Tables Full of Sugar and Salt
Plus their histories, too.
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Hello, wonderful witches!
I’ve got a couple fun literature-focused updates this week. First, I’m doing a virtual presentation on December 1 for my new book that I won’t shut up about, “Classic Restaurants of Milwaukee.” It’s hosted by Historic Milwaukee, and I would love if you joined! It’s a Zoom presentation so you’ll have to register, but it’s completely free. Secondly, my brother published a novel! It’s called “Marvelous” and follows a software developer as he gains supernatural powers. I helped edit it when he first wrote it, and I mean this even outside the realm of sisterly love: It’s really good. So basically, come to my book event, grab a copy of my brother’s novel, and keep reading here for some truly entertaining food and witchcraft articles.
Like I mentioned in the last issue, I’ve unofficially dubbed this week Seasoning Week. And yes, sugar is a seasoning, at least in my perpetually candied brain. Consider it a prequel to the real seasoning needed for Thanksgiving next week. (Look, it doesn’t have to make sense; just play with me in the space.) Anyway—we’ve got two articles for you today, one about sugar banquets and another about the history of salt, and both equally delicious.
Sweet Sugar Magic
By Susann Cokal
Brown or white, granular or powdered, sprinkled on fruit or infused with flowers or dissolved in your tea or whipped cream—you cannot deny that sugar tastes divine. And anything that delicious must be … Sinful? Maybe. Medicinal? Yes, at one time. Magical? Always.
Sugar softens the heart and excites the senses, making it perfect for a love spell or aphrodisiac. It’s good for self-care, too—combined with the right spices or flowers, it can bring peace to your household, the sweetest of all possible dreams, and an end to depression.
Sugar has always belonged to women and witches. In the Middle Ages, when people mistrusted university-trained doctors (with rather good reason), it was the woman of the household—or the wise-woman on the fringes—who took care of most ailments. She didn’t allow servants to touch her possets, especially not the outrageously expensive sugar. She kept it on hand the way we keep aspirin or echinacea; she would use it to treat toothaches, indigestion, and coughs or other lung problems.
Working with sugar then was a complex process. It usually didn’t come to you white and grainy; it came in hard, tall brown cones or domes known as loaves. Preparing it for use meant days boiling your purchase in a mixture of water, lime, egg white, and oil, stirring constantly. Once clarified, it was put into wool bags to dry and drain out the molasses, then dried again. In the end, you’d use the white grains to make cakes and pies and candy comfits, yes. But you might also decide to host what was called a sugar banquet, at which everything—that does mean everything—would be made out of sugar, much of it worked into a paste and then cast in wooden molds to form everything from fruits to birds to the plates off which you ate. Maybe you’d even hire a specialist to fashion some truly astonishing creations: models of famous buildings, statues of saints or of people dancing, fighting, taming mythical beasts. Ironically, these were called subtleties. (Please, let subtleties have a comeback!)
Just think of the giddy rush, the sugar hanging in the air—perhaps at least some noble witches rejected the famous ointment made of mandrake and yarrow and got high on sugar instead, then flew.
If you want to host your own magical sugar banquet, you can find inspiration in cookbooks such as Food and Feast in Tudor England (Alison Sims) and Fabulous Feasts (Madeleine Pelner Cosman, the book that got me started on medieval cookery), with some of the earliest recipes and uses of sugar. Then let your knowledge of flowers and charms take you further, so your guests are soothed, comforted, excited—and loved.
Start your sugar excursion right now with a little bit of practical flower magic.
Because violets hide their blooms beneath their leaves, they symbolize shyness and innocence. Their throaty scent also makes them the perfect flower to represent love and mysticism. If you add candied violets to a sweetheart’s dish for a love charm, even the shyest heart can be yours.
20 to 25 purple blossoms (ideally plucked from your own garden) with as much stem as you can harvest
1 egg white beaten to a frothy foam
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons powdered sugar or caster sugar (to taste)
Holding each violet by the stem, dip the blossom into the egg white, making sure the petals are covered. Or, show extra love by painting each petal with a brush. Twirl to remove excess egg.
Use a sifter to coat the petals evenly in sugar. Twirl the flower by the stem to be sure the coating is even, then place on wax paper, parchment, or even a paper towel to dry.
Put the paper with the flowers in your refrigerator for at least 24 hours. Do not cover it—they need the air in order to dry. The egg white will absorb the sugar and form a glaze.
After 24 hours, remove from the refrigerator and allow to dry at room temperature for another day.
Pinch or cut off the stems, then put the violets in an airtight container. Keep them at room temperature and use within one month.
Note: Pregnant women and small children are cautioned not to eat any food prepared with raw egg.
Almost any edible flower can be candied using the same methods. Just make sure you get your flowers fresh—and that they haven’t been treated with chemicals. Blossoms from your own garden are best, especially for a love spell. And, of course, rinse them gently and allow to dry before preparing.
Even simpler: Summer Floral Sugars
Make your sugar even sweeter with a summery flower infusion. Try lavender for good sleep and calming dreams; nasturtiums to make your passion both sweet and spicy; or violets to deepen a romance. Stir some into your tea (or your sweetheart’s) for good sleep—or good kisses.
1 cup white sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons of dried lavender, candied violets, roses, or nasturtiums
Pour sugar into a glass jar with a glass lid. Using your fingers, crush the dried petals, then gently stir them into the sugar until thoroughly mixed.
Cover tightly and let sit for at least a week before using. You can sift the flowers out before putting the sugar back into storage, or leave the sifting until right before you fill your sugar bowl. I like to leave the petals in for color and texture—they look beautiful waiting to be used, a little bit of sweet magic waiting to tickle your spirit.
Susann Cokal opened her third novel, The Kingdom of Little Wounds, with a sugar banquet. Her other books are Mermaid Moon, Breath and Bones, and Mirabilis, and she has won awards for her essays and fiction, including a Michael L. Printz Honor from the American Library Association. She keeps swearing off sugar and being sucked back in. Sugar tastes good. Too good? Life should be sweet sometimes, shouldn’t it? She lives in a creepy old farmhouse in Richmond, Virginia, where she writes and works as a freelance editor and coach. Her home on the web is susanncokal.net. Follow her on Twitter @CokalSusann.
The Essential History of Magical Salt
By Ashley Bardhan
All good witches (and chefs) know that salt is essential—but have you ever wondered why? The innocuous little crystal has a history as rich as its flavor, and has acted as a central figure to culture, food, and faith from as early as 6050 BCE.
You can find multiple accounts of how salt was used in early magic. The Roman goddess of well-being was named Salus, her name stemming from the Roman word for salt, sal. In ancient Greece, salt was considered sacred. It was sprinkled during sacrifices, and sometimes to invoke the gods through the crackling sound it made when it met an open flame. Salt continued to be seen as a sacred symbol of protection and banishment in folk magic as time went on, like in 19th-century Quebec, where French Canadians scattered salt at the stable doors to keep imps away, or 19th-century Buffalo Valley, Pennsylvania, where a boy’s homesickness could be cured by putting salt in the hems of his pants and having him look up a chimney.
Of course, there’s the famous historical usage of natron, the naturally occurring chemical composition containing sodium bicarbonate, sodium carbonate, and salt that Ancient Egyptians used to dry the body during mummification. As we know by eating delicious salted foods like gravlax, bacon, and kimchi, the process of preserving, well, fleshy things, through salt luckily applies to more just mummification. Salt has been a valuable resource for the preservation and flavoring of foods for nearly 5,000 years, only becoming the inexpensive grocery item we know today in the 20th century.
Now, salt’s ubiquitousness makes it a mainstay in both food and magic. Ritual black salt is pretty easy to make at home as long as you have salt, ash, black spice, and some metal shavings, and it makes a useful addition to protection, banishing, or absorption spells. I personally liked circling it around my house when my ex started dating my neighbor, a time in my life where I found that you could never really have too much banishing. Dead Sea salt is noted for its proximity to Jerusalem, and is nice for purification and healing rituals. Himalayan pink salt can be used in spells involving love and romance, but of course, plain table salt works just fine for circle casting, banishing, and cleansing. At your next trip to the grocery store, don’t forget salt and the infinite possibilities and long history it contains.
Ashley Bardhan is a writer in New York who writes about entertainment, food, sex, and other things that people like. You can also find her on Twitter.
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Coming Up Next Week…
Next week is Thanksgiving! I’ll be honest—I’ve never had to cook an entire Thanksgiving meal. We’ve done a potluck a few times, so I make a killer green bean casserole, though. But for kitchen witches that aren’t the best at the actual cooking process, we’ll have an article for you about other ways to use your culinary magic.
See you then!