Reviews & Interviews

Book Review – Kitchen Witch: Food, Folklore, and Fairy Tale by Sarah Robinson

Book Review
Kitchen Witch: Food, Folklore, and Fairy Tale
by Sarah Robinson
Published by Womancraft Publishing
March 18, 2022
275 pages

 

 

I’m reading an advanced “review” e-book copy of this fabulous book and I am telling you right now that as soon as I see it in hard-copy, I am buying it! I’m old school – I like my literature between in old-fashioned book form, so I can curl on my couch and get all comfy-cozy as I read, but even on an annoying screen, I couldn’t put this book down. Believe me, no matter how you like to read your books, Kitchen Witch: Food, Folklore and Fairy Tale, by Sarah Robinson is not to be missed!

Kitchen Witch: Food, Folklore and Fairytale has four sections, with an introduction at the beginning and a closing at the end. Each section has a theme – section one is the history of the kitchen witch; section two is food in fairytale and folklore; section three is food medicine and food magic; section four is food in ritual and celebration. Each section has a summary at the end, which makes it perfect for the classroom or a reading group or a coven wishing to learn about their witchy past.

I was sent Kitchen Witch: Food, Folklore and Fairy Tale as an e-book so that’s how I read it. It’s 296 pages total, so that’s a good-sized book – if it was a hard-cover book – or even a paper-back – it would be a handful. Probably about an inch thick, depending on how thick the paper was and how big the font was. I bet it’s a gorgeous book.

In the introduction, Robinson writes, “This book is just a glimpse into a world of magic in our food: a path scattered with jewel-bright spices, shining fruits and emerald herbs.” (Robinson, 1). She is not exaggerating. As you read each section, you get the feeling that she had a lot more written for each part and it was edited out – to make the book more streamlined – but also, that if those edited parts had remained in, she might have had two or even three books to offer the public. There’s that much information in this book.

She says this herself in the Closing: “This book is the longest I have ever written, and yet, I have barely scratched the surface of the wealth of stories surrounding food folklore and the witches that dance through the tales and superstitions. There was so much more I could have included.” (Robinson, 274). I am so sure this is true. Any of us who grew up hanging out in the kitchen know this is true; those of us who learned how to cook from our mothers and grandmothers; who heard numerous fairytales, especially those that included food; and those of us who were lucky enough to live in places where we could learn how to garden, harvest and preserve our food for the long winter months and into the spring until the new plants started producing again. Even if our mothers and grandmothers and aunts did not call themselves “witches” – and some did! – when we came to the Goddess and learned about herbal and kitchen witchery, we realized that our female ancestors had been blessed with magical knowledge, regardless of that they termed that knowledge. But many witches, especially younger ones, don’t have the benefit of this knowledge. Kitchen Witch: Food, Folklore and Fairytale seeks to rectify this situation.

Section 1 is all about the history and archetype of the kitchen witch. “Historically,” Robinson writes, “a witch was someone who used magic, also called witchcraft.” (Robinson, 20). In a world where the most basic scientific phenomena was seen as magic, most any kind of herbal remedy or healing could be construed as witchery and if some terrible occurrence happened, it was easily blamed on witchcraft as well. Witches were well-known in the ancient world, suffering persecution even then (Robinson, 23). Although they were part of the fabric of daily life in the Greco-Roman world, making a “living by offering healing, love potions, protection spells and curses…doing so was dangerous, and practitioners were always at risk for being accused by authorities or unsatisfied clients.” (Robinson, 23). Witches were executed when plague swept Roman cities; there were numerous witch trials in both Greece and Rome; the crime of sorcery was actually punishable by death in Rome, although it seems the demand for love potions and poisons, as well as “curse tablets”, so that the figure of the witch never disappeared, due to her popularity (Robinson, 24).

Once Christianity was the main religion of Europe, the figure of the witch had a partner in crime – the Devil – so that her witchcraft was not merely healing or harm but heresy. Robinson writes: Anything and everyone could be, and often was, blamed on the devil and his handmaidens: witches. Many of these “quarrelsome dames” as they were referred to in some of the Scottish witch trials, considered themselves Christian, but also believed in magic, and charms, perhaps offering up these skills to make a little money – and they were probably bewildered by suggestions that they were cavorting with demons. They, like everyone else, were simply trying to survive…” (Robinson, 27) Much of that surviving happened in the kitchens of these women, hence the term “kitchen witch”. “…whilst the idea of calling someone or something a Kitchen Witch is relatively modern,” writes Robinson, “the magic and archetype of the witch’s kitchen is ancient.” (Robinson, 28) She notes that the witch’s story is that of the industrious poor, never wasting anything at all; I myself was raised like that. She asserts that “The real power of the witch in the kitchen is to see and know the healing abilities of the humble: bringing together…ingredients together into a warming meal that will nourish, heal, and comfort. That’s real magic.” (Robinson, 28) And so it is. I’m proud to say that I am daily practitioner of this magic.

Robinson continues her history, including Kitchen Witch poppets – I remember when they were popular in the 1970s – the cooking cauldron and goddesses of the cauldron, household gods and spirits, Greek and Roman deities of the hearth and home, and house spirits of all cultures. One of my favorite parts of section I is the part about brewing. I absolutely love that the oldest beer recipe in the world is a hymn to the goddess Ninkasi. (Robinson, 45) Ninkasi was the goddess of beer but she was also beer itself. To drink beer was to ingest the goddess and become one with her. “Her spirit and essence infused the beer: her name means ‘the lady who fills the mouth’”. (Robinson, 46) The brewing of beer was a ceremonial event; the hymn was sung as part of this beer-brewing ceremony. From there, Robinson covers beer-brewing in Egypt, noting that the goddess Hathor was considered to have invented the brewing process, being known as “The Lady of Drunkenness” (Robinson, 47) Almost every culture had recipes for beer and beer deities. In the Middle Ages, the use of hops as a preservative began; usually this is credited to Saint Hildegard von Bingen. (Robinson, 48) On page 51, Robinson starts a discussion of alewives and their resemblance to the modern conception of witches. She writes: “While there’s no definitive historical proof that modern depictions of witches were modeled after alewives, there are some uncanny similarities between alewives and anti-witch propaganda. And as brewing gradually moved from a cottage industry into a money-making one, this connection to witchcraft proved useful for men to remove women and their roles with demonization and character assassination. Other skills such as lay healers suffered a similar fate, and women were stripped of their ability to claim a profession or have their skills recognized. Medicinal knowledge was considered impossible for a woman to possess, therefore her skills must have been begotten by the devil.” (Robinson, 51)

Naturally, the Church also had a lot to do with the demonization of alewives as witches, promoting a kind of medieval temperance movement, blaming the alehouses and the women who brewed the ale for all the vices that plagued humankind. As the Middle Ages moved into the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, the witch was “othered” into almost obscurity. However, through fairytales and folklore, the witch remained a force with which to be reckoned.

Section 2 is titled “Food in Folklore and Fairytale” and like Section 1, this could be a book of all its own. Food and eating are universal, and many folk and fairy tales are universal as well – only the details differ. When I was a little girl, I loved fairytales; they were a window into a world long gone – what we called “the olden days”. They were also part of the present. According to my Gramma Mac, a helpful “brownie” lived underneath the cellar stairs but we had to remember to say hello to him or he might not be so helpful to us; the “Wicked Witch of the West” lived in the room that once was the cistern – we had to watch out for her, too. In the warm summer months, she lived in a broken-down shack in the woods across the creek. There were fairies in the flower gardens and angels watching over us at night. There was magic everywhere all the time. Fairytales were also cautionary tales because there was always a lesson to be learned: beware of handsome predators (Little Red Riding Hood), be aware of what time it is (Cinderella), mark your trail well (Hansel and Gretel), don’t take apples or any other kind of food – especially candy! – from strangers (Snow White). When you’re a child, you may not be aware of the lesson being taught, especially when it’s in the form of a charming story, but these lessons are very important. This is why they have lasted for centuries.

Quite naturally, the food in fairytales and folklore are the common food of everyday life. Apples, nuts, porridge, bread, milk, water. The stories that feature apples alone abound and could be the subject of its very own book. I was surprised to read that figs were a “contender for the fruit in the Garden of Eden,” as Robinson writes, noting that “…Adam and Eve cover their nakedness with fig leaves.” (Robinson, 82) Perhaps this is the reason why Jesus blasts the fig tree in Matthew 21:18-22? One of the stories Robinson relates in this section is “I Love You More Than Salt” which was one of our favorite stories when we were young. After my grandfather had several heart attacks, salt was severely curtailed at our table (because of salt’s role in hardening of the arteries) and this story had another layer of meaning. “I love you more than salt” was something we used to say to one another and really mean it.

“Food Medicine, Food Magic” is the title of Section 3. This section covers herbs, spices, coffee, chocolate and tea, the substances that make life worthwhile! While I may love you more than salt, herbs and spices are what make a meal alive with flavor and quite honestly – I couldn’t live without chocolate or tea and please don’t take away my morning cup of coffee! Herb craft was something once passed from mother to daughter but as Robinson points out, “…power shifts began, as knowledge became something considered ‘owned’ by male experts and could only be passed on through academic institutions.” She continues, “Women’s knowledge became mocked as old wives’ tales, notions, intuitions, fancies – as it still is today.” (Robinson, 146-7) Of course – as Robinson points out – women weren’t allowed to go to medical school, so any kind of healing work they might do was of course illegal or at the very least suspect. How very convenient! I found the “Nine Herbs Charm”, mentioned on page 157, and explained through page 160, very interesting and informative. I imagine wise women collecting these herbs and blending them to make a healing salve for whoever needed it. Some of these herbs grow in my own garden.

I loved the section about tea. Although I have two cups of coffee to start my day, I drink tea from eight in the morning until I go to bed. I drink mostly black tea; no sweetener or lemon or milk. In the evenings, I may switch to an herbal tea; in that case I may add honey or lemon. But tea is my drink of choice in almost every case. I read tea leaves; I have a special cup, painted with astrological symbols and other pictures for divination. My grandmother and her mother both read tea leaves. There is something so compelling about the placement of the dregs of tea inside a porcelain cup! It’s an ancient art, one I’m proud to say I practice. Section 4 is “Food in Ritual and Celebration”. Here, Robinson discusses food as it’s used in Wiccan/Pagan rituals, most especially the celebrations for The Wheel of the Year. She also talks about the history of the Wheel of the Year; its roots in the Celtic culture, especially that of the British Islands but also its connection to other cultures, such as Greek, Hindu, Buddhist, and Norse runic cultures. We are far more alike than unalike.

I think it’s wonderful that Robinson references Margaret Murray, author of The Witch-cult in Western Europe, published in 1921. I remember finding this book at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library in the early 1980s – in the closed stacks, of course – it was the book that opened my eyes to the reality of a witchcraft religion, thus making a leap to Wicca that much easier – I own a copy of this book today. Many scholars deride Murray but much of what she asserts ring true. It’s also clear – after reading Murray but also reading “traditional” history with a new eye after reading Murray – that the witch hunts were a way to get rid of the power of the common people – to make them turn on one another – to look at every person who was in the least bit different as a product of the Devil and therefore a candidate for abuse.

Honestly, it’s amazing that so many of the old ways survived. And yet they did – hidden within the lines of fairytales, folklore and the old wives’ tales that were passed down from generation to generation. Kitchen Witch: Food, Folklore and Fairytale is a celebration of this “herstory” – the almost-lost history of wise women, midwives, herbalists, and yes! – witches. I highly recommend Kitchen Witch: Food, Folklore and Fairytale, by Sarah Robinson. This is a cultural and culinary treat not to be missed. Anyone who loves a good story will enjoy this book!

Naturally, I wanted to check out Sarah Robinson online – see if she had an internet presence – a cool website, maybe a Facebook or Instagram account or maybe even something on Pinterest – there’s so many platforms now! Well, it turns out that there’s more than one Sarah Robinson writing books – apparently, there’s an American novelist with the name of Sarah Robinson writing romances for adult women – the kind of novels that often feature a shirtless hunk of a man on the cover. But the author of Kitchen Witch: Food, Folklore and Fairy Tale is not this author. Our Sarah Robinson is the author of Yoga for Witches, also published by Womancraft Publishing. She also has an Instagram account. Check them both out; they’re worth the time spent there.

Also, check out her Yoga for Witches series on YouTube! The entire series is fabulous! I’ve been doing yoga for over forty years and I absolutely love her videos! I’ve been doing yoga with her almost every morning since I discovered them – thanks to this book! I’m old and arthritic but I have to say that I am feeling much more supple – and the most important thing is, I’m feeling much more positive about my entire life – which is the most important thing!

 

The Kitchen Witch on Amazon

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About the Author:

Polly MacDavid lives in Buffalo, New York at the moment but that could easily change, since she is a gypsy at heart. Like a gypsy, she is attracted to the divinatory arts, as well as camp fires and dancing barefoot. She has three cats who all help her with her magic.

Her philosophy about religion and magic is that it must be thoroughly based in science and logic. She is Dianic Wiccan but she gets along with a few of the masculine deities. She loves to cook and she is a Bills fan.

She blogs at silverapplequeen.wordpress.com. She writes about general life, politics and poetry. She is writing a novel about sex, drugs and recovery.