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Consuming Passions

Family Recipes

A Food-Obsessed Life

To a foodie, lust comes in two varieties--romantic and culinary.

-- Mimi Little, scratch Southern cook and expert at love

Many hundreds of years ago, when I was a small girl, I used to eat dirt. I would squat in a Louisiana ditch, a dark-haired child in a yellow dress, busily whipping up a mud pie. Using a spoon from my mama's best silver, Francis 1ST, I added a little ditch water. Then I swooned, overcome by the color and texture of the mud. It resembled rich brownie batter. Without hesitation I licked the spoon. My pie tasted sour and felt gritty against my teeth. I ate another spoonful, dribbling mud down my chin. All of a sudden Mama flew out of the house and jerked me up by one arm.

"Stop that!" she cried, plucking the spoon from my hand. "Little girls don't eat dirt! And they don't use their mama's sterling for mud pies, either."

Bitter dirt, bittersweet memories from childhood.

My relatives spent the better part of their lives dreaming up recipes. Some were designed to lure men, and in a few cases they were made to repel them. I grew up listening to remedies for a lonely heart, cures for the blues, antidotes for colds and fevers, and how to reverse sinking spells.

Every summer I left New Orleans and went to stay with my Mississippi grandmother, who spoiled me with forbidden foods. Mimi introduced me to coffee, mayonnaise sandwiches, and bacon deviled eggs. Every morning when her soap operas came on, she'd give me a jar of peanut butter and a handkerchief full of apple slices. I would climb into the mimosa tree, propped between two branches, and open the jar. There were no other children for miles. When the apples were gone, I'd use my finger as a dipper. In that tree, I invented imaginary worlds, where elves danced under the clothesline and stole human babies from their cribs. My Mimi encouraged me to believe in these creatures. She said that fairies-perhaps even ghosts-existed at the edges of things. I saved leftover biscuits and hid them on the back porch, and by morning they were always gone. "The fairies were starved!" Mimi said.

On Sunday afternoons, when the clan gathered for dinner, my mama and her six aunts used to sit on the front porch, discussing the virtues of spinach, whether mustard belonged in potato salad, and which aunt had the perfect squash casserole recipe. it seemed natural that I would absorb all of this folk wisdom and food talk, but my cooking gene failed to emerge until middle age.

This is not to say that I stayed out of the kitchen-I adore all kitchens. I like the way they smell, and the way people stock their pantries. It fascinates me if they arrange their food according to the alphabet, by food groups, or jumbled together. When I wasn't lingering in strange kitchens, I was in my own, dreaming about food.

In my first kitchen, my culinary preparations were primitive. I did not saute, braise, or roast; I heated food, either in the saucepan or the microwave. The results were usually disappointing, but I devoured them. On this cuisine, I managed to produce a fair amount of cellulite-proof that I was surviving on sub-par food.

My unusual culinary habits caused quite a stir in the family. After all, I'd descended from generations of scratch cooks. My mama was a self-taught gourmet, and I needed Fannie Farmer to wash lettuce. Since I was a registered nurse, some of the aunts blamed my profession, saying it had robbed me of a healthy appetite. 'All of those hysterectomies and lobotomies and tonsillectomies," said Aunt Dell, shivering, as if I myself had endured these procedures rather than assisting with them. "It's a wonder she can eat anything."

Aunt Tempe disagreed. "Nursing is the perfect career for a young lady. Think how versatile it is! With all that surgical training, she can bandage burns, truss turkeys, and debone chicken."

While I had a keen interest in eating, I just wasn't interested in complicated cookery, especially if it made a mess or required long stretches of time. Like most every woman I knew, I was juggling twenty things at once--diapering a baby, rushing to soccer practice, wheeling a cart around Kroger, vacuuming, teaching myself how to write between five and seven A.M. I didn't have time to deal with puff pastry, and I hated sifting flour. Deep in my heart, I feared the seamy side of food: weevils, hot grease, and botulism. And it seemed to me that good cooking demanded time. I told myself that I didn't have it to spare.

Still, I loved food talk. It was the next best thing to eating. At family dinners, we examined each dish, critiquing and consuming. The gumbo was superb, but it would have been divine with more oysters. If only we'd wrapped bacon around that salmon before we smoked it. A stick of butter would have transformed your icing, dear. We adored discussing pit barbecue, homemade ice cream, and how to make Fourth of July cake, which is a simple, yet eyecatching dessert: a frosted sheet cake decorated to resemble a flag, sliced strawberries for the stripes, blueberries for the stars.

Before I was sent out into the world, my mama taught me the ladylike, company side of food--a refrigerator stocked with two kinds of wine, red and white, to be served with assorted crackers, cubed pepper cheese, and seedless grapes. I learned how to throw a tea party: cucumber sandwiches, hot and cold chicken salad, cheese wafers, and a lip-smacking tea punch that called for large quantities of vodka. By the time I acquired a husband and children, I had developed a repertoire of speedy, but savory, entrees. My most successful recipes included No-Peek Pot Roast, Creamed Chicken, and Smothered Pork Chops-all borrowed from other working mothers.

After my fortieth birthday, I attended six family funerals. Our clan was shrinking; the aunts were getting old. Pieces of our culinary history were vanishing. Food had ruled our lives, dominating all holidays and reunions, lending spice and eccentricity to our dinner table. Why, recipes were like kinfolk. Mimi's mashed potato salad reminded me of a pale, plump cousin who avoided...

Consuming Passions
by by Michael Lee West

  • paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0060984422
  • ISBN-13: 9780060984427