A Witch with Words
How food helped one kitchen witch find her voice.
Hello, wonderful witches!
Two fun updates to share today:
First, Andrew over at the bread-focused and fabulous newsletter Wordloaf shared our piece about magical bread scoring! Thank you, and welcome, new Wordloaf readers! I’m excited to have you here.
Second, Substack was super sweet about my year anniversary of publishing the newsletter and sent me a lovely card and sachet of tea. Such a nice gift to receive. The card says, “Your persistence inspires us. Thank you for writing on Substack.”
In today’s article, we’re diving into some Italian traditions with a lovely essay.
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Witch with Words: How Food Helped Find My Voice
By Christina Elia
My kitchen smells of lemon charring on a gas stove. The familiar fragrance conjures fading memories of my childhood, Italian incense atop an altar of domesticity. I can picture my mother leaning over a pot of simmering red sauce on Sunday mornings, humming softly while our home buzzed with last-minute lunchtime preparation. Any scraps she didn’t use ultimately returned to our backyard garden, blooming with basil, figs, and other seasonal bounties.
Italian households have a staple saying: la cucina piccola fa la casa grande. Though this roughly translates to “a small kitchen makes a big home,” its larger implication informs my ancestry. Food brings my family closer together through a shared appreciation for our culture, our kitchen a nucleus of nourishment, warmth, and goodwill. When my mother emigrated from Salerno during the 1970s, she eventually settled in Brooklyn, armed with a collection of culinary superstitions. A few still stick with me today.
Throw salt to banish unwelcome guests. Spilling wine, olive oil, and bread crumbs brings bad luck. Never cross silverware at the table. Garlic, while delicious, also doubles as a cure for the common cold. Tiny horn-shaped amulets resembling chili peppers coupled with saintly shrines to ward off the malocchio, or the “evil eye.” This is benedicaria: a Catholic syncretism of stregoneria, otherwise known as conventional Italian witchcraft. But my family would never admit this out loud.
Folk magic is irrevocably intertwined with Italian oral tradition. Incorporating pre-Christian customs, stregoneria originated in southern Italy and Sicily, where folk healers played a significant role in sustaining their villages. Some cured with herbs, spices, or faithful prayers while others touted spells presented as panaceas. Once the church officially oppressed witchcraft, practitioners pioneered benedicaria to function under the guise of Catholicism. Individual interpretations evolved through centuries of lingual lore.
A contemporary debate then developed over the term stregheria, introduced by author Raven Grimassi in the 1990s. Attempting to delegitimize stregoneria and benedicaria, Grimassi purported his rendition to be more authentic. In response, real practitioners reclaimed the once-pejorative word stregoneria. None of these labels were ever self-employed previously by genuine participants in Italy or North America, however. Most merely call magic a “holy little thing.”
In my home, we made cooking our holy little thing. But I never saw the proverbial light. Instead, I dreaded the evenings I spent fixing dinner with my mother. Superstition ruled our kitchen, which meant she never wrote recipes down, preferring to eyeball ingredients, keep a mental tally, and hope for the best. Somehow her funky flavors always fused together in the end, each dish its own separate source of pride.
Then there’s me: way too lazy to remember which patron saint to evoke while assembling meatballs from scratch. Or what combination of rosemary and mint makes the perfect iced tea, some secret kitchen alchemy I didn’t care to oversee. Even when I enjoyed the end result, I hated how the process proved such a constant chore. Cooking and I maintained a fraught relationship my whole adolescence, tied in a tireless tug-of-war.
Our tension worsened with time. I equated food to a feminist issue while I attended college, wielding my mealtime malaise as a medal of modern independence. Internalized sexism caused me to associate the kitchen with matronly duties, a feminized space waiting to coerce me into a role I forcibly resisted. Existing in entitled ignorance came second nature to a girl who never imagined her life as a doting wife.
As my connection to my culture faltered, I felt further conflicted about my culinary caution. Learning to cook is a rite of passage for the women in my family, so I inevitably adapted out of pure survival, but never for pleasure. I spent my early twenties dining dismally at the mercy of mac and cheese or any ten-minute dumplings I could make with minimal effort. I didn’t dare dig up our old family recipes.
That is, until my mother approached me with a proposition. As her memory deteriorates during retirement, she’s finally agreed to stop making life difficult and write our recipes down. Since she can’t write in English, though, she suddenly tasked me with compiling our compendium: techniques-turned-spells, forgotten stories, superstitions passed down through second-hand speculation. I said yes out of sheer curiosity, lured by the prospect of unearthing some scandalous family secret.
Sorting through our stockpile made us both nostalgic instead. I copied altered recipes I’ve eaten my entire life but never quite understood the history behind, like why we braised our chicken cacciatore in the oven, not a stovetop. Learning about my great aunt in Italy, who endured fatal burns from boiling water, showed me how cooking can conceal generational trauma too. Little did I know the annoying rules my mother once enforced held the key to making sense of my identity.
Cooking is a creative craft in its own right. Though I didn’t expect to play a role in revising our family rituals, I discovered the power of my voice while carving a place among my past. Far from perfecting Sunday sauce, I’m starting to slowly warm up to finding comfort in the commonplace: spice sprinkled with a blessing, a smidge of salt to symbolize what my mother and grandmother left behind in Italy.
I realize now I’m not the first kitchen witch in my family. But I’m the only one to break tradition, conquer superstition, and proudly declare myself magical, even if it’s just with a pen and paper.
Christina Elia is a freelance writer living in New York City, where she currently writes about topics ranging from creative nonfiction to street art, culture, and travel. Christina’s work has been published in online publications such as Scarleteen, UP Magazine, and CURA Magazine, and in print in Graffiti Art Magazine and The Tishman Review. When she isn't writing, you'll find her wandering the streets of Chelsea or the Lower East Side, taking advantage of whatever free art she can find and wondering if she'll ever be able to make rent in Manhattan. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.
Coming Up Next Week…
Next week, we’re learning about Roald Dahl and the dark side of chocolate.
See you then!