Here's a bit of a longer article "In Praise of the Cook," that I wrote for the Journal of Mythic Arts on the cook in fairy tales and cooking itself as an alchemical activity. My family have gathered for this feasting holiday, and my daughter and I are once again together in the kitchen which has reminded me of this moment.
"...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....
...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..."
Art: "Baba Yaga's Garden" by Mikhail Fiodorovich Liadov, "Crone Time" by Kinuko Craft, "Fleeing Baba Yaga's House" by Ivan Billbin.