Witchin’ in the kitchen: Deciphering the magic of food

Image 1. In the cauldron boil and bake: Lady Passion’s magical recipe book teaches cauldron cookery.
Image 2. Magic on hand: Lady Passion keeps jars of tinctures and herbs handy to loan to friends and neighbors who come to call.
Image 3. Not exactly eye of newt: Rhiannon is an herbalist, so much of her kitchen witchery results in healing tonics and teas.
Image 4. Byron Ballard performs the marshmallow hex. She developed the spell for a client with an overbearing boss. It works, she says.
Photos by Max Cooper.

Lady Passion descends the stairs in a long black dress and green-tinted spectacles. Crystals and pendants hang from her neck, and she holds a cigarette — lit, apparently, the moment I knocked on the door. I suspect the cigarette is for effect (eventually, it goes out in her hand, and she doesn't seem to notice). Contrived though it may be, the effect is convincing: Lady Passion is the witchiest witch I have ever met.

The trappings of stereotypical witchery find their place within her house: a multiplicity of tiny jars and vials (some simply labeled “potion”), skull decorations, crystals and gemstones, cauldrons, broomsticks, several crystal balls and a chalice. She describes the décor as “witchy.” I ask her if she minds that these same objects double as kitschy Halloween decorations for non-witches. Not at all, she replies. She's proud of the witchiness.

Lady Passion has written a cookbook, Simply Savory: Magical and Medieval Recipes, which is the reason for my visit. She's also worked on two other books: The Goodly Spell Book: Olde Spells for Modern Problems and Ask A Priestess: Magic Answers and Spells From a Real Witch. But Simply Savory is her first endeavor devoted exclusively to magical cooking. She wrote it in response to consumer demand, she explains. “They wanted food that you could cook in a magical way, like a spell work,” she says.

Spell work, she adds, is all about method, and that method is applicable to cooking. “It matters how you stir things,” she says. “It matters what intention you put into it. There's magic in everything you do, and if you see it that way, there's magic all around us. If you live with intention, then you can make anything magical.”

Cauldron cookery

The recipes in Simply Savory avoid sugar and salt and explore traditional preparation methods, such as cauldron cookery. Lady Passion shows me her collection of cauldrons, which she fills with sealed clay pots of meat, porridge grains and vegetables. She covers the vessels with water and boils the cauldron over a fire for hours. She says the resulting meal is cheap, nutritious and easy to prepare. “There are all these little traditional tricks and old ways knowledge that we teach and pass on,” she says. “I think of it as a survival skill, but also an art.”

Lady Passion is the third and final witch that I have visited in a week. The three witches all have an interest in the magic of food, yet they express this interest in very different ways. “Every group is different,” says Rhiannon, a witch who lives in Candler. Rhiannon is the name she goes by in Wiccan circles. Professionally, she’s a nurse, and she has reservations about publicly discussing her magical practices. “There are some witches that look at themselves more as just the magic instead of religion. And there are some Wiccans that don't consider themselves witches,” she says.

Sitting on Rhiannon’s couch surrounded by a rag-tag group of dogs and cats, I feel a little lost in the terminology of our conversation. Rhiannon, like the other witches I meet, practices Wicca, a religion that traces its roots back to Europe’s pagan past. But, she adds, what magic means to each Wiccan varies. “The witch was the wise person, usually the healer in the community,” Rhiannon says. “To me, magic is just using the little-known laws that other people don't know as well and connecting with the nature spirits.”

Rhiannon practices herbalism and cultivates a wide variety of native herbs and medicinal plants in her yard. She has the air of a practiced gardener as she wanders the yard. She displays only a touch of her magical identity in a whimsical pair of thick-lense glasses and an intricate clay and metal necklace. She points out passion flower, wintergreen, echinacea and forsythia. A mixture of honeysuckle blossoms and forsythia tincture, she tells me, treats the flu.

With the approach of Halloween, known as Samhain (pronounced SOW-in) to Wiccans, Rhiannon will continue to cook up her herbal and medicinal cures, but she's also planning to prepare meals to honor her ancestors. “One of our traditional Samhain rituals is to have what we call the ‘dumb feast,’ and we set out a plate which is of foods that help people get through the winter,” she says. “In our group, the traditional one is beans, a dried grain — frequently corn or cornmeal — salt and sometimes rice, either rice or oatmeal.”

She also plans to prepare the favorite foods of friends and family who have died. “We'll set up an ancestors’ altar,” she says. “On ours, traditionally, there's usually black coffee because some people that we were very close to loved the black coffee.”

Appalachian folklore and magical receipts

Rhiannon's not the only witch who will prepare food for the dead on Halloween: Byron Ballard, who connects her interest in folk magic to Appalachian traditions, will cook the favorites of her deceased parents and grandparents and take the dishes to the cemetery. “I always take coconut cake for my mother because that was her favorite,” she says. “In addition to doing the spiritual part of feeding my ancestors … it's an easy way to pass onto my daughter, who's 21, what the family recipes are.”

Like Rhiannon, Ballard's witchiness is understated. She wears an orange, Halloween-themed scarf dotted with little black pictures. I offer to buy her a cup of tea at the café where we meet up and immediately apologize for assuming she doesn’t drink coffee because she’s a witch. I just assumed witches would drink tea. As it turns out, though, Ballard has already had coffee for the morning, so she accepts the tea and sips Lemon Zinger while she tells me about her new book, Staubs and Ditchwater: A Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks' Hoodoo.

The book is a compendium of Appalachian folklore and magical receipts, which to me, look like a cross between spells and recipes. There are prescriptions for good health, a remedy for lust involving rose water, an apple, chocolate and honey (the book doesn't say what result will follow) and an “energetic working” involving an egg that prevents another person from behaving badly.

Ballard's interest in magic stems from her childhood in “a hollar west of Asheville,” as she puts it. As a baby, she grew strong on the mountain remedy of goats' milk and honey after an eating problem set back her health, she says.

She remembers learning about Appalachian curatives from her rural community. “You had to feed babies catnip tea really early on because if you didn't, hives would break out on the inside of the baby, and the baby would die,” she says. “Now, what catnip tea really does is calm and soothe, so I guess if you had a baby that was prone to colic, and you gave it catnip tea, then it really might soothe the baby.”

While Ballard's book stems from her investment in magic, she's also been able to take a more academic stance on the subject. In 2006, she presented a paper at a 2006 conference on folklore at Harvard. She's also planning a large study that traces Appalachian folklore and magic back to its roots in Europe.

Ballard defines magic as “bending the energy of the universe to your will.” Food, she says, functions in so many of her magical practices because it's a common conduit for energy. “It's looking at plants as allies and not just as something you use to eat,” she says. “You interact with it on an energetic level.”

Emily Patrick can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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