The “Herstory” of Food: Gone Missing

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“Feast of Bread” held across Eastern Europe & Russia

“When we learned to cook is when we became truly human, but we’ve lost touch with how that food got to our plates.” Michael Pollan in Cooked.

As is so often the case with history, the “herstory”  part tends to get left out – and food is no exception. Because while there are as many books on food history as leaves on a tree, try to find just ONE exploring “the herstory of food”. I still haven’t. Which is odd considering from our earliest days as hunter gatherers to the first domestication of plants, it was women who stoked the first hearths, stirred the first pots, brewed the first beer, and baked the first bread.

And if you explore research papers that examine the origins of plant gathering and food production (as I love to do) you’ll find for the most part, that the language is curiously gender neutral. Almost as if the sexual division of labour that dominated earliest food gathering, is unseemly and better left unmentioned. But fact is, women were the first gatherers, introducing the deliberate cultivation of plants and the various complex processes such as cooking, baking, preservation and food storage—basketry, pottery, that went along with it.

Why does this matter? Well, what’s gone missing is much more than women’s history. What’s rendered invisible is the story of our earliest relationship with food and the natural world – the vast swath of “herstory” which kindled our transformation into humans. And in this post I’m going to explain why I feel, in this time of ecological and food crisis, that this loss goes a long way towards explaining why we’ve lost touch with the food on our plate, not to mention the planet, maybe even our bodies as well.

Let’s start with food activist and author Michael Pollan’s recent four part documentary series on the history of food. Exploring the transformation of the four natural elements, fire, air, earth and water, into our earliest food and drink, Pollan never mentions that the “alchemy of cooking” was originally a women’s domain.  Yet in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (the book upon which the series is based) Pollan makes the point that “for most of history most of humanity’s food has been cooked by women working out of public view and without public recognition.” And yet his televised series continues the tradition.

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I’m totally with Pollan when he defines cooking as the “essential human activity at the heart of all cultures” and that by “relying upon corporations to process our foods we’ve disrupted our essential link to the natural world.” But that he urges us to “reclaim our lost food traditions” and “revel again in the magical activity of making food” without acknowledging that women’s food magic is at the very heart of our early food history, is quite an oversight.

Because long before food was a commodity bought and sold for profit, no act of food production, from harvesting, growing, preparing, preserving, storing, cooking, baking, was left unblessed by women’s prayers, rituals and devotions. Their food magic had one central purpose, to nourish the earth who nourished them.

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Left: Quinault berry picker, The Plimpton Press, 1913  Right: Zarma woman carrying decorated water pot on head, Niger

And for thousands of years, from the customs of our coastal First Nations to the rituals of the ancient world, whether they called her Isis, Inanna, Ishtar, Asherah, Astarte, Artemis, Cybele, Demeter, Pachamama, Annapurna, or Freya, women have carved and painted her sacred symbols onto hearths, ovens, pots, cooking and food storage vessels, made offerings to her as they gathered food in the fields, forests and waters, and held countless ceremonial feasts in her honour.

And while we may no longer remember why we bake fruitcake at Christmas or hot cross buns at Easter, they descend from the “holy foods” once ritually consumed to ensure her fertility -thus providing prosperity and abundance for all.

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Traditional Ukrainian Easter Bread and Kukiełka Podegrodzka from southern Poland

That Pollan’s series never mentions any of this, is hardly unusual. Today the herstory of cooking is relegated to the realm of ‘fertility cults”, sympathetic magic, folklore and old wive’s tales. After all everyone knows that baking magical bread isn’t going to causally affect the harvest.  So today the history of cooking is for the most part the story of visionary male chefs who pioneered the art, techniques and economics of “good cooking”.

Pollan himself points that this problem (as Janet A. Flammang, a feminist scholar suggests) may have something to do with food which by  “its very nature falls on the wrongside -the feminine side-of the mind-body dualism in Western culture… food is associated with body, animal, female and appetitive – things civilized men have sought to overcome with knowledge and reason.”

Today the earth’s body is industrially farmed and artificially fertilized, food is a “product” earned by the sweat of our brow, and the great mother is all but forgotten. Women no longer gather communally to harvest with prayer and song, but shop harried and alone in corporate superstores, and the kitchen is a place where we consume the processed and fast foods that suit our busy lifestyles.

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It seems to me that the loss of reverence for the earth desacralized our food and severed us from the rituals which brought us together, from which we drew nourishment, meaning and spiritual sustenance. So I can’t help but wonder, if this has anything to do with why, from perpetual dieting to eating disorders, to an obsession with “watching what we eat”, modern women have such a complicated relationship with food? 

In their book From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food, Arlene Avakian and Barbara Haber write women today are suffering from an internal conflict, in which “our hidden hungers”, “the sensual pleasures of food and cooking are all too often obscured by the increasing demands of careers, families, battles over body image, and the desire for a life outside the “traditional” domain of the kitchen.”

And they point out that feminism has been of little help sorting it all out, as women’s history scholars are more interested “in setting straight the public record on women’s achievements”. Instead feminist scholarship on food has largely focused on “women’s food pathologies, such as anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders” and ignored cooking “as if it were merely a marker of patriarchal oppression and, therefore, not worthy of attention.”

But growing evidence in the fields of anthropology suggests that women’s early place by the hearth may have had nothing to do with the centuries of domestic oppression that followed. Because long before women ate last at the table (and maintained their trim figures) long before cooking was part of an invisible unpaid economy, women had control over the crops they harvested, cultivated, cooked and consumed. Our very early foremothers, as Eleanor Leacock suggests in Women’s Status in Egalitarian Society, lived in a society where “issues of status are irrelevant because both women and men produce goods and services for their own use…and hence control their own lives directly.”

What if before the shift to ownership of crop and land, before food became “property” (usually of an elite class of landholders and the Church) women’s central role in food production granted them economic autonomy, status and spiritual authority?  (see more on this here) What if cooking, far from drudge work assigned to the lesser sex, was originally a source of women’s empowerment? What if it provided fellowship, and an avenue of creative, artistic and spiritual expression? What if eating and feasting were celebratory occasions to honour the life-sustaining gifts of the earth, opportunities for women to nourish and pleasure themselves?

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There are no answers to these questions because no one is asking. After all, who remembers there is a “herstory” of food at all? So I am left searching obscure anthropology, and archeology texts, quaint holiday customs and pagan cookbooks, for scattered references to a historical and spiritual legacy, that if pulled together would not only illuminate both women’s history and the story of our earliest relationship to food – but maybe even what it means to be human.

In the words of this reviewer, Pollan seeks to reminds us that the kitchen is “a holy place where the gifts of nature are transformed into physical, emotional, and even spiritual forms of sustenance”, and in Cooked he urges us to “forge a deeper, more meaningful connection to the ingredients and cooking techniques that we use to nourish ourselves”. But ahem, isn’t that the herstory that’s gone missing from our plates? 

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The Kitchen Maid (with Christ, Mary and Martha) c.1620-25 Joachim Wtewael

Pollan may have helped to popularize the food axiom “you are what you eat” but for our ancient foremothers it was how you ate that mattered. Baking ceremonial bread may be considered magical thinking, but l think it works like this: it binds us together in reverence and gratitude for our mother the earth, it revives the ‘old ways’ of creating blessings for ourselves, our family, community and the planet herself, and it reconnects us with the joy of nourishing and being nourished. And isn’t this a legacy worth remembering?

Oprah may have bought WeightWatchers to help women be their best selves, but maybe we’re hungering for something we can no longer even name? The way I see it, the “herstory” of food isn’t the old well worn tale of women being oppressed by their place in the kitchen. Quite the opposite. It’s about reclaiming our age-old power as caretakers and nurturers of the earth – not to mention ourselves.

Rosemary & Lavender Lemon Curd “Tassies”: Here Comes The Sun!

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Nothing says Imbolc better that the bright yellows of lemon, butter and egg yolks. So what happens when you infuse a sweet, zesty, creamy, lemon curd with the aromatic herbs of the sun? Glorious food magic is what!

Lemon Tassies are old-fashioned dessert tarts filled with easy to make citrusy curd. And while no one is sure where they first originated, the word Tassie is believed to be derived from the old Scottish & French words for small cup. And since France and Scotland were once Celtic lands (from which Jennifer and I both descend) I decided they were perfect to bring to her Imbolc Soirée, where we will once again celebrate with neighbours and friends, the return of Brigid, the Celtic maiden goddess of the sun.

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Imboc occurs somewhere between Feb1st or 4th (when the sun hits the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox) a time when days grow visibly longer, and deep in the earth seeds begin to stir. And with the promise of spring, as new shoots and buds begin to appear, it was a time of preparing the ground and beginning the agricultural work of the new year.

Magically, Imbolc was a time of purification and protection symbolized by Brigid the goddess of fire. Bonfires were lit to cleanse the fields, hearth fires were put out and re-lit, and lit candles were placed in each room to guide Brigid and her blessings to their home. Special foods symbolizing the power of the sun were made, offered and eaten, to help Brigid spread her green cloak of new life, across the land.

Long associated with the sun, butter has long been served at Brigid’s Feast. Legend tells when Brigid was sent to help the dairymaids churn butter, she prayed for abundance and the butter doubled. This she took and fed to the poor. Today people still leave out butter as a special gift to Brigit for Imbolc so that she will bless them with prosperity and abundance.

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Eggs (with their golden round orbs) have long been symbols of fertility and new life, and the lemon’s bright fresh, cleansing yellow, the colour of spring. Add to this the purifying and protective powers of rosemary and lavender, herbs both sacred to Brigid, and you’ve got some sweet treats I’m sure will please her tastebuds and help spread her sweet warmth over the wintry land.

And that’s why these Lemon Curd Tassies are the perfect offering. Buttery rich, lemony fresh, and suffused with the aromatic herbaceous notes of rosemary and lavender, they’re brimming with the magic of the sun. A perfect addition for any Imbolc celebration right?

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Plus Tassies are easy to make! Making the curd is a fairly simple procedure, and it begins with infusing your butter with your herbs on low heat for a few hours. Then you strain out the herbs and put butter aside. After that the most arduous part is grating the lemon rinds and squeezing of juice. This juice whisked together with sugar and eggs until light and frothy. And it makes a sunny pretty picture indeed!

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Then this mixture is put in a saucepan on low to medium heat to thicken and cook. Slowly  stirring, watch for when the consistency of the curd becomes thick enough that it hold its shape and doesn’t run back together with you a put spoon through. Once ready,  your infused butter is added, and gently stirred until melted. In a few minutes a beautiful creamy curd appears.

This is cooled for a few hours so that the curd takes on a thicker, even creamier consistency, and is then spooned into prebaked golden tarts. I used store bought mini-tarts because I wanted their perfect sun like appearance, but of course you can use home-made pastry or even a shell of buttered nuts and seeds.

Voila the delicious food magic of Lemon Curd Tassies!  Bring on the sun!

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Rosemary & Lavender Lemon Curd Tassies

Makes about 2 cups.

INGREDIENTS

  • ½ cup fresh lemon juice
  • Zest of 2 medium lemons
  • 3 large eggs
  • ¾ cup organic cane sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 4-inch stems of fresh rosemary
  • Teaspoon of dried lavender buds
  • 5 tablespoons butter

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Put butter in small sauce on low heat. Once butter is melted, add your rosemary and lavender. Let infuse on lowest setting for an hour. Strain herbs from butter. Set butter aside.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon juice, zest and salt until frothy and light.
  • Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan and place over medium low heat. Stir constantly, until the curd thickens, about 5-7 minutes or so. When you can run your spoon through and it leaves a clear path without running back together in the pan, remove from heat.
  • Press the cooked curd through a strainer to filter out any cooked zest pieces and/or tiny lumps.
  • Then turn the heat all the way to low and stir in the butter. Cook and stir until the butter is melted and fully incorporated.
  • When the curd is cooked, allow to cool on the counter to room temperature before refrigerating overnight, or at least 4 hours. This will allow the curd to fully thicken to its proper consistency.
  • Once cool spoon into small pre-baked mini-tarts and adorn with blossoms of rosemary and lavender.

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“Soul Cakes” for an Old-Fashioned All Hallows Eve

soulcakes101-001“A soule cake, a soule cake, Have mercy on all Christen soules for a soule-cake.”  John Aubrey, 17th century

I’ve been researching old world recipes in search of Halloween food inspiration, and these sweet little barmbrack “soul cakes  are the result. And while we may think of all things pumpkin when it comes to Halloween, originally it was magical cakes, berries and nuts (especially hazelnut) that played starring roles in the feasts of “Hallowtide” (Oct. 29th, Nov. 1st and Nov 2nd).

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Hallowed Celebrations (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Bridging pagan and Christian faith traditions, these foods were associated with both Samhain and All Souls Day, a Christian festival dating to 800 AD. Both had many similarities. According to this source, the dead were honoured, skeletons were decorated, lit candles were carried in processions, bonfires burned to ward off evil spirits, carnival like costumes were donned – and of course there was plenty of cake.

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Soul Cakes (recipe here)

Both featured small round “soul cakes” made with berries, fruits and nuts. And in a custom reminiscent of modern day trick or treating, according to The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, people went from house to house singing and asking for a soul cake.  For each cake received, a prayer was said for the dead. And today soul cakes are still part of Catholic cuisine, baked in celebration of All Hallows Eve.

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Barmbrack (recipe here )

Another Halloween treat served at both Samhain and at the All Hallows Feast was Barmbrack, a sweet fruit bread or cake. This was a dark tea cake spiced and speckled with berries, dried fruits and nuts. This Irish recipe tells how tokens, rings, beans, and peas were once baked inside the cake, and each member of the family given a slice. A penny in the cake meant you were going to be rich, a pea means a future filled with health, a ring for the bride-to-be, and “a thimble for the one who would never marry and a small piece of cloth indicating the one who would be poor.”

In Celtic traditions Samhain was known as “Summer’s End” and was the time of a ceremonial third harvest, one of nuts and berries. And I was enchanted to read in Witch’s Halloween: A Complete Guide to the Magick, Incantations, Recipes, Spells and Lore that one of the most sacred of these was the hazelnut. Celtic myth tells the hazel tree overhangs the Well of Enchantment and “the hazelnut, more than any other type of nut, has long been associated with the Halloween tradition of divination particularly the amatory type. Many witches traditionally eat a hazelnut on Halloween prior to scrying crystal balls or other divining methods to see into the future.”

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Hazelnut, botanical book plate (source here)

According to this source Women in Scotland would designate a hazelnut for each of their love interests, then toss the nuts into a fire on Halloween. The nut that burned to ashes, instead of popping, supposedly represented the woman’s future betrothed. Or if a woman ate a dessert of sugary hazelnuts and nutmeg before going to sleep on Halloween, she’d dream of her future husband.

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And while I’m already in possession of a husband, it would be handy to scry into the future on this night when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. So it seemed obvious to me that baking up some Halloween hazelnut barmbrack soul cakes would be a wonderful way to honour my ancestors and the beloved who have crossed to the other-side.

I’ve adapted the recipe from several sources for both soul cakes and Barmbrack to make these All Hallows Muffins. And instead of using raisins, currants, or dried fruit, I went with foraged berries of the season, the bright orange (Chinese lantern and Arbutus berries) and red berries (Barberries) for colour and texture. These grow practically everywhere from gardens to seashores so click on the links if you want to know more.

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If you don’t have any of these handy, cranberries would likely do nicely, but remember to add in a few candied citrus peels or currents for additional flavour. Click the above links if you’d like the more traditional recipes.

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Hazelnuts, Chinese Lantern, Barberries, Arbutus berries, dried Oregon grape berries and Almonds.

Magical lore tells that one should harvest the hazelnuts the day before or on Halloween, but I had a basket of hazel nuts foraged in late summer waiting for just such a special occasion. Hazelnuts can of course be found outdoors – or at your local market!

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And did I mention these barmbrack soul cakes are oh so easy to make? And fun enough for children to join in, especially if one decides to put a magical treasure inside each cake before baking!  Happy Halloween!

Hallowtide Soul Cakes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup fresh berries
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped hazelnuts ( I added a few almonds as well)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup hot strong black tea (I used a combination of ginger and Earl Grey)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp of nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cardamom 
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  •  A few tablespoons of chopped candied ginger (optional)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 1/2 cups of self-rising flour

Directions

  • Combine berries, nuts and brown sugar. Add the hot tea, stir well, cover and allow to soak for an hour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a muffin/cupcake pan.

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  • Beat the egg into your wet mixture, adding the flour in 1/2 up batches, beating well after each edition.
  • Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until toothpick comes out clean (around 45 min.)
  • Let cool in the pan before turning out.  

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Oh so pretty to look at plain – but fun to decorate too!

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Happy Hallowtide!

Reclaiming The Radical Legacy of The Witch

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about witches. Not just because top ten lists of hot tv witches and sexy Halloween selfies currently swamp my social media feeds, but because my tables and shelves are currently so laden with herbs, plants, berries, phials and bottles that if an inquisitor of old were to enter, I’d find myself quickly tied to the stake. And while this worry seems remote, it’s a plain fact that women in third world countries are still hunted down, tortured and set aflame for the crime of witchcraft.

Sure, the witch is emerging from the world of taboo and shadows onto the world stage. Sure, she’s being touted as a feminist icon  – a “powerful feminine model free from male influence or ownership”. But I’m not so sure. Because how can it be that the witch, once associated with everything transgressive and beyond the realm of normative society, is now so trendy and positively mainstream?  Is it really a feminist step forward that W magazine declared Fall 2016, the season of the witch, replete with pouting models in gothic dresses, chains and black lace underwear?

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W Magazine, Salem Issue, 2016

And while many believe the witch of the middle ages was a spectre created by the church, I believe she was real. Yes, many put to death were just ordinary women who practiced folk magic, herbalism and midwifery, but many were powerful spiritual leaders of the indigenous, animist faith traditions of the old world – and their magic was earned through a lifetime of spiritual discipline spent in communion with nature.

And I worry her make-over into nubile fashion siren not only obscures this history, but her true relevance as a role model to us today. One that if resurrected, would be just as subversive and dangerous to the powers that be. 

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Today the witches tall black hat and burbling cauldron have become icons of Halloween kitsch, but they were once hallowed items of the holy women and priestesses, the healers and herbalists, the oracles and diviners of old Europe. Their conical hats and cauldrons date back to the 2nd Millennium BCE and were connected to the female shamans of the Indo-European peoples.

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Tarim Mummies, 1800 BCE

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Scythian Princess and her cauldron, 4-5th century BCE

Their cauldrons (as well as crystal balls and magical wands) were still being used thousands of years later by the “witte wieven” or wise women, the sibyls, seers, and female druids of Celtic, Anglo Saxon, and Norse traditions of the middle ages.

According to Max Dashu, author Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion,  these “dream-readers, sooth-sayers, and herb-chanters, fire-gazers in Switzerland, or water-gazers in France and Spain”, practiced “all the elements of shamanism: chants, prophecy, healing, weather-making powers, and shapeshifting”. Legends tell of their sacred cauldrons in which “they simmered mysterious herbs to produce a drink of immortality and resurrection.”

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The Magic Circle,  John William Waterhouse

These women were the guardians of the earth, the protectors of the sacred groves, lakes and springs, from which they derived their magical power. And until the middle ages they were highly respected, sought out and consulted for healing and divination by common folk, nobility and clergy alike.

But according to Barbara G. Walker , it was during the 14th century that the Catholic Church, during its relentless expansion and appropriation of sacred land, began to distinguish between witchcraft, perpetrated by women, and sorcery, a legitimate pursuit of men.

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While books on sorcery were condoned well into the enlightenment, female witches in contrast were said to “magically injure crops, domestic animals, and people, and in general “outrage the Divine Majesty”. And thus their religious practices (as described by Dashu) of “sitting-out” on the land “gazing, listening, gathering wisdom” were extinguished by a priesthood that sought to bring nature, magic, women (not to mention their land and property) under male control.

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These women did not go easily, or take usurpation of their holy sites and old ways lightly – it took the Church hundreds of years to hunt them down. And so it seems likely, at least to me,  that the stereotype of vengeful witch, casting curses and blighting crop, was real, at least for the church. She must have been the original eco-feminist, fighting the patriarchy with one of most powerful tools at her disposal, magic. And the Church took it pretty seriously indeed.

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And I’m sure that if they were here today, these witches would be doing a lot more than striking a pose, they’d be busy protesting our dying forests, fighting the polluting of our waters, and protecting the planet. I like to think they might even have been part of The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell or W.I.T.C.H. a radical feminist protest group whose manifesto stated witches “were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression — particularly the oppression of women — down through the ages.”

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W.I.T.C.H. casts a spell

Their first action took place on Halloween 1968, when WITCH members marched down Wall Street and place a “hex” on New York’s financial district. (The Dow Jones Industrial Average is said to have declined sharply the next day.) And isn’t this the radical role model rendered invisible in the witches new fashion friendly image?  One that explains why corporate interests would rather have us dressing the part, than actually taking her seriously?

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As her image grows ever whiter, more privileged, prettier, and objectified in the west, women accused of being witches in Africa, Latin America and New Guinea continue to be hunted down and burned alive. I can’t help wonder what this all means for the “real” witches here and now?

Accusations of witchcraft have long been used to control women’s behaviour. And if we take any lessons from history, what might happen to those who don’t (or won’t) look the part, or otherwise refuse to behave?  How long will it be before they hear the inquisitors knock at the door? Just who benefits when the witch becomes no more than a fashion statement or pouty pose?

But that said, I do find something hopeful evoked in the trend of witchy selfies found on Instagram and Tumblr. Like photographic spells, they evoke the long repressed archetype of the holy woman of old. And while they may be romanticized, they offer a vision of a forgotten time when wise-woman communed with the land for healing, guidance and visions, creating magic and blessing for themselves and their communities.

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It is this age-old impulse in the female psyche that is reemerging as the popularity of Wicca, herbalism, kitchen witchery, flying ointments, tarot, crystals and gemstones, continues to grow. An impulse, perhaps, that still threatens the powers that be?

And it’s why I resonate deeply with Max Dashu when she writes, “In a world in extremity, we are searching for the wellspring, the inexhaustible Source known to all our ancient kindreds. Many of us have been cut off from our deep roots, and especially from the ancient wisdom of women, and female spiritual leadership.”

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And as I look over the drying plants and herb craft spread around me, her words remind me of my childhood ways of spending hours alone in the woods, gathering stones, listening to the whispering wind and watching it move through dancing trees. But I had no guide to show me how to “hear”, no wise-woman to teach me how to “gaze” or “see”.

Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, believes the burning of witches, the subjugation of women, the desacralization of nature, and modern capitalism went hand in hand. And she asks us to consider – just what was eliminated when these women were condemned to the stake?

And that’s why in a world of ecological crisis, where the witch’s hat is cheap halloween merchandising, where the cauldron’s medicine is replaced by pharmaceutical labs, where nature is a “raw resource” without spirit or sentience – we are in need of the witches radical magic more than ever.

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Harvest Magic: Invoking The Horn of Plenty

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This season of harvest, I’m going to take a page from my ancestors and craft a little old-fashioned cornucopia magic. Because if “gratitude attitude” is the key to prosperity nothing says it better than the ole’ horn of plenty.  Spilling with fruits, grains, gourds and flowers, this beloved emblem of earthly abundance, pleasure, healing and good fortune has been presiding over harvest festivals, feasts and revelry – since time immemorial.

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Today it still adorns Thanksgiving tables, but we’ve forgotten that for our ancestors it was once a revered ritual object symbolizing the unlimited procreative powers of mother nature. And as such it was held high by fertility and harvest goddesses such Fortuna, Ceres, Demeter, Abundantia and Flora, who brought forth growth and plant life.

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 Linked to medieval legends of the Holy Grail, the mystical chalice that returned green to the wasteland, it was the source of life itself.  In Norse mythology, the horn was carried by goddess Idun, “The Glorious Maiden Who Knows the Age-Cure of the Aesir’  who dispensed the elixir of immortality and the eternal regeneration of youth.

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Cornucopia were also carried by the Mothers or Matrones of ancient Gaul. Countless carvings, votives, statues and shrines dated between the 1st to 7th century, depict the Mothers (divinities associated with rivers, mountains, springs and tree’s) holding cornucopias filled with fruits and grains. Scholars generally agree this “Cult of the Mothers” was a pagan expression of female divinity in nature.

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Some believe the cornucopia’s origins date to the upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic, when animal horns were placed on stone altars to evoke invoke the blessings of the bountiful all giving mother, the great goddess who in her cow incarnation, nourished the world through her horns of plenty.

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I find this association with horns fascinating. The spiralling structure of horns, like the cornucopias, reflect the spiral patterns of energy manifesting through the natural world, as seen in water, sea shells, the spiral of galaxies, and DNA.

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Perhaps in the old goddess/earth worshipping traditions, these horns might have been seen as receiving and broadcasting the life-giving energies of nature, especially considering “broadcast” was once an agricultural term for spreading seed. And as the womb is also composed of spiralling muscle tissue, I think the horn also reflected women’s biological powers to give birth and new life.

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So were the “horns of plenty” once seen as vessels for channelling earth’s life-giving energy?  Could they have been used during harvest rituals for consecrating plants or objects placed within it?  Or to receive prayers that were chanted or spoken into it? Who really knows? But I like to think so.

So in honour of the great mother of all, her goddesses, The Mothers, the herb chanters, plant healers, and wise women whose ritual acts of “thanksgiving” created a horn of plenty, a prosperity magic to bless themselves and the land, I will go into my local woodlands, fields, shores and backyard, with a ceremonial basket.

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And in the next few days leading to the Autumn Equinox (known to contemporary pagans as Mabon, Harvest Home, the Feast of the Ingathering and Witch’s Thanksgiving) the day the celestial clock ticks from summer into the official arrival of fall, I will like my ancestors, harvest. And I will give thanks for the abundance of herbs, berries, roots and seeds, provided by mother nature to fortify us in the coming winter.

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Then like my foremothers of old,  I will take a ceremonial moment to call on the horn of plenty, the holy chalice, to bless this basket. And then of course, also like my ancestors, I will get to work transforming my bounty into a literal cornucopia of delicious fall foods and healing medicines, for myself, family, and community!

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So far, I’ve gleaned nettle, milk thistle, wild mustard, lambs-quarters, sheep sorrel, motherwort and wild mugwort seeds, and these along with herbs of rosemary, sage and thyme, will be used to create tasty, nutrient rich seed salts.

Rose-hips and berries, spicy nasturtium blossoms, liquorice fern and burdock roots, will create vitalizing vinegars and nourishing tonics. (Stay tuned I’ll be posting recipes in an upcoming Cornucopia themed post.)

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And there will be delicious hawthorn ketchup, acorn cake, crabapple chutney, sage infused honey, wild fennel crackers, Staghorn vodka and wild vermouth as well. Oh and there will be Yarrow and California Poppy tincture too. And this is only the beginning.

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But so far the best part of my autumn equinox harvest is this. In this time when the geese fly overhead and the landscape shimmers with the reds and yellows of dying foliage, my basket fills me with “gratitude attitude” for the never-ending ability of the earth to provide. And in the darkening days of encroaching winter it’s a good faith to have.

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May you be blessed with prosperity and abundance this season of harvest!

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Sweet Magic: Summer Solstice Honey Cookies

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Then followed that beautiful season… Summer…
Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape
Lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Looking for a festive way to celebrate the upcoming summer solstice? Well these aromatic sunny cookies may be just the ticket.  Made with sacred herbs and flowers of the sun, they’re filled with the gathering magic of midsummer traditions. And served up at a summer solstice picnic, they will delight young and old. After, all doesn’t everyone love a pretty cookie?

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And what better way to capture the magic of the longest day of the year? This is the day (June 20th) the sun’s powers are at their peak, from now on the sun will recede from the sky a little earlier each evening. For our Northern European ancestors, summer solstice was the turning point between the waxing and waning cycle of the great year. And they marked the occasion, as they so liked to do, by throwing a party. Feasts, bonfires, and dancing, all in celebration of the glorious midsummer sun. And they still do today!

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Across old Europe summer solstice had many different names. In Britain it was known as Midsummer, in Latvia it was Kupala Day or Herb Evening, and in Scandinavia it was celebrated as Litha.  For women this was a “Gathering Day”, an important day of ritual first harvest. Wearing ceremonial clothing adorned with symbols of the sun, they would weave flowers into garlands and crowns. Then they would go into the fields and forests to gather plants and herbs.

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On this day plants were believed to be vigorous with the heightened life force of the sun – so it was common knowledge that a curing or magical herb plucked on midsummer doubled its powers! Folklore tells if you picked nine flowers or the leaf of plantain and put it under the pillow – you would dream your future spouse.

St. John’s Wort, with its solar yellow flowers, is the herb most associated with Midsummer. According to old herbals, it blooms on this day, and along with it’s many healing abilities, it brought protection from fire, disease, disaster and the evil eye.

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St. John’s Wort

While it was renamed by the Church after St. John ( it’s bright red red sap mimics the blood of St. John) it’s association with female powers and witchery is strong. It’s flowers were left at the feet of statues of Greek and Roman goddesses, such as Hecate, the goddess of ghosts and sorcery, and Circe, who distilled its leaves and flowers for potent charms. And my favorite herbalist, wise woman Susun Weed, steadfastly refers to this herb as St. Joan’s Wort.

Other herbs bearing the magical power of the sun include rosemary, vervain, hyssop, fern, mullein, basil, lavender, thyme, fennel, and wormwood. These herbs were associated with powers of invigoration, healing, purification and protection, and the flowers (rose, daisy, marigold, cornflower, calendula and more) represented beauty and love.

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Petals were scattered in water or dried in love charms. In Bohemia, girls wore chaplets of mugwort while dancing around the Midsummer bonfire. And on Midsummer’s Eve Italians washed their faces in bowls of water containing flowers, rose petals and herbs.

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And of course, this herbaceous solstice bounty was also consumed! Fresh herbs and traditional midsummer feasting are a long standing culinary tradition. They were used in dishes made from the first harvest of the season; vegetables (peas and mint, new potatoes and dill), fresh cheeses (like the Latvian Caraway cheese) and alcoholic libations (the Scandinavians made Aquavit with dill, fennel and coriander). And in Provence five sacred aromatic herbs-rosemary, thyme, marjoram, hyssop and sage, are gathered to make an “infusion aux herbes de Saint Jean.” 

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Herbed New Potato Salad & Latvian Cheese

In Nordic countries midsummer feast included “sun breads”, cakes or buns made with honey (also a golden sun food) believed to bring fertility, prosperity and abundance to the community.  One Scandinavian folk tradition recommends including midsummer dew in the dough to cure diseases! Roman’s had their own summer solstice celebration Vestalia, during which priestesses Vestales made sacred cakes with water from her holy spring.

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So inspired by these many summer solstice food traditions,  I decided to a do a little baking ritual of my own – midsummer sun cookies! Infused with herby aromatic flavours and flowers of the sun (like rosemary, thyme, lavender and sage) then coloured golden with a few drops of orangey St.John’s tincture and adorned with symbols of the sun – they would be food magic indeed.

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And I think they turned out beautifully.  So if you’re looking for a way to mark the turn of the seasons and connect with mother nature, celebrate Gathering Day. Summer solstice festivities traditionally occurred somewhere between June 20th to early July according to differing calendars. So you have plenty of time!

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Girls celebrating summer solstice in Rakov in Russia. Note the solar emblems on her neck and sleeves.

Wear something sunny, and take the children (or not) for a flowery, herby harvest.  But however you decide to enjoy nature’s midsummer bounty, remember that above all, “On Midsummer we eat and dance with abandon, leaving all worries behind. The sun never sets and there are flowers everywhere.”

Seems a good a reason as any to celebrate with cookies!

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Summer Solstice Herby Honey Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1 & 3/4 cups of flour
  • ¾ C. softened butter
  • ¼ C. honey
  • ¼ brown or cane sugar
  • 1 teaspoon minced thyme
  • 1 teaspoon lavender buds
  • 1 teaspoon minced rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon minced sage
  • a few crushed cardamom seeds
  • pinch of salt

NOTE: I used more like a tablespoon of each herb in my cookies, but this might be too herbaceous for some, so adjust accordingly. And I also added 3/4 cup oatmeal to another batch of cookies and cut back on the flour. Feel free to experiment or use whatever cookie recipe you like…after all it’s not the cookie that matters as much as the spirit!

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Summer Herbs: thyme, lavender, calendula, hyssop and sage blossom

Icing:

  • 3 teaspoons milk
  • 1 cup icing sugar
  • wee bit of grated lemon rind. ( I also added lavender buds to a second batch of icing)
  • Colouring. I used a combination of golden beet juice, St. John’s Tincture and a pinch of turmeric powder, but of course you could use a storebought natural food dye. Recipe for a carrot-based colored icing here.
  • Combine your milk and icing sugar. Slowing add in your colouring and mix until you find the desired colour/consistency

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Directions:

  • Preheat Oven to 300
  • Beat flour, sugar and soft butter together until creamy.
  • Slowly drizzle in honey while beating until mixture pulls together.
  • Add minced herbs and petals, mix well through the dough.
  • Divide into four balls and chill for an hour or so.
  • Roll out and cut into round shapes. Add flour as needed.
  • Bake at 300 for 10-15 minutes.
  • Let cool.
  • Decorate using the flowers and herbs of the sun: petals of calendula, daisy, St. John’s Wort, rose, or sprigs of rosemary, thyme and sage.

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Savory Sage Blossom Pesto: A Culinary Spell for Youth, Beauty and Wisdom

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“Why should a man die who has sage in his garden? ” Medieval Proverb

There is an old English saying that eating sage every day in May will grant immortality. So it’s not too late to partake in this sage pesto and enjoy the many medicinal, age-defying properties of this magical herb. And while it might seem strange to eat sage in spring, it was once relished in practically everything, from stews, meats, wine, cakes, puddings and yes, even pesto – all year long.

Today we’ve mostly relegated the flavour of sage to heartier fall dishes, like Thanksgiving stuffing, which is sad, because we’re overlooking one of the most widely used and beloved herbs in human history. Believed to grant longevity and wisdom, everyone from the Egyptians, Arabs, Greeks, to the Chinese, considered sage a cure-all herb, and turns out they were pretty bang on. Today we know sage works to soothe chronic disease, support digestion, cool inflammation, boost our immune system, and sharpen the mind. Sage does indeed, help turn back the ravages of time.

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Belonging to the aromatic Lamiaceae (mint) family along with other culinary healers like oregano, lavender, rosemary, thyme and basil, it bears gray-green edible leaves and flowers that can range in color from blue and purple to white or pink. And right now, many varieties are aburst with aromatic blossoms. I found these in our community herb garden, heady with the sap of spring, their tall stalks buzzing with bees.

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Now every kitchen witch knows that spring flowers are a powerful form of plant magic, enhancing youth, romance and beauty – and the blossoms of herbs are known to be especially potent. And who doesn’t want a little of that? But vanity aside, it was the sage blossoms deep sweet scent that inspired me to explore their culinary pleasures. And what better recipe for spring magic than pesto?  

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Herb and herb blossoms pestos are a spring tradition in Italian cuisine. And with their liberal addition of cheese, garlic, roasted nuts and plenty of oil, a pesto seemed an ideal complement for sage’s potent flavour. But make no mistake, this is no light green pesto, this is a full palate sensation. It deserves a heavier bread (like the pumpernickel pictured above) otherwise its rich flavours threaten to overwhelm.

But together their full-bodied flavours are so satisfying, you’ll feel like you’ve eaten a meal. And afterwards, I encourage you to sit back, rest a moment, and savour the healing magic of sage.

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Sage Blossom Pesto

Ingredients

  • 2 cups sage flowers
  • 1/4 cups roasted nuts (cashew, walnut or pine nuts)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 cup of onion coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese

Instructions

  • Remove a few leaves and the blossoms from stalks
  • Pulse the blossoms and leaves with the rest of the ingredients in a food processor until you get the consistency and texture you like (i.e. chunky or smooth)
  • Place in a serving dish and top with a dollop of olive oil and squirt of lemon
  • You’re ready to eat!

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Yarrow: On Love & Marriage & Ale

Yarrow is blooming here on Vancouver Island! It’s one of my favourite herbs and I’m so happy to see it’s all at once delicate and sturdy white blossoms again. I plan to incorporate a lot of yarrow into my upcoming summer nuptials. And this is where I segue into my big announcement: I’m getting married in July…in the woods at the lovely Cedar Haven Weddings ..to Danielle’s brother, Christian. This promises to be Gather’s biggest project yet—so if wedding stuff bores you, you may want to avert your eyes for a couple of months. Though we will try to make it interesting. Promise.

Now where was I? Yarrow! It’s Latin name, Achillea millefolium, is attributed to the Greek hero, Achilles who was said to use it to heal his warriors wounds—at least according to Pliny the Elder. Turns out Achilles’ relationship with Yarrow is a little muddy… Here’s an interesting read on that, if you’d like to know more. Greek gods aside, yarrow’s been an important healing herb the world over for a very long time. And so it should come as no surprise that it has an equally long magical history. After all, our ancestors didn’t put nearly as much effort into separating magic and medicine as we do.

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Yarrow detail from Rima Staines’ Weed Wife

From casting the ancient I Ching in China to rounding out the seven herbs sacred to the Irish, yarrow has always been an important herb for protection, love, fidelity and divination. It was hung in doorways and on cradles to repel evil spirits, held against the eyes to bring on the second site, worn in shoes to give travellers fluency of speech and sewn into clothes to fend off…well, everything. And then there’s the love charms!  Singletons of yore sewed yarrow blossoms and leaves into little sachets, said a little prayer and tucked them under their pillows in hopes that their future betrothed would appear in their dreams.

Thou pretty herb of Venus tree
Thy true name be Yarrow
Now who my bosom friend must be
Pray tell thou me tomorrow.

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Scottish girls silently gathered yarrow in the fields and then with eyes closed, recited:

Good morrow, good morrow
To thee, braw yarrow
And thrice good morrow to thee:
I pray thee tell me today or tomorrow 
Who is my true love to be. 

Upon opening their eyes, they’d scan the horizon for a male figure AKA their future husband (Dictionary of Plant Yore, D.C. Watts). Similar divination love charms and rituals involving yarrow were practiced across Europe and in colonized America. I wonder how many less than desirable bachelors cottoned on to this and scheduled their morning strolls accordingly… Of course, with such a long relationship with humans, yarrow also got dragged into the witch hunts. Graveyard yarrow was said to help uncover a witch and or protect someone from falling in love with one. Handy stuff, old yarrow is.

Beyond love divination and charms, yarrow was also a token of fidelity. Sprigs were tucked into wedding wreaths and hung over the newlyweds’ bed to guarantee seven years (and not a day more) of fidelity. Yarrow ale was also commonly served at medieval wedding festivals called bride-ales. And yes, this is where our modern word “bridal” comes from. These sometimes multi-day celebrations clearly involved a lot of ale drinking and sparked a tradition of brewing special bridal beers for the occasion.

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Also known as “Field Hops”, yarrow was commonly used as a bittering agent pre-hops, and was considered to make a headier brew than others. There is evidence that yarrow has mild psychotropic properties or “a thujone, hypnotic cannabinoid compound” (Green Man Ramblings) that scientifically explains these claims. Many herbalists have documented shifts in perception like colours brightening and heightened hearing after consuming certain yarrow plants—combine that with the inhibition-relieving effects of a fermented beverage and now you have a party. If anyone’s ever had to host the in-laws, never mind the entire village, you can see why a yarrow ale might be popular.

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And it’s in this tradition that David Woodward, head brewer of Axe and Barrel Brewing Co. is infusing his lovely IPA in yarrow and wee bit of rosemary (another important marital herb and possible future blog post subject) to create a special small batch brew for our wedding. David’s known for creating unique beers using foraged ingredients and interesting flavour combinations and I LOVE the idea of a special wedding ale, particularly when ancient herbs with all their healing properties and folklore are incorporated. Yarrow blossoms will also appear in my bouquet by local sustainable flower grower, Wild Edge and it’s fragrant sturdy white blooms will be tucked into one special boutonnière. With luck, our caterer Nature’s Chef will use a bit of it to flavour a dish or two (nudge-nudge, hint-hint, Tom). And while our bride-ale will run only a few short hours, I can’t think of a more wonderful way to ring in our marriage than with loved ones and such a magical plant ally!

Post Script:  While researching the history of herbs and beer, I stumbled across the fascinating history of women brewers and the convenient association with witchcraft that wiped many of them out, leaving the craft almost exclusively to men and pleasing the church in the process. I plan to explore further in a follow-up post already cleverly titled “Brewmasters & Broomsticks”. But that’s another story for another day… 

Wild Rose Cupcakes & Buttercream Frosting: A Divine Confection

A rose may be a rose be a rose, but this cupcake is much more than just a cupcake! ~ Danielle

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“Mystery glows in the rose bed, the secret is hidden in the rose.” 12th Century Persian Poem

Don’t underestimate the power of this demure, pretty, little cupcake. Behind its girly facade lies a scent and flavor so compelling, so transporting, that it has been from time immemorial associated with magic, mysticism, esoteric secrets, sacred sexuality, the unfolding of higher consciousness, and most especially – divine feminine power.

The story of the wild rose (from which all our domesticated roses descend) could fill books – and has. Reputed to be millions of years old, the five petal rose (Rosa canina) blooms in late spring in woodlands and fields across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America.

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Here in the Pacific Northwest, our native species are known as the Nootka and Wood’s Rose and were harvested by our First Nations for both food and medicine. Not much is known because, as…

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Cranberry & Hazelnut Peppermint Honey Cake: Hail To The Mothers!

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Photo from Lily and Lane

It’s no secret that baking confections, cookies and fruit cakes have long been part of the feminine customs surrounding the winter holidays. So for our last gathering we offered a buffet of wildcrafted festive cookies and treats in honour of the season. In preparation I spent some time in search of old recipes that might have been created by our pagan ancestors, and I came across a beautiful tradition, called Mother’s Night, which is now almost entirely forgotten.

Taking place on what we now know as Christmas Eve, it was once dedicated to a group of feminine divinities revered by the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Roman peoples for hundreds of years. And guess what, it was celebrated with much feasting, drinking – and eating of cakes! Who knew?

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Found on countless carvings, votives, statues and shrines dated between the 1st to 7th century, the Mothers or Matrones were often associated with rivers, mountains, springs and tree’s. Often depicted in a group of three, they were shown holding babies, baskets of fruit and grain, or the cornucopia, symbol of fertility and of the bounty of the earth.  Scholars generally agree that the ‘cult’ of the Mother’s was a remnant of the earlier goddess worshipping peoples, and represented the feminine principle in nature.

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In his account of the pagan calendar in 725 AD, the monk Bede, tells us that on Christmas Eve ” the very night that is sacrosanct to us, these people call Modranect, that is, the mothers’ night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through.” Bede leaves few details about what actually took place during these ceremonies, but modern pagan references (and here) indicate Mother’s Night traditionally kicked off the pagan celebrations of Yule – which from Germany to Scandinavia was celebrated with an enormous banquet featuring boar, goose and fish, nettle soup, mushroom dumplings, cheese pies, egg nog, mead and yes, plenty of honey cakes!

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Which isn’t a surprise – honey cakes have been baked in honour of the goddess for thousands of years. From Judah, Egypt, Greece and Rome, women baked honey in cakes in tribute to Asherah, Ishtar, Artemis and Demeter, and many others, such as the Norse Goddess Freya and the Celtic goddess Brighid.

Ancient statue of women baking (source unknown)

Today we’ve come to associate the fruit and spice cakes of Christmas with eastern spices like ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg. But before these spices became common in the middle ages, Mother Night cakes were probably made with local dried fruit, nuts, forest roots and herbs. The earliest methods were likely very simple: flour and honey were mixed together and then the mixture would sit until naturally-produced yeasts caused it to rise.

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Vasilopita, Greek Good Luck Cake

It also pretty likely that cakes served on Mother’s Night were regarded as magical, ensuring fertility and good tidings for the new year. Today their many descendants such as the Pfeffernüsse, Lebkuchen and Springerle are still given as good luck tokens and are fashioned in the shapes of  evergreen trees, stars, sun, and animals (symbols sacred to the fertility goddesses of old). 

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Left: Medieval Gingerbread mold, Lebkuchen Cookie

The Yule log cake served traditionally in France brings good fortune, as do the German cookies made in the shape of horns or a crescent (also an ancient symbol of the Goddess), which are heaped on plates for the Christmas Eve supper to ensure a bounteous new year.

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Left: Early Christian women baked honey cakes in honour of Mary. Right: Crescent Christmas cookies

Lekach, or Jewish honey cake is eaten on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, in hopes of ensuring a sweet New Year, and in Italy the Panettone was given as presents to friends – and it was meant to be kept in the house to ensure good luck until the following Christmas! 

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Jewish Honey Cake

So inspired by these magical baking traditions I decided to try my hand at what might have been a typical cake served by foremothers on “Mother’s Night”. And while a thousand flavour permutations were possible, I narrowed down a selection of ingredients that would have been readily available to my European ancestors at the time, such as stoneground rye flour, dark clover honey, hazelnuts, dried apples, cranberries and mint.

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And while it was a bit primitive, it was fitting. Moist, dense, fruity and minty – it turned out to be a perfectly festive delight. And of course, I’ll be bringing it to Jennifer’s Winter Solstice party to ensure that near & dear are graced with good luck!

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Granted it may have no actual similarity to the actual cakes of Mother’s Night, but nonetheless it is my way of remembering the many women who passed the traditions of sacred baking from generation to generation so that they still grace our holiday tables. To them I give thanks. But most of all,  like my foremothers before me, I offer this cake to the forgotten Mothers and nature goddesses of old, whose cornucopias still flow with abundance and plenty. May their blessings shine upon you this season and throughout the coming new year.

Hail to the Mothers!

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Hazelnut & Cranberry Peppermint Honey Cake

Ingredients

  • 2 cups of rye flour (or spelt or wholewheat)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking power
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup of unpasteurized honey
  • 1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts (roughly chopped)
  • 1/4 cup dried apples (chopped)
  • 1 cup cranberries
  • 1/4 cup of melted butter
  • 5-6 springs of chopped mint or spearmint ( you can also used dried – approx. 2 ounces)

Directions

  • Combine  flour and honey in large bowl, mix well. Let sit overnight.
  • Now add the rest of your ingredients into the batter and stir briskly, making sure it is well-blended.
  • Pour dough into dusted and greased baking pan ( a round tin or bundt pan is nice.)
  • Bake in preheated oven at 325 for for approximately 40 min.
  • Let cool.
  • Serve with drizzle of cranberry warmed honey!

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