Culinary Conjure: Kitchen Magics of Appalachia

A lot of time in the development of Appalachian formulas was spent in the kitchen. As a result, we find kitchen tools used in these recipes, especially spoons, knives and forks. We also find food implemented in the process of carrying out charms and cures: a cross-cultural phenomenon where the diet of a people influences the folk magic of the culture, first influenced by the environment and economy.

The kitchen had a major effect on this work in Southern Appalachia. Not only was it the place where food was prepared and the family gathered: it was the health and life of the home where children were bandaged after small wounds and were neighbors gathered at the table to catch up.

You may recognize these meanings from the universal symbolism of the hearth, the kitchen of older days with a large pot hung over the fire.

Pots of beans and stew cooking over the fire place, occasionally stirred by a spoon and a careful hand. This was the place where mothers taught their daughters to cook and wash dishes. Their thinking of “woman’s place.” While many today cringe at that thought, women in the kitchen have shaped the folklore, songs, and history of man and his culture in one form or another all across the world.

The tools and food of the kitchen often find themselves in the local folklore, medicine, and magic of Southern Appalachia. Such things that were brought over from previous lands (Ireland being a primary source) already had a history of use in charms and cures in their motherland. From Ireland, we find such methods like using butter, potatoes, bread baked on certain days or by certain people (like a widow or a person named Cassidy). We also find the continued use of tools such as the fork in charms of protection and curing bewitchment, silver ladles or spoons in giving cures and conjuring rain, and knives being used in severing a disease or a pain from a person to enact a cure. The latter use of the knife is almost universal throughout Europe, condensed, so it seems, in Ireland, the Ukraine, England, France, Germany, and Poland; however, this use of the knife also shows up in the practices of Mexico, South America, Haiti, etc.

A lot of time was spent in the kitchen or at the hearth, with its rack and pot, with ashes and soot beds beneath the logs. Here it is easy to presume the sort of things mulled over or spelled during the cooking process, while washing dishing, or cleaning out the fireplace. There are many examples throughout Europe’s folk history where this place also became the center stage for certain omens, superstitions, and charms since the chimney was often considered a main opening through which evil spirits could gain entry.

These lines live on in Appalachia, in the omens of company told by a dropped piece of silverware: if it is a spoon, a woman is on the way; a fork, a man; if it is a knife it was said to be more than one person or trouble was coming to the home from outside folks. If a knife drops while a couple sits at the table, it foretells a argument between them. If embers jump out at you from the fire, someone’s going to cause trouble for the home. If the wood doesn’t light well, you can expect rain in the next day or so.

In regards to silverware, I explain in my book, silver is believed to have curative properties to it, a belief stemming back to Ireland and earlier to the wider regions of Europe. Silver was often steeped in glasses and drunk to cure certain afflictions. Some Appalachian cures and superstitions play on this: the first medicine a woman should take after childbirth should be administered to her by the husband with a silver spoon. Other times, silver’s protective qualities were used in dispelling diseases or curses: when you suspect the evil eye, touch a silver object (other times, iron is specified).

Copper is also famous throughout the Old and New Worlds for the belief that it helps with arthritis and also cures other afflictions such as rheumatism, body aches, and rashes. Nana used to always keep her copper bracelet on for arthritis and her heart issues. Besides a turn of wire, wearing a holes penny around the neck or in the shoe, copper was often sought and used in the form of vessels for cures: drink water from a copper vessel every evening before sunset to keep off aches in the body or joints. (*Hint* Get you some of those cute copper mugs they often sell at Ross or T.J. Maxx)

The attire that historically became associated with preparing food, washing dishes, baking or cooking was also employed in cures and charms: Mamaw’s famous apron! Vance Randolph in his works on the Ozarks often notes that a man’s gun or aim can be spelled by his wife by crossing the strings of her apron. Closer to home, Appalachian folklore and superstition provides ways of protection from death and ill fortune, most notably brought by an owl hooting close to the home. To shoo the owl off or get them to stop calling, a dish rag was smacked against the back of the front door or a corner of the apron was tied in the Three Holy Names of the Bible. Simultaneously done with either, the shoes of the residents were also turned upside down to avert any suspected disaster. In the realm of cures, any wound or cut rubbed with Mamaw’s apron was sure to heal soon without fester.

In my book, I go over how food has made itself a forever place in Appalachian culture. It shapes and is shaped by our people, always has and always will. Food is partook in religious ceremony, family reunions, weddings and funerals. We even bring food to the graveyards each year to honor our lost loved ones. Our cultural food shows up in our metaphors, sayings and humor (“Country as cornbread”, “Slower than Molasses”). Back in the day, nothing of importance was discussed on an empty stomach and just about everyone’s Mamaw knew when someone was hungry, even if they weren’t.

Therefore, it’s no wonder it fits so easily into the realm of folk magic and folk medicine. The old folks often ingested sassafras or willow tea as tonics in the spring, honey and lemon find themselves in Hot Totties when we’re ill, and the water used to boil potatoes, eggs, pasta, and greens also have their place. Older men, according to my grandmother, would carry a potato with them when they went out drinking. If need be, they’d take a bite of it and it would get rid of the smell of beer on their breath. (This was long before breathalyzer tests, so I do not recommend this, nor any of the cures before speaking to a medical professional.)

Although the diet of the Irish, contrary to popular belief, didn’t rely much on potatoes, we still find their use in curing worts and rashes, in curses and exorcisms. This usage of potatoes is found equally in Northern and Southern Appalachia and seem to stem from Ireland and Germany, seemingly independent of the other.

No matter where in human history you look, human culture has a main tap root, going through every kitchen in every time back to the first fire.

You probably won’t look at these tools and foods any differently than before, but I hope you enjoyed this post anyway!

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Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher and blood charmer; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather who witches for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost on Mitchell Mountain in NC. Jake is currently working on his first book, tentatively called Backwoods Witchcraft: the Hoodoos of Appalachia with Red Wheel/Weiser Books, set to be on the shelves Spring 2019. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below: Littlechicagoconjure@yahoo.com

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