The Ploy of Cooking – A Book Review, Sort Of

When I grow up, I want to be a Mystic.[1]

The Bad Witch like a secret society or two, but my new favorite has become The Mystic Order of East Alabama Fiction Writers. Of course, they aren’t really a secret society, but they are one of the best kept secrets of The South. Last night, I had the great pleasure to see the Mystics in action. And by “action” I mean aprons.

The Mystics are group of women born and raised in Alabama. And you know how I feel, to me it seems that all Southern women have a solid touch of Witchiness about them from the get-go. We are just born that way. When your first breath is humid and heavy with Confederate Jasmine, ain’t nothing you can do about it. After meeting these women, my suspicions have been confirmed. There’s something downright Magical about the Mystics.

According to the introduction of their latest opus, The Ploy of Cooking:

On the first Wednesday of every month, The Mystic Order meets. We enjoy wine with cork, mystically formed foods, and the latest attempts at fiction compositions. Everyone must contribute to the table according to her ability.

The intro goes on to explain that their newest book, a “cookbook,” was the “result of a coup.” The results, in my opinion, are delicious. And I don’t mean the recipes. I mean the concept of the book as a whole. You see, there was a bit of a compromise at the end of The Mystical Rebel Yell – but not the kind of compromise that negotiates away the power of each side, the kind of compromise that takes an unusual combination, puts them together, and makes a new thing that seems to have made the most sense all along: like putting peanut butter inside chocolate.

In the South, we have a very special relationship with food. Even if it’s not always a healthy one. Those of us who spent Southern summers in kitchens full of canning steam know about it better than anyone.[2] And recipe books in The South are really just Spellbooks in disguise. These six authors, Gail, Mary, Marian, Margee, Joanne, and Judith, share their recipes, but in the context of a memoir. The offerings are treats like: “Specter Balls,” “Wicked Cookies,” “Bless It And Move On,” “Mayonnaise: The Downfall of the Southern Woman,” “Jekyll Island Shrimp,” and “Sunday Rituals.” And the pages are bedecked with lovely drawings by Mystic Margee Bright-Ragland.

I went to the book signing and reading to support, like a good Heathen, my dear co-worker and friend, Marian. But, as the universe decrees such things, I ended up getting more blessing than I expected. Along with the sweetest hug from Marian’s son (a former student of mine) and a sampling of the book’s recipes, I got to see a charming and sensible group of Southern women talk about food, family, and life in Alabama, all with an undeniable spark of the divine. Actually, TBW, was moved to downright mistiness as the Mystics read samplings, each from her section of the book. At one point, The Bad Husband leaned in to me and said, “Oh, this is what normal looks like.”

You know how being around bad energy can leave you with a sort-of “hangover”? I had gotten to a place where I just expected that any socializing was going to leave me feeling trashed, so I reverted to hermitdom. However, this morning (after not one, but two social engagements), I feel lighter and cleaner and have a clearer sense of myself then I have in a good half-year. Oh, this is what normal feels like. Quirky and artistic they may be, but as far as energies go, The Mystics are good, clean fun.

This is the part where The Bad Witch pimps her friend’s book. Ready?

Even if you aren’t from the South, you should pick up a copy of The Ploy of Cooking. It’s not a Witchy book, but it is pretty magical. It reminds me a little of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate. Though Esquivel tells a continuing narrative of one family’s experiences, this collection gives the reader an idea of the wide variation found among Southern families – as well as the commonalities. It’s far better than any attempts I’ve seen at mixing tales of everyday Southern life, the special Spirituality of the South, and anecdotally contextualized recipes. (And if you like this sort of thing in a Celtic Reconstructionist framework, have a look at Ozark Pagan Mamma.) The honesty with which these authors approach their craft is breathtaking. Not only in the narratives but in the gumption to present a recipe for Kool-aid and to give specific instructions for “Candy in a Bowl, Properly Served.” Now that’s keeping it real.

I adore my friend Marian. I am so glad that knowing special people like her have brought me to special experiences like this book – and seeing The Mystics in aprons.

Blessings, Quarks, and 93,

The Bad Witch

You can find the Mystic Order on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EastAlabamaMystics

See also Be the Flame, the Mystics’ 2011 collection.


[1] Since 2008 this phrase makes me sing The Pussycat Doll’s song. “Be careful what you wish for ‘coz you just might get it.” Then I watched the video this morning and imagined the Mystics dancing on a scaffold. It was all kinds o’ wrong.

[2] Yea, yea. I spent the school-year in the land of Teamsters and Deep-Dish, but in the summer, I was in Muscle Shoals.

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