Southern Kitchen Witchery
By Aaron Oberon and Sigrún Haljoruna
Southern Witchcraft should be almost synonymous with kitchen witchery. Unfortunately I am (according to everyone who’s ever met me) a “monster” and it should be a “punishable offense” for me to be allowed into a kitchen. That may be a slight exaggeration, but I’m not a great cook. One time I tried to be cute and make cucumber sandwiches for my fiancé and somehow used three mixing bowls, accidentally threw crusts into the sink, and had dill sauce on the coffee pot. I can make food, it’s just not a safe process.
So for all of these reasons I’ve reached out to one of my closest friends (and amazingly gifted cook) Sigrún Haljoruna. Sigrún is a witch born and raised in the South. She currently lives in Central Florida with her husband, boyfriend, daughter, and small zoo of furry and scaly pets. Her love of cooking and magic were both learned from a young age by family members. Her current practice is a mix of the magic of her ancestors and a reconstructionist practice that calls to her. Witchcraft is a part of all the things she does, from raising her kids, her mundane job, and being a spouse and partner.
Talking with Sigrún about food made think about cooking and magic from a different perspective. I had a blast realizing that, in my own way, I’ve got a bit of kitchen witchery workin’ for me. We immediately started off talking about the single most iconic tool in the Southern kitchen: the cast iron skillet. Cast iron skillets are versatile and beloved in Southern families because they last forever, and to be perfectly honest food just tastes better comin’ out of them. When it comes to witchcraft outside of the kitchen I love cast iron pots and skillets for burnin things (which is basically all witchcraft is right)? In the same way that you don’t ever use soap on cast iron, I never wash out my cast iron burning pot. With every spell cast or incense burned, some of that power lingers and builds over time.
Sigrún was given her skillet by her grandmother, which was a wedding present to her grandma over 50 years ago. The skillet saw the world from Georgia, to France, Germany, and finally making its way back to Sigrún in sunny Central Florida. In all of that excitement the skillet lost its handle, adding even more character to something that features strongly in many Southern families. My fiancé has a skillet gifted to him by his Granny, she says it’s “one of the new ones” meaning it’s only about 50 years old. My mother has my great-great-grandmothers skillet, which she’s repairing and seasoning to give to us on our wedding day. Skillets aren’t just a cooking tool, they are one of the most important family heirlooms in our culture, and for many of us it’s likely to be the only thing our family is able to pass on.
Cooking out of a skillet means you’re cooking with generations of ancestors behind you. Every burnt seasoning leaves something behind, and every memory with that skillet is embedded forever. It’s that emotion, those ties to memory and ancestors, that Sigrún values most in her kitchen witchery.
“It’s very intention based and comes from a place of intuition. Whatever I’m feeling at the time goes into the food and those emotions get shared with the people who eat it. It’s something inherent. As someone who was raised to be a “Southern Lady” it was not proper to tell someone how I felt, but I grew up with the idea that the feelings you put into your food can be felt. If you’re angry the food you make will reflect that. So it’s not something I think about but that is how I express love and displeasure. My husband is in the doghouse, and I can’t poison him, but he definitely won’t like it as much.”
Southern cooking is about flavor and experience, not just sustenance. We are “healthy eaters”” which actually means we can always make room for seconds and thirds, not that we’re particularly “health conscious” most of the time. Our foods share stories of survival, family, love, spite, and welcome. Sigrún incorporates these facets of cooking as a way to pass on her craft to her children- who also adorably interrupted the phone call to talk to “Mr. Aaron”. Sigrún’s husband joked about her being on the phone with “her boyfriend” and this kind of back and forth seemed to fit right in with our conversation.
There is one special dish that stands out as particularly powerful for Sigrún, her grandma’s biscuits and gravy. When she was a little girl the smell of bacon and gravy would wake her up and Sigrún would spend the morning watching her grandma cook, learning from her, and eatin’ up every bit of love her grandma set out. This recipe is a constant for her family, a meal of love and welcome, and something that is saved for only the most beloved friends outside of the family. These biscuits are an initiation, a sign that you are truly family. That you are eating over 50 years of love, care, and knowledge. No matter where you are from there on out, once you’ve had those buscuits you’re family.
Hearing Sigrún talk about these biscuits made me realize how another one of her dishes had a strong impact on me, her mac ’n cheese. Y’all when I say that this is the best damn mac’n cheese I’ve ever had it is the Gods honest truth. And it happens to be one of the only dishes I can actually prepare myself. After that first bite I knew I had to make this, and even though I’m a disaster in a kitchen, I taught myself how to keep the mess to a minimum and produce something that even my inlaws have to agree is good. When Sigrún gave me that recipe a bit of her own magic rubbed off onto me, and making that dish is a process of love and warmth for my closest friends. That shit is so good that I’ll eat three bowls, and I’m allergic to cheese. But it’s worth it.
So I compared that dish, and its motivation, to the only other thing I know how to make: Cheesecake. I taught myself how to make it in high school to impress the theatre team and I’ve made it more times than I can count. Each time experimenting a little bit more, and each time to ensure that whoever eats it will always remember it. I realized I’ve only ever made the cheesecake for folks I felt the need to impress. When I was a teacher I made it for the administrations end of the year party, and it was the hit of the party- not a single other desert got touched. That was a spiteful cheesecake and I made sure that no matter what the administration would always remember it, and know that they would never get it again. I’m petty as hell, and that came through in my cooking.
Thinking about magic this way, as something emotional and human driven, has been a bit outside of my comfort zone. Awkward even. Not just because I’m not a good cook, but because my witchcraft has always reflected very different goals. To conjure spirits, to get a job, to pay the rent, to heal, to curse. The magic Sigrún exposed me to through our talk wasn’t about baking rolls that would win the lotto. Southern Kitchen Witchery is about making food that is the physical embodiment of human experience. It’s eating love. It’s passing down the craft of survival and support that was passed down to us, just like our cast iron skillets.
Photo taken by Aaron Oberon. All images and content copyright by author Aaron Oberon, 2018. All rights reserved.