taking shit and making it gold, Big Momma. Right. Now get your ass back to work and don’t make me tell you twice.
And so, I did. Ended up being the most divine supper laid down on my table in a long time, all garlic-creamed spinach, chicken sausage with fresh sage from the garden, roasted tomatoes in balsamic vinegar, brown-sugar-buttered pears and cheese biscuits to sop up the cream. Destined for the garbage can, those ingredients were all the more sweet, an epicurean delight, for the work put into the transformation. I was waning, and so were they, but in that drawing down there resided energy, bubbling and ready. It was only stagnant–not dead–and in my hands it rose from the ashes of possible waste and disregard, much like my own worn spirit. There’s a Divine balance to be had here, my friends, of waning and waxing. I figure you take wilting vegetation and make it succulent supper, and you’ve got yourself a full moon. A revelation of the spirit, if you will, which translates to almost any lived human experience.
But hold up–we haven’t gotten to dessert.
I have taught the most delicious book, Like Water for Chocolate, for ‘nigh on ten years now. Laura Esquirel embeds into her drawing of an ancient, Mexican culture the magic of cooking–from intent to reception–in a voice that speaks Kitchen Witch eternal. The line that always gets my goat is:
Tita was literally “like water for chocolate” — she was on the verge of boiling over. How irritable she was! Even the cooing she loved so much — the sound made by the doves she had reestablished under the roof of the house, a sound that had given her so much pleasure since her return — even that noise was annoying. She felt her head about to burst, like a kernel of popcorn. (151)
This was the Southern Kitchen Witch before Rod Stewart showed up. Ah, but then you have:
Something strange was going on. Tita remembered that Nacha had always said that when people argue while preparing tamales, the tamales won’t get cooked. They can be heated day after day and still stay raw, because the tamales are angry. In a case like that, you have to sing to them, which makes them happy; then they’ll cook. (218-219)
Big Momma has SKW’s butt on a skewer, lesson learned. And finally:
Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms a tortilla, how a soul that hasn’t been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour. (67)
Well, DAMN. I have to infuse love into some nasty ass, half-rotten tomatoes? Well, yes. If I am to be warmed, if anything is to be of any use, the answer is: duh. If I ever hope to wax again, to become full of life and joy, then yes. I must craft treasure from trash. I have finally learned, here in my Croning, that nothing is to be left to rot on the counter (and by that, I mean folks that squat and leave bad energy, it stinks up the joint). Accordingly to my tradition, I hold myself to the precept of “first do no harm,” and for me, this means maliciousness, gossip and the like. And goddess help the soul that waggles their tongues on secrets, pokes fun of insecurities or rides gleefully in on personal traumas. For these, I fear, will always brew a bad stew in a crockpot–which I still contend is never, ever, kitchen witchery, but only “bad” magic. (See my last post, “Enough: Momma Get ‘Yor Gun.”) It turns out, yet again ironically, that the half-rotten tomatoes were my own. But, wait: ever tasted them slow-roasted, carmelized and kissed with a little port? Oh yeah. Make that globe of sunshine your own and serve it up with a little fresh basil to your loved ones. Physician, heal thyself. And pass the salt.
So, what was for dessert? Deep, heavy sighs of contentment, Oathes of love and faithfulness, a promise from my teenage son that “when I find her, Momma, I’m bringing her to your kitchen.” Contentment. Security. Memories.
And Rod was right. Glad I cut nice and deep.
Esquirel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies. Anchor: First Anchor Books Edition, 1995.