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Kitchen Witches Do It Root Up

Author: Seba O'Kiley
Posted: January 15th. 2012
Times Viewed: 4,731

Not too long ago, I was thinking about the idea of "selfishness." As a Kitchen Witch, and as a Southerner, it is not in my nature to be selfish. After all, I provide sustenance and healing energy to my tribe, show up to a neighbor's house with casseroles after a loss and am surrounded by other Southerners who would hand you the shirt off of their backs. I never forget a birthday and will sit in my rocking chair on the front porch until the wee hours of the morning to lend an ear if someone is in pain. Raised in a primarily Christian state, it was impressed upon me as a young child that to be selfish is a sin--but here's where the equation gets a bit slippery. I'm Pagan. I'm a Hereditary Witch. It occurs to me often to ask: where's the line between the concept of selfishness and the preservation of legacy? The answer comes back to me, more and more lately, as simply this: when the gift is demanded.

Let's say your great auntie had a recipe for peach cobbler. Now, she finally taught you said recipe under an oath of secrecy, or if you are Pagan, an Oathe of Secrecy (big deal, y'all) . You get inundated at the football tailgate, somewhere between the cheese ball and the crescent rolls, with plaintive pleas for the recipe.

Do you:

A. Smile with restraint, hand it over, worry over it all the way home and never bring the dish back?

B. Throw a hissy fit, storm out, then have your husband tell everyone it was the "change?"

C. Thank them for their compliments, but graciously say "no" until they stop asking?

That depends. Are you going through the change? Sounds like the only fun to be had, then. (Make it a good one, though. Think Scarlett O'Hara. They're never having you back, anyway. Stomp, wail and take off your brassiere yelling "yeehaw" on the way out the door. Then call me and we'll have a good guffaw over a glass of wine.)

I pick C every time. There are Oathes in our practice that preempt all politeness, and my friend RB always says when someone stops being polite to you, all bets are off. Like all other situations in life, if you Oathe something you just stepped all the way into the water. In the South, this equivalates to baptisms, consecrations or anointings and there's no way out but death. I grew up specifically in Alabama, but have lived around the South a bit, too, and one sure-fire promise you never break is the blessed transference of a hereditary recipe. Sharing is in the food, not the preparation -- and if folks act a fool about it, take their fork away.

Now, sometimes the reason something is secret is simply because it's always been. Some of us do not relish the thought of losing the sacredness of an oral tradition and the history it protects. Other times, it's simply because we swore on it and that's good enough. Occasionally, though, it's due to the nature of the transference. My Grandma thought me to be of sound spirit, a good heart and a natural spoon-hand, but she also relied upon my respect for the old ways. She counted on the fact that I would rather wax my nose hairs than let someone put walnuts or clove in her cobbler--thereby keeping a dish that her own momma whipped up in one divine, pure, peachy piece. Perhaps she was protecting its simplicity and possible criticisms, or perhaps she was preserving the whisperings of a matrilineal cooking heritage: hand-over-hand, steam and thick, molasses love. That moment cannot be handed out on a three by five card, y'all. Wouldn't come out the same, anyway.

I have a sister-friend who loves several things I create: dark chocolate, hazelnut torte, brown sugar, bacon sweet potatoes and homemade honey and ginger ricotta. I have offered her, as she is my sister and as I invented these dishes my-own-self, the recipes. She has graciously declined. Her feeling on it is thus: wouldn't come out the same. I plan to teach her son, thereby insuring a new hereditary cooking line as well as her own culinary satisfaction when I'm long gone. (See my posts on adopted family and being Cherokee.) That being said, about a month of Sundays ago she asked me to teach her how to make gravy. Not just any gravy, but the one I Divine with wine or brandy, a little bacon grease, a smidge of sugar and thyme. It took only about twenty minutes over her cast iron cauldron, but with a little hip swinging and a helping of giggles, gravy came into being on her stovetop. The difference between handing a recipe down and handing it over is simple: being present. Stirring and chopping to the sound of heartbeats and the warmth of camaraderie. Can't buy or steal that, folks. Gotta' inherit it proper. Camenae DeWelles did it with an Oathe to only transfer that moment to family. Imagine the blasphemy of disregarding that form of magic?

No, skip the eternal damnation of your soul and just pick C. Or B, as I do dig a good full-tilt-boogie in-your-face slap-down. But do the right thing. You see, kitchen witchery has a full set of other ancestors to consider. Mine, for instance hails a little Cherokee/Celt/Christian/Southern, but also holds to other rituals and precepts outside of the kitchen. As a Kitchen Witch (since about 1970) , I am perplexed and saddened at concepts of our craft as only "domestic" and find those considerations to be at best ignorant of our heritage. While there is nothing belittling about the term "domestic, " it simply does not accurately encapsulate our craft in all of its amorphous facets. A true Kitchen Witch is always already Pagan somewhere in his/her bones and most often has farming knowledge, garden experience, merchant proficiency, story-telling and humanity enough to eclipse any diplomat. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, folks, and the heart of the home is the kitchen. My Celt, and my Cherokee, ancestors knew one thing to be true: if no one eats, no one fights, no one lives. (And nothing beats down an unruly dog or unwelcome visitor like an iron skillet. Or a butcher knife.) No, we are often just a bit underestimated and that's just how we like it. But just for fun, and no Oathe breakin', how about:

I plant by the moon. Every single time. This requires a steady knowledge of the phases, the seasons, inter-planetary space, meteorological cycles and celestial bodies. Later, all of this will taste one way or the other in my herbs, eggplant and peppers, depending.[1]

I utilize scientific ratios for minerals, water, sun and fertilizers to grow my garden. Slip that one up, and you end up with pumpkins that won't fruit. (An overworked witch is a civilian, at best.) [2]

I consider the spiritual nature of my plants. How are they placed? Do you have a table set out in their circle from which they can draw upon your laughter? Are their roots well-tended, protected, fed, aerated?

I utilize every bit of the plant, root to fruit. No man is left behind. We have made burning men/women out of old vine, crumbled dried tomato leaf in jars for craftwork and cooked squash flowers in garlic butter. The impulse is both Cherokee and Celt, although I have known ancient Cherokee woman to pray before a plant as prelude to the reaping.[3] Blessed be.

And then, garden aside, we have process:

I bless my knife, my spoon and my food. Comfortable clothes and bare feet are usually requisite measures to insure good standing in my kitchen while music plays, soft and acoustic over candles and a glass of port wine. A good Kitchen Witch clears her mind, her metaphysical space and her counter before calling in this kind of magic. She/he considers everything from the temperature of the room to the speed of the wind outside of the window before cutting nary a stalk of celery. It's a heavy responsibility, this fuel of the soul and body of family and friends; it is, in effect, the lifeblood of the human heart. I believe in transference, and ain't nothing good ever come of transferring slop into life. (Except maybe a pig. But even then . . . best consider the desired taste of your bacon.)

As to transference, it's a "root-up" kind of magic. While I teach top-down (moon phases, how they affect life cycles, why moon flowers open only at night, how their seed must be planted in the waxing phase, etc.) , I cast root-up. A good Kitchen Witch understands the paradox of utilizing pre-existing energy (reduce, reuse, recycle) from the ground on which she/he stands. Attempting to cast top-down is, as my oldest mentor taught me, playin' God. Everything that goes up must come down, and until we are not, we are physically on this plane of existence. To be a little crass, my sister-friend likes to put it like this: you just can't go down on that. My molecular energy, among other metaphysical things, desires and aligns to that which is around itself. Bungee cords are fine--but first one must climb the ladder. Everything else is EGO, plain and simple, and nothing shoves its fist up spirituality like that bitchy beast. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; therefore my work begins at home. Call me domestic, if you will, but mundane? Naw, shuga. It's the ontology of the craft. Labeling kitchen witchery as simply "domestic" shrugs off its inherent roots of potion-making, world-leveling potential.[4] No one messes with a cook who boils her bones, every time, and dances with a knife called an athame. Not if they know what's good for 'em.

The rest is, well, secret. I took an Oathe a long time ago with butter on my tongue and a kitchen towel tucked into my dress for a napkin. It was about the only thing I inherited, and I'll be damned if I'm handing that out like candy. Hereditary cooking is akin to hereditary teaching: we do not go all Sophist on that number.[5] You won't catch me teaching the Secrets on an open forum simply because it's sacrilegious to my heritage. Plato and Socrates would be proud at this "purist" notion of keeping the flies out of the ointment, I believe, and I'm damn certain my Grandma would agree with them. While I dearly value, respect and honor other traditions and the folks who follow them, I hold mine tight to my chest so that it beats with my heart. A hereditary anything refuses to hand over that indelible legacy simply because it wouldn't be polite to do otherwise. Why, I don't find it very Southern for anyone to ask me to do so.

But that won't stop me from defending my heritage. My kin never did place much value in monetary goods, but Laws, we did in our traditions. You see, there are folks out there that understand friendship or cordiality as something owed and paid out in material increments or measurable checks and balances. Sad to think, isn't it, that these souls walk around and never understand that words like "I love you" or time spent waxing long on a telephone about their children, their worries, and their hopes were always already goods. When those folks demand payment that they can see, say, a recipe on a card, this means that they missed the point. It was always in just the sharing of the cobbler, 'specially if you got it handed to you by a Kitchen Witch. She got that from her Grandma.

We are taught right slap out of the word "mine" when we are small.[6] It's not nice. You aren't sharing. Hand that over to Susie right now. Let me tell y'all something secret here: some things are yours. Some things are sacred and sweet and without it, your heart won't be right. I don't share my man, my skivvies, nor my Hereditary Inheritance.[7] If there is such a thing as sin, it's in the asking of these precious treasures. It's vampiric in the truest sense of the word. Naw, I pee all around those trees and keep my leg down around 'yorn.

But I will offer you my time, my love and a sweet, buttery piece of cobbler.

Blessed Be,


[1] For the delicious science and history of the art, read the article here:

[2] Regretfully, I learned this one the hard way. Last spring, exhausted from planting, I confused my watermelon seed for pumpkin, thereby planting pumpkin in late March. When the aphids landed, I fell horribly from grace and in a shameful moment of weakness declared “war” by the use of Sevin dust. Neither of these sins will be repeated by the Southern Kitchen Witch. Ever.

[3] My little tribe is a wild Southern hybrid of Celt and Cherokee. At Mabon, cornhusk dolls nestle neatly next to Green Man wreaths on the table. Amen.

[4] See the etymology of the word at: ttp://

[5] Plato had strong views on the transference of the art of rhetoric to unethical practitioners. I strongly disagree with the Sophistic disregard for form and ethics. Marina McCoy writes that: “Plato differentiates [the sophist and the philosopher] by the philosopher's love of the forms and his possession of moral and intellectual virtues. However, because sophists do not even acknowledge that the forms exist, the philosopher is separable from the sophist only from the viewpoint of the philosopher. From the sophist's viewpoint, a philosopher is merely a deficient sophist.” McCoy, Marina. Plato on the Rhetoric of Philosophers and Sophists. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008: 111.

[6] It tears my soul up a little to think that, especially as Pagan parents, we don't allow a little "mine" in a child's life. To grow up believing that everything is up for grabs cannot be good for their sweet souls and is a direct violation of their personal rights. Rather, I would like to see a parent correct them if ownership is in question, then remind them of all those lovely things that are, in fact, their own. This is particularly crucial when dealing with female babes. Think about it.

[7] Hereditary recipes and their sharing has to do with friendship and family. But as my momma has pointed out, when you are at a function and someone is judging you by your shoes, you just go on and tell them you made that lemonade (and skip the part about Country Time Lemonade and some sliced lemons for good measure.)

Copyright: This article first appeared on November 26, 2011 as a post at


Seba O'Kiley

Location: Auburn, Alabama


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