Perhaps because the cook, like other ambiguous archetypes, functions as catalyst of transformation, myths and fairy tales are filled with all manner of cooks, some creatively heroic and others deeply villainous. And it is the villains that come first to mind because their concept of cooking provokes such a shocking contrast to our usual expectations. For them, cooking is an act of violence and destruction. It is not about nurturing, but revenge, obliteration and murder. There are the giants whose cooking skills lean toward the grinding of "his bones to make my bread." There are the jealous step–mothers pulling their recipes from black magic cook books to make poisoned apples. And there are the truly terrifying, the cannibal cooks, who in their jealous rages extract hearts and livers from their step–children to make stews which they feed to an unsuspecting parent. The step–mother of "The Juniper Tree" makes a soup of the body of her step–son, seasoned by the salty tears of his traumatized sister who has witnessed the crime. In Shakespeare's play Titus Andronicus, the deposed Roman general Titus makes a towering meat pie from the bodies of the Goth Queen Tamora's sons and serves it to her in revenge for her sons' brutal rape and mutilation of his daughter.
Among the Xhosa of South Africa we find tales of the Zim, man–eating monsters that dine regularly on dishes of human flesh, sometimes even their own children. One story tells of Zim parents whose child is born half sweet, half sour. The parents promptly devour the sweet side, leaving their child a fast–moving, one–legged creature with a voracious appetite, hoping to regain its full body in the consumption of meat. Tricksters in African narratives often use cooking to outwit these formidable monsters. One clever trickster convinces the Cannibal grandmother that he is too stupid to figure out how to get into the pot. Frustrated, she demonstrates by climbing into the seasoned water. Trickster slams on the lid and promptly turns up the heat. It is not enough that he cooks the old monster in her own broth, but he disguises himself as the grandmother, and when her grandchildren show up for the midday meal, he ladles out her bits and pieces to them. What follows is a hilarious question and answer dialogue as the grandchildren become suspicious. "But this looks like my grandmother's eye," one says looking at the contents of her spoon. "And this looks like my grandmother's foot," whines the other. "Eat your food," the Trickster grandmother orders, and they do.
For me, the Russian wood-witch Baba Yaga is the most powerful of the ambiguous and transformative cooks in the fairy tale tradition. She straddles the threshold between life and death, between the promise of change and the imminent threat of destruction, between learning to cook a meal or become the meal. This is no sugar–coated, one–dimensional Gingerbread House witch. Baba Yaga is a potent mix of domestic and fantastic — potential helper to the hero or heroine in the guise of a ferocious grandmother with iron teeth and wicked claws. Baba Yaga's house is surrounded by a fence of human bones and lit by lanterns made from the skulls of her previous meals. Yet we know we are in the presence of a powerful cook for her house rests on chicken legs (that key ingredient of any good soup) that lift and carry the house to different locations, reinforcing her ambiguity — the domestic combined with the dangerous, the tame with the wild, the oddity in a cannibal's household of using chicken legs for transport and human beings for dinner. When not in use for culinary practices, Baba Yaga flies around in a mortar, flailing the pestle like an oar. And her choice of weapon (beyond those great teeth and long nails) is the oven. Woe to the girl who stumbles into her path unable to cook, to separate wheat from chaff or poppy seeds from grit. But as Vasilissa the Wise proves by her encounter with Baba Yaga, this difficult cook can be appeased, cajoled by good manners and decent meals into providing the necessary ingredients for a long and healthy wedded life.
There is a part of me that understands Baba Yaga, so in love with youth as to desire to consume it, to keep it close. When the children who were once our flesh, whose young lives we stirred and seasoned like a slowly simmering pot, begin to demand their independence, it can seem like the threat of future starvation. When my daughter approached sixteen years of age, I was jolted by the realization that I was now too long past youth myself to identify with the fairy tale journeys of young women. My rites of passage had become deeper, closer to the bone and were hedging toward the eternal. To walk on a busy street with my daughter was to disappear in her lovely shadow. I could almost feel the iron tusks erupt from my mouth, the long claws dragging at my finger tips. I wrote about this cannibal hunger, this monstrous motherly cooking in the poem "Baba Yaga,"confessing:
"My daughter when you were small
How I wanted to eat you.
Cast off flesh of my flesh
I wanted to keep you in me,
Digest my fear of losing you as I swallowed
You whole, plumped and roasted.
Can you forgive the way
I fretted over the oven
And took the measure of your
Wrists with my worried fingers?"
Yet my daughter comes from a long line of cooks and knew the answer lay not in repudiating me, but in offering a different meal to soothe my hunger and my loss. After two years of living in Costa Rica she wrote a reply in "Baba Yaga's Daughter":
"Are you still hungry, Old Woman?
Are you rocking on your chicken claws
and picking at your iron teeth?
Well, you will have to wait some more.
You see, I want to make for you the
sweetest tastes (of course)
and beyond the market, Old Woman,
on blue sand that meets milk white water,
I see strange, handsome fish.
I am going just a little farther from your cottage.
After all, you have the bones to nibble
while I am away.
Suck on them hard and inventory
the flavors that linger.
Spin your fingers around a femur
stuffed with marrow
and quench your idle, rusting fetish
while I am away.
It should still be savory in my absence.
Old Woman! You are wasting away!
Those eyes that once crackled bright
in your little cottage
seem opal cold through aged, pursed lids.
I will warm you with a dinner and
spiced herbal cider.
Won't you be stunned to see,
in your weakened state, Old Woman,
that I have brought more than fish!
I will teach you, now that you have
burned your old recipes,
the new ones I remedied.
And I will uncover the hidden plants
I've stashed in my hair,
the worlds I have in my mouth,
the tattoos woven in my skin
and the sky I discovered in my breast.
Old Woman, this will surely be your
So we must offer praise to the cooks who know the creative power of their magic to replace hunger with contentment, alienation with intimacy and anguish with joy. Every night among the Norse gods, Andhrimnir, the cook of Valhalla, prepares a rejuvenating meal for the Einherjar, the heroic dead who have died in great battles. He cooks to perfection the massive wild boar, Sæhrimnir, in his cooking pot, Eldhrimnir. And each night, though they feast on Sæhrimnir, by morning of the next day the wild boar has become whole, ready to be cooked again. In many variants of the fairy tale "Donkeyskin" and "Tattercoats,"the young woman disguised as a dirty scullery maid takes over the job of cooking the Prince's meal while the cook dashes upstairs to view the arrival of the regal entourage. Into the soup the girl tosses not only her own selection of spices, but also her golden ring. The Prince eats the soup hungrily, captivated by its original flavor, and discovers the ring at the bottom of the dish. Cinderella may have danced her way in glass slippers at the ball, but it is Tattercoats's skill as a cook that brings the Prince down to the kitchens to find her.
"The Daughter of the Sun," an Italian tale, provides one of the most outlandish examples of the fantastic cook. A serving maid is impregnated by the Sun, gives birth, and then abandons her infant daughter in a bean field. The baby is discovered by a King, who brings the foundling home where she is raised alongside the King's own son, and the two eventually fall in love. But it is not considered an appropriate match, and the King to disrupt the relationship moves the girl to an isolated house deep in the forest. In time the Prince is betrothed to another and servants travel to all the relatives bearing the news and a gift of sugared almonds. They arrive at the little house in the woods and the daughter of the Sun begs them to wait until she has made a gift for the Prince and his bride. She astonishes the King's men by commanding wood to march into her oven and ignite. Then she leaps into the flame and returns with a beautiful cake as a wedding gift. The servants return home with the cake and the castle crackles with the news of the daughter of the Sun's remarkable talent. The intended Bride, upon hearing the tale from the astonished servants, boasts of a similar talent. But she is not the daughter of the Sun and the poor creature is burned to death in the oven. And the tale continues; new brides are found and each one fails to match the daughter of the Sun in culinary feats of magic such as plunging ones fingers into boiling oil to create fried fish, and, finally, brewing pap from magic barley to heal the Prince of a mysterious illness. It is through her fantastic cooking skills that the heroine is revealed to be a daughter of royalty and the only legitimate bride.