In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
A Satanist witch from Mexico with whom I correspond on Twitter (I’m intrigued by her insights but nervous when she tweets things like #TakeMeDarkLord) wrote not long ago that all cooks are witches, though she didn’t mention the obverse: Can all witches cook? If the writer Shirley Jackson (1916–1965), a self-styled witch as well as one of the greats of twentieth-century literature, is anything to go by, the answer is yes, and the rule becomes interesting: domestic goddesshood is not quite what we expect from a horror writer, as Jackson was often (mis)labeled.
Jackson’s most famous story is “The Lottery,” first published in The New Yorker in June 1948 and known to every schoolchild in America for its surprise ending, in which a group of ordinary-joe villagers stone a woman to death on a bright spring day for no reason other than “tradition.” The story’s message is the deplorable nastiness ordinary humans can get up to when they feel socially sanctioned, and it has stung readers for generations. Its massive notoriety, however, somewhat overshadows Jackson’s other accomplishments, which include an extraordinary run of short fiction published from the forties through the early sixties; a string of novels that includes The Haunting of Hill House and her 1962 masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle; and, oddly, two cheery best-selling memoirs—for which Jackson was well known and hugely beloved in the fifties—about raising children.
These seem like disparate genres, but knowing the two motherhood memoirs are out there brings Jackson’s work into focus. The reader realizes, with a chill, just how many of Jackson’s horror stories start in the grocery store. Jackson’s horror is domestic horror. Her concerns were women’s concerns. Even the stoning in “The Lottery” is conducted “in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.” Jackson’s work is “part of a vibrant and distinguished tradition that can be traced back to the American Gothic work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James,” as Ruth Franklin writes in the wonderful Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. But Jackson made a “unique contribution” to that tradition: a “primary focus on women’s lives.”
For Jackson, the female roles of the fifties did not fit comfortably. She was an oddball and an outsider, with a critical, domineering mother who shamed her for her weight and appearance until the end of her life. Her young marriage to Stanley Edgar Hyman, a future New Yorker writer, prominent literary critic, and Bennington College professor, was intellectually fertile but plagued by psychological abuse and Hyman’s infidelities. Hyman, one friend speculated, stuffed Shirley with fattening foods in order to undermine her, and in Jackson’s cartoons from the era, he is always behind a newspaper. The couple had four children, whom Jackson raised single-handedly, as women did at the time. She was reported to have been a devoted mother who ran a sprawling, creative, bohemian household, with friends such as Ralph Ellison frequently coming to stay. She was also the primary breadwinner, squeezing fiction out in her spare moments and pretending life was easy via breezy humor pieces for women’s magazines. (Franklin notes that Jackson “had it all” in the way that Sylvia Plath, another icon of tortured fifties femininity, dreamed of.)
Little wonder, then, that while the writer maintained her facade in her public life, in her fiction women’s roles are the main engine of psychological horror, with many stories about marriage, mistaken identities, family life, and houses that are both refuge and prison. In “Louisa, Please Come Home,” for example, a runaway daughter attempts to return to her family, but they don’t recognize her—the person they wanted, we understand, really wasn’t her all along but presumably an idealized “better” daughter. In “The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith,” a woman knowingly marries a mass murderer who’s about to kill her. Jackson is half joking, half serious that in some social sense, this was a better option than no husband at all. The reader might also observe that in the story, as in many marriages, the honeymoon period is short.
The explosive, glorious pleasure of this fiction is in the ingenuity of Jackson’s strategies of liberation. The book I chose to cook from was We Have Always Lived in the Castle, in which one of two sisters kills her extended family with a spring meal that features arsenic-sprinkled blackberries. The sisters, Constance and Merricat, are mirror images: Constance a sweet and perfect homemaker who is always baking and taking care of people, and Merricat a witchy trickster with violent fantasies. Merricat should not have the reader’s sympathy, but she does, and we understand that, with the logic of fairy tales, the immoral “boundlessness” of her character “serves the moral purpose of the tales, which is precisely to teach where boundaries lie,” as the critic Marina Warner explains in her book of feminist fairy-tale theory From the Beast to the Blonde. The reader eventually decides that the murderer’s rage is justified and that the fantastical ending, wherein the two sisters shut out the world to live together in their burned-out house, is a happy one. That Jackson felt such extremes were necessary shows just how painfully she felt her predicament as a woman.
It’s a coup for Jackson that these themes continue to resonate so strongly for modern readers, but it’s also a sadness because one wishes women’s lives had changed more. Franklin writes: “As a writer and mother myself, I am struck by how contemporary Jackson’s dilemmas feel: her devotion to her children coexists uneasily with her fear of losing herself in domesticity. Several generations later, the intersection of life and work continues to be one of the points of most profound anxiety in our society—an anxiety that affects not only women, but also their husbands and children.”
I can only laugh because when I set out to re-create the poisoned meal from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I was hemmed in on every side by childcare and school vacations (October is the worst). The menu, as revealed in an awkward scene when the acquaintances Helen Clarke and Mrs. Wright drop in on the sisters to gawk, was “spring lamb roasted, with a mint jelly made from Constance’s garden mint,” and “spring potatoes, new peas, a salad, again from Constance’s garden.” As for the blackberries, Jackson writes, “Well the blackberries were the important part.” (At this point, Merricat doesn’t want visitors and imagines putting Helen Clarke “in a bathing suit on a snow bank, setting her high in the hard branches of a tree in dress of flimsy pink ruffles that caught and pulled and tore; she was tangled in the tree and screaming and I almost laughed.”)
To balance the poison, I chose two of the book’s happier dishes: the peanut brittle that Constance makes for their demented Uncle Julian (the only relative to survive), and a dandelion pie. Both were challenges. I wanted to make brittle without a candy thermometer, and I couldn’t imagine “dandelion pie” and wanted to invent something. But as the timing worked out, both dishes required trial runs performed late at night after my children had gone to bed, after the chaos of sports and dinner and homework. My kitchen was a wreck (my kitchen is always a wreck); one batch of sugar crystallized, and another batch burned. I make mistakes when I cook too late. The scheduling did not get easier as photo-shoot day approached, and eventually, that weekend, I had to farm the children off on my husband so I could get the writing done. He helpfully took them out for an afternoon, but he did not seem to feel it was his role in life to do so. I, of course, felt guilty.
All of this is only the ordinary daily predicament of any working mother. My food more or less worked out, though the lamb dish was not my favorite. I have never had success with roasting lamb and have now concluded that it’s not me, it’s the method. I tried a powerful overnight marinade and poked plentiful holes in the meat for the flavor to seep in, but it was still tougher and blander than I would have liked. On the other hand, my fourth batch of peanut brittle was a winner. (Cook it slowly, watch it carefully, and use good peanuts.) Dandelion pie, my research showed, is a seasonal spring dish that can be made with rhubarb, chopped dandelion flowers, and a crumble topping. For our Halloween menu, I created a delicious quiche-like version that uses dandelion greens sweetened with honey, rosemary, fennel, and pine nuts. I tried to make a cat’s head from pastry dough in reference to Merricat’s beloved pet; you can see in the photos how well that worked out. And since I used sugar instead of arsenic on my blackberries, they were just fine.
The chaos, frustrations, disappointments, and ultimate pleasures of making this meal recalled for me another of my Satanist-witch friend’s ideas, which is that your daily burdens are also your daily magic. Jackson may or may not have truly believed in witchcraft. She read tarot cards and did rituals in her daily life, but her biographer suggests that this may have been a publicity stunt or, more to the point, “a sign of the a lack of agency she felt in her own life and her corresponding longing for a way to harness power.” Regardless, Jackson’s daily juggle was an extraordinary act of transformation and creation that continues to crackle through the ether. Take your burdens and make something from them—it’s a twist straight out of her best work.
Roasted Lamb with Mint Jelly
Serves eight. The lamb should be marinated the night before.
1 bone-in, butterflied, five-pound leg of lamb
3 tbs coriander seeds
2 tsp fennel seeds
2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp ground peppercorns
5 cloves garlic, mashed
2 sprigs rosemary leaves, minced
4 sprigs thyme leaves, minced
2 tsp kosher salt
4 tsp quality mustard
1/2 cup olive oil
2 lbs new potatoes, boiled in salted water until tender
1 10 oz jar mint jelly
The night before you’re due to serve the food, marinate the lamb. Lightly crush the coriander, fennel, and mustard seeds in a mortar. Combine in a small dish with the ground peppercorns, mashed garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt, and mustard. Pierce the lamb all over, deeply, with a fork, then rub it with the seasoning mixture. Place in a two-gallon freezer bag. Add the olive oil and any extra seasoning that has fallen on your workspace, seal the bag, and rub to combine. Refrigerate overnight.
Cook the lamb at 350 for about fifteen minutes per pound for medium-rare meat, or use a meat thermometer to test for doneness (135 degrees for medium). Let rest for twenty minutes before carving. Serve with peeled potatoes and a few tablespoons of mint jelly.
The crust for this pie is the Four and Twenty Blackbirds all-butter, cider-vinegar crust, doubled. It should be prepared and chilled the night before. The top is cut into lattice strips to make it more like a pie; however, a single crust (half the recipe as written below) with no top would work as well.
For the crust:
2 1/2 cups flour
2 sticks butter
1 tsp salt
1 tbs sugar
1/2 cup ice water
1/2 cup ice
4 tbs apple-cider vinegar
For the filling:
1 bunch dandelions
1 cup fennel, finely chopped
1 tbs olive oil
2 tbs orange zest
6 tbs pine nuts, toasted
1 tbs rosemary, very finely minced
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp honey
an egg, for wash
To make the pie crust:
Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Working quickly and keeping all the ingredients cold, cut the butter in with a pastry cutter until combined, leaving some pea-size lumps of butter still visible.
Pour in a quarter cup of the cider-water mixture, making sure not to drop in any ice by mistake, and stir with a wooden spoon. If the dough seems like it’s coming together, crunch it a few times with your hands. If it needs more liquid, add a tablespoon at a time, continuing to stir and crunch until it forms a ball. Divide in two, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
To make the filling:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and set up an ice bath. Cut the lowest, toughest part of the stalks off the dandelion greens, then plunge the leaves into the boiling water, leaving to sit for a minute before immediately transferring to the ice bath. This will leach out some of the bitterness. Remove the greens from the ice bath, squeeze out excess moisture, and chop fine.
Sauté the fennel in olive oil until soft. Add the dandelion greens, orange zest, pine nuts, and rosemary, and sauté for another minute to bring everything together.
Prepare the custard by whisking together eggs, milk, cream, salt, and honey.
To assemble the pie:
Preheat the oven to 400.
Roll out the bottom crust so it’s about a quarter inch thick, using plenty of flour to dust the work surface. If the dough sticks, sprinkle flour on it. Drape the crust over a nine-inch pie plate, and trim. Refrigerate for at least ten minutes. (At this point, a perfectionist would blind bake the crust, but I did not.)
After the bottom crust has chilled, roll out the top crust, and cut into lattice strips. Working quickly—your lattice strips are melting—take out the chilled bottom crust, pour in the filling from the saucepan, and spread evenly. Top with the custard mixture, taking care not to overfill. (Assembling the top crust over the wet batter is challenging; having a bit more rim to work with will help.)
Do your lattice-crust basket weave according to the technique of your choice. Trim, pinch around the sides, and pop the pie in the freezer for ten minutes. In the meantime, prepare an egg wash (an egg and one tablespoon of warm water, beaten with a fork). When the pie has rechilled, brush the egg wash all along the lattice and the edges. Bake for forty minutes, or until the crust is golden and the filling has set (the pie will look puffed up when this is the case). Let cool to room temperature, and serve.
Peanut Brittle for Uncle Julian
A note on peanuts: I tried several varieties and found that peanuts with a really great flavor and crunch are necessary for this dish, which will mostly taste like the peanuts. I like the plain Planters cocktail peanuts, which are roasted and salted. Any similar peanut would do, and good honey-roasted peanuts are also good. If you’re using unsalted nuts, I’d increase the salt in the rest of the dish.
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 tbs butter
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 cups Planters cocktail peanuts, roughly chopped
Grease and set aside a small sheet pan. Combine butter, salt, and baking soda in a small dish, and set next to the stove, for immediate use when the time comes.
Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a medium saucepan, and stir. Then, turn the heat to medium, and bring to a simmer without stirring. Let the mixture bubble, still without stirring, until it turns a light-golden-amber color, which should take about twenty minutes but can happen quickly. If the sugar heats too much or too quickly, it will become inflexible or burned-tasting. Stirring can cause it to crystallize.
As soon as the sugar has changed color, take the pan off the heat, and add the butter, salt, and baking soda all at once (the mixture will froth up, but that’s okay). Working as quickly as possible, stir to combine, then stir in the peanuts. Spread the mixture on the greased baking sheet with a wooden spatula (or other inflexible spatula). It doesn’t matter if the mixture reaches the edges of the baking sheet.
Cool completely, about twenty minutes, then break into irregular pieces and serve.
Sugared Blackberries à la Merricat
1 cup blackberries
1 tsp sugar
Place blackberries in a pretty dish, sprinkle with sugar, and serve to all of your favorite people (arsenic optional).
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.