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The Humble Reflections of a Kitchen Witch
By Rachel Rivenbark
One of the earliest memories I have… is bread.
Standing at a counter, carefully balanced upon a stool to help me reach, as my mother shows my brother and I how to make bread from scratch, how to knead the dough until it gets the right texture. Teaching us her craft at her hip, as her grandmother taught her, and as she learned it from her mother before her.
I remember vividly, the sheer, deep-rooted disgust that I felt, five years old and sinking my hands into raw, unmixed bread dough for the very first time. The sensation made me gag so much my mother finally excused me from the task of trying to learn how to make it.
I was also one hell of a picky eater, as a child. I’d hardly touch anything that wasn’t chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, or hot dogs. It drove my poor mother absolutely insane.
Needless to say, my relationship to food had a little bit of a rough and rocky start. Which is why it’s very funny to me these days that I self-identify as a kitchen witch.
I haven’t seriously cooked in nearly two months now - moving will do that to you, when you’re exhausted from shuffling books and boxes, and you can’t find half of your cooking utensils, and it’s much easier just to stop by the mediocre-yet-convenient Chinese place a few blocks down the road. Again. And again. And once more, for good measure. Any more MSG, and I think even my 22-year-old heart is liable to give out.
This kitchen doesn’t feel mine yet, doesn’t quite feel like home. I still can’t find my can opener. The smell that can only be described as Stranger Stench still clings to the house, from the old occupants. And I still don’t know how to work the damned oven. It’s strange, unfamiliar, untested territory to me, not yet broken in by my habits and my energy.
It’s good, real food that both I and this house need to set things right, and lots of it. It’s how I connect to my craft, my hearth, my home, myself, and my ancestors who cooked before me.
I’ve attempted to make Pho from scratch tonight, to try and ward away the illness and fatigue that blistering summer heat and too much junk food has left hanging over my head. Even the act of preparing the ingredients and setting them to wait on the counter is enough to bring me some peace, and something in me settles over the space as I work.
While cooking, I often like to pause and just breathe it all in, lifting my fingers to my face to smell the lingering traces of every component to the edible spell I am weaving. Clinging to my skin, I can smell the brightness of freshly squeezed lime juice (there can never be enough). The complex smokiness of the good soy sauce. The fragrant greenness of cilantro and bean sprouts. The deep earthiness of the mushrooms. And always, the familiar burn of onions and garlic, the most beloved and well-trusted components of them all. All ingredients which are meant to inspire happiness, rejuvenation, protection, and healing in the kitchen witch’s domain. I’m always hesitant to wash myself immediately after cooking - there’s something appealing in the evidence of my labors clinging to me, the smell sinking into my hair and hands like a temporary tattoo, the likes of which infinite women across humanity’s history have borne before me.
Although I know the smell will linger and grow stale until morning, wrinkling my nose with disgust as I wake up and go to make my tea (another precious morning ritual, sleepy and half-minded though it is), I can’t bring myself to crack a window, either. All I can do is bask in the warmth and the comfort of food and wellness, and the anticipation of a soon-to-be-full belly. In this happy, ageless labor through which I have brought magic and meaning into my life.
Even as I eternally lust after the Le Creuset dutch ovens in Sur Le Table, my mother’s old and oft-used dutch oven serves as the cauldron in which I perform my craft. The wooden spoon in my hand - warped and burned and worn down from years of frequent use - serves as my wand, the tool through which I bring imagination to reality. The banged-up binder that holds the loose leaf copies of all my recipes (I always swear to myself I’ll transfer them into that pretty journal from Barnes and Noble, one of these days) sits on the counter before me, opened to one of the few blank, unmarked, unstained pages. My very own contemporary grimoire, the keeper of all my tastiest secrets, waiting for a new spell to be woven, one pen stroke at a time.
The craft of a kitchen witch is rooted in comfort. In that which is familiar, and well used, and tested time and time again. In that which fills you up, brings you joy and sustenance. It is based in finding that which is sacred and sovereign in the everyday and mundane. Cleaning banishes dirt and negative energy alike, bringing new light and fresh perspective to my spaces. Using the herbs and tomatoes from my garden connects me to the earth, and to the natural cycle to which we are all bound. And a good pot of soup can prove itself to be a quick fix for damn near any grievance, even if only for a moment.
Subtle and discreet it may be, but our magic infuses itself into everything that we make and do, bringing positivity and banishing negativity through the beautiful art of intention and visualization. Food is a sacred, life-giving force through which humans have survived and lived and loved one another throughout all of our history. It is the ultimate unifier, bringing new and old faces alike around tables in the ancient practice of breaking bread. And to engage with it on a deeper spiritual level allows my heart and my hearth to be connected as the center of my home. When I cook, I connect to the earth and to my history and to all of humanity. And when I eat - and better yet, feed those I love - I experience a contentment which defies definition in words alone.
The broth is done, the noodles are prepared, and the vegetables and beef are artfully assembled in the bowl. Throughout the process, I repeat in my mind all the nourishment that I want to glean from this meal - physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. I let that idea flow through me, hoping that it will pass through my fingers as I fiddle with that last slice of lime. I call for my mother, eagerly awaiting her own portion. As the bowls are set upon the table, I make a quiet plea to Hestia of the hearth, to Brighid of the craft, to Frigg of the domestic arts, to any who will listen, that this meal will grant us what we need.
When we eat, I cannot suppress a smile. The food is excellent. It warms us, from the inside out. It feels good to be back in my element.
In the morning, I wake up. I get out of bed, I wrinkle my nose at the last traces of Pho clinging to the air. I make my tea, using the same cup, and the same spoon as always. I’m a creature of habit, and I love my rituals, these little doses of familiarity and magic. I feel better than I have in weeks. The kitchen does too, seeming suddenly a little more like my own smelly, wonderful home. All thanks to a bowl of soup, and a bit of hope.
If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.
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