(In which The Scribbler dubiously and dizzyingly engages in combining the genres of “magic blog”, “gastroblog”, cultural critique, and personal essay, desperately hoping that by the end of this high-wire act of an essay he figures out what the heck his point was. May the gods be with him!)
This is a summer story, and since summer is officially ending in three days, I figured I’d better hurry up and tell it.
I recall how – back when the earth was cooling and a crust was forming on the surface, and I was in graduate school at UC Davis – I used to relish the times I could take a break from the insane pace of being a grad assistant at that uptight type-A institution, and do some cooking. When life is too cerebral, too hurried, and too abstract, there’s nothing like the visceral work of cutting up vegetables, measuring spices, and performing the subtle alchemy of combining and heating ingredients in a pan. There is a “meditative” state of mind you fall into while engaged in a good cooking session that can give rise to thoughts as profound as those encountered on a long walk through the woods, or while soaking in a hot bath, or while idly practicing darts by yourself.
But only when you feel you have time. When you’re trying to get supper on the table with five screaming kids pestering you about when dinner will be ready, that’s a different story. But I digress.
At the very end of August I took a week off and stayed home. There were things to tend to. My wife was finishing up a book she was translating, so I needed to cook and clean and take care of (the aforementioned) kids. The classroom at the Waldorf school our daughter attends needed painting. The new Waldorf kindergarten had lots of work needing done. And I just needed to get away from the office.
One evening, it seemed the perfect time to make a big batch of lecso (pronounced: lech-oh) for supper. To a Hungarian – and to a well established transplant like myself – lecso is a flavor of summer the way corn-on-the-cob is to an American. So I went to the store and scored a pile of these babies.
Behold the Hungarian yellow wax pepper! I’d never encountered this delicious form of capsicum before I came to Hungary, and it’s hard to describe the flavor to the uninitiated. The green, the red or the yellow peppers Americans and most West Europeans are accustomed to pale in comparison. It’s common among the working class in Hungary to eat hunks of these along with chunks of firm white bread and slices of ham or salami (washed down with wine or beer) for lunch. You see men eating this at lunch on constructions sites. It’s common picnic food, too. I think you can get them in shops and at markets in big cities around the world that cater to ethnic clientèle. If you can’t get them, you’re screwed, because otherwise you just can’t make this dish. For this dish I used a kilo.
Now, the first step of this dish is to cut the peppers in half, lengthwise, and remove the pith and seeds. This is the point of this cooking meditation that a revelation hit me, but I’m going to finish describing how to make this lovely dish before I circle back and tell you what it was that hit me like a twenty kilo bag of peppers when I was executing this step of the recipe. The afflatus was intimately connected with the knife in the picture.
Next you cut the peppers into half rings, as illustrated above.
After that, you peel several onions (this was five medium-sized), cut them in half lengthwise (that is: down the axis), and then into thickish half rings.
The final bulk ingredient is tomatoes, which you need to scald, peel and chop coarsely (this was about five medium-sized).
Heat up your pan and sauté the onions. OK. Here is where I went wrong going from the first style of cooking I mastered (Chinese) to Hungarian cuisine. Don’t get the onions too hot. Just enough heat to turn them from raw to glassy.
Then add a heaping tablespoon of sweet Hungarian paprika powder. Do I need to tell you how badly you will screw this up if you use inferior paprika? When people come to visit us, we always recommend that they buy lots of paprika powder. They are always grateful when they get home. Real Hungarian paprika has a scent that makes you think of hot summer afternoons on the Great Hungarian Plain: blazing sun, drying hay, men with monstrous mustaches and herds of ruminants kicking up dust. Other stuff smells vaguely like pepper.
Heat control is also essential at this stage. Take the pan off the flame while mixing in the paprika. If you get it too hot now, the paprika turns bitter. Nasty. I know from experience.
Now you put the pan back on the flame and add the peppers, the chopped tomatoes, and some salt. You can apply more heat now, but don’t go crazy. You cook it until the peppers are tender, but not until the outer peel starts coming off. When it’s finished, it looks like the picture above.
This is the point where I commit sacrilege. Hungarians will either add pieces of sausage to the lecso, eat it with sausages, or as a side dish/sauce with meat (usually a pork cutlet). But the Scribbler household is ovo-lacto vegetarian. If Hungarians eat eggs with lecso, they beat them and stir them in when the dish is finished, giving the eggs a consistency like they have in Chinese egg-drop soup. That’s just fine with me. But Very Aries, despite being Hungarian, thinks it’s disgusting. So, me and the kids just fry up two-egg omelets and fold them in half on the plate.
Serve with bread and full-bodied red wine. Life doesn’t get much better on the material plane.
But now back to the brain wave that assaulted me when I started cooking.
As I relaxed into my task – washing veggies and honing knives – I was rolling over various and sundry ideas in my mind that come from reading my favorite magic blogs. It’s a bizarre 21st century phenomenon how much we bloggers occupy ourselves with these on-going seminars among our cabal in cyberspace. I know I often contemplate subjects I’ve read on these blogs to the point of almost having a continuing internal round-table discussion with the authors during the day. I consider what counterpoints there are to what they’ve said, or how one author would react to the ideas of another. It almost gets to the point of Hesse’s “magic theater” (“for madmen only!”). (Aside: If you haven’t read Hesse’s Steppenwolf by this point in your life, consider yourself undereducated and read it. While you’re at it, get copies of his books Journey to the East, and The Glass Bead Game. They’re work to understand, but it’s worth the effort.)
Kitchen knives. I could go on and on about kitchen knives. I’ve owned all sorts in my life. And the best ones weren’t always the most expensive. Often the ones that would take and hold a good edge were old oddities I bought at garage sales. They had to be taken good care of because they weren’t stainless; always kept clean and dried off or else they rust.
The knife in the pictures above ended up in my kitchen by chance, but it’s become my favorite paring knife. When we vacation as a family, we often rent apartments, so I bring some of my own knives for cooking. When we were packing up I told one of my sons to pack up the kitchen stuff, and he mistook it for one of ours. I didn’t send it back because I’m certain it had been left behind by another guest. It’s mine now! It’s an Italian knife, Kaimano brand. Takes a nice edge. Every time I use it I give it a couple swipes on the fine carborundum stone and then a few licks on the steel.
There’s a theme that often weaves itself through various blogs, that involves identifying genuine magic as opposed to soft-minded popular stuff. And tracing the true tradition as opposed to a sort of concocted history or mythology of esoteric lineage. Jack Faust
tries to hammer out his vision of what witchcraft means to him in terms of the European lineage. Gordon
is continually feeding nineteenth- and early twentieth-century occult authors and organizations through a filter that removes white middle- and upper-class prejudices and tunnel vision. Rufus Opus
is always trying to find the very essence of the Western tradition in the original Hermeticists and Neo Platonists (and giving the nineteenth-century occultists a few kicks while Gordon is holding them down). And then there’s Miss Sugar
plugging away at her soul-searching explorations of how-we-got-here-and-what-should-I-be-doing through the eyes of a Hindu-oriented kitchen witch. It’s worthwhile reading these essays (remember that the word essay comes from the French essayer
– to attempt), because every one of us realizes that you have to keep reworking the narratives we get; pulling them apart and putting them back together again and trying to fit new pieces in when you get new narratives, and slowly a picture begins to emerge for you of how things got to be the way they are, and what really happened behind the scenes as opposed to the official version of things, and what you are supposed to do now that you’ve figured that out. Like, for instance, me: I identify myself as a Rosicrucian. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the Fama
, and how many times I’ve pondered what happened in Europe during the Renaissance and – taking that all into consideration – what I’m supposed to be doing.
Now all this sort of thing was going through my head while I began cutting up those yellow wax Hungarian peppers. And I could feel all the years of practice expressing itself in my hands. I think you need to have children to appreciate this. On the one hand, you are supposed to encourage kids to help you in the kitchen. It develops important life skills and broadens their knowledge. But it’s not until you hand a kid a head of broccoli and a paring knife, demonstrate for them briefly how to cut it into florets, and tell them to carry on, that you get supremely frustrated and understand how you take all your own kitchen skills for granted. You have to continually coach them in how to hold the knife, how to slice with or across the grain, how to hold the peel between your thumb and the blade when you are stripping the stem. All things you do automatically, without thinking, and that they are clueless about.
And it was while I was quietly appreciating the knowledge my body was showing of the peppers in my left hand and the knife in my right hand that I suddenly understood the chasm between myself and a 19th century English lodge magician. This knowledge of the knife and the pepper would have been lost on most of them. They had domestic servants who took care of such things. This was knowledge they didn’t have.
The fact that this was a visceral experience – something that came through my hands, my muscles, my skin, my eyes -is making me struggle to put it into words. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d “think” or “understand” while quietly reading a book or a blog. It was something I knew to my very core because I was experiencing it.
That knife in my hand. Everything it means to me, as a physical tool, as a symbolic tool, is inextricably bound to everything I’ve ever experienced with a knife in my hand. What did a middle- or upper-class English white man (or woman) feel when he held a ritual dagger in his hands? What kind of things had they ever done with a knife?
In traditional European fairy tales – of which I’ve read thousands of pages to the the aforementioned children – there is a figure you can recognize the moment she appears. Typically it’s the old woman who tends the noble house’s poultry flock. When she turns up in a story, you can bet your gold teeth she’s a “witch”.
You have to remember that these stories were retold by countless generations before they were finally written down by prescient scholars to save them from the oblivion that would be their fate in the new industrial society. So, depending on how Christianized the telling of a particular tale had become over time, the “witch” figure in these tales could either be downright evil or the protagonist’s benefactor. Interestingly enough, the versions most people know – the widely published Grimms’ tales – are just about the most Western, Christian versions of these tales in existence. So, in Grimms’ the witch is usually evil.
In my experience, once you start heading southeast, and especially as you enter Balkan territory, the tales become more magical in content, and the witch tends to be a more positive character. She is often the one who knows better than the wise men in the palace court, and gives the protagonists the “spell” needed to solve their problem: take this object/these herbs, go to that place at this time, and then perform this act.
Where did she get her wisdom from? Why does she know things they don’t know in the palace culture? What does this woman associate with a knife? How is it different than the associations the noblemen have, due to the things she does with a knife?
I’ve read in various places (and have no idea whether it’s true or just something authors repeat in subsequent publications) that European witches used household objects in their rituals, such as brooms, cauldrons, and wooden spoons, because they didn’t have to hide them like they would things that had obvious ritual functions. Could be. Sounds good. But maybe, just maybe, the truth is that household objects held a different meaning for them than they did to other people.
A knife certainly means something different to me than it does to the people I know who place no importance on cooking. It’s happened to me several times. I am at someone’s house and I volunteer to cook something. Then when I start looking around their kitchen, I can’t find a knife beyond a butter knife or perhaps a dull cheap serrated steak knife. Ever try to dice carrots with one of those? It’s life endangering.
What’s my point? I’m not quite sure. The momentary flash hit me so hard that I’m struggling to flesh it out. Perhaps what I felt in the moment of knowledge (gnosis? Can you experience gnosis while cooking?) was the realization that we need to validate our experience in the here and now, and have confidence in the significance of the things we know, even the “little things”. It’s not unimportant to know the feeling of a knife sliding on a whetstone. There is meaning to the knowledge of how it feels when you are cutting a pepper the right way. It is only a step away from the miracle of alchemy to know the proper heat conditions for adding paprika to sautéd onions. And knowing these things has an impact on the way you will and should pursue your magic.
Consider carefully what people did and how they lived when trying to understand their spiritual practices. What they did depended on who they were.
Know yourself. Know your skills. Know where they will lead you.