Thanks to the Emory University, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library, Atlanta, Georgia for providing a copy of this article, originally appearing in Ms. Magazine, July/August 1982 issue. Copyright © 1982 by Alice Walker. The quality of the scanned copy was poor so this page is recreated in HTML and CSS.
THE STRANGEST DINNER PARTY I EVER WENT TO
by Alice Walker
Fireless Cookery is really a book about food, energy conservation, and survival, but it comes with a story about the often accidental nature of friendship, of shared enthusiasms and attachments, and of the richness in personal relationships Americans—by virtue of the diversity of cultures we inherit—can easily claim. Like any decent story, it includes the good, the strange, and the flaw.
Arriving in Portland, Oregon, to read at a local college seven years ago, I am met by a cheerful white woman with laughing eyes who invites me to spend the evening at her house. Her name is Susan, she is Jewish; she is married to John, who is Irish. They have a two-year-old daughter Eve, who is yet another culturally integrated and interesting American.
Eve, when we arrived, is sitting on her potty "reading" a book. John is soon talking about Ralph Ellison and F. Scott Fitzgerald, beloved writers whose work he teaches. Susan and I talk of Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Teaching and Writing, and I am becoming more and more hungry for dinner.
While trying to keep alert to the conversation, speak a few words of encouragement to Eve, and to think about the Irish revolutionary songs now on the stereo, I sniff and sniff the air, and glance surreptitiously at all these people's gleaming and, alas, empty cooking pots.
Yes. A drink would be nice. But so would food, I think.
Oh, yes, (I think of Mari Evans's' poem about how what white women keep in their refrigerators never tempts the black cleaning ladies.) Oy vey, I think, Celery sticks.
By now we are discussing the passionate language of the IRA's Declaration of Independence. I mention Frederick Douglass's observation that Irish singing in the 1800s was almost identical in tone to Black American "Sorrow songs" of the same period. Soon Susan speaks of the Holocaust, I am too hungry to offer my standard "comparable tale" regarding the notorious Middle Passage of the American Slave Trade (20 million captured Africans lost crossing the ocean), I nod understandingly instead.
Where is the dinner? I think. Don't these people know I've been on the road since before breakfast? Don't they know celery sticks don't fill?
Eve is now showing me her dollies. She is near enough to hear my stomach growl, She leans back on the sofa to stare, and I say—before she has a chance to comment, and anyways she can't talk much yet—You're hungry too, huh?
And then I realize Susan is speaking quietly of her mother. Of the things her mother taught her when she was Eve's age, Of her mother's love of art and music. How her mother raised a family and became a pediatrician in spite of the Holocaust and near starvation during the First World War. How her mother kept up many of the traditions she'd learned from her mother. And, said Susan, one of those traditions is how to cook food without fire.
How to cook food without fire, she says. Well, she smiles mysteriously, almost without fire.
That's right, says John, as if just remembering. Damn, Susan, he says, spring up, dinner must be ready by now.
Eve jumps up and takes me by the hand. We stagger about the kitchen "helping" her mother set the table. When it is set: wine poured, candles lit, knife and fork unexpectedly under my hand, John trundles in a blue wooden box with a bright handpainted sun on top. It comes nearly to his knee, and is on rollers. Eve watches my face, practically sitting in my plate to do so. Susan bends down, opens the trunklike top, and lifts off something that looks like a pillow. The odor of warm hay fills the room.
Oh, shit, I think.
But wait. Nestled into an even larger pillow inside the box (also filled with hay, I later learn) is—a cooking pot!
Thank God. I think. Hopefully.
Susan lifts the pot to the table, lifts the lid, and an aroma more tantalizing than anything I've smelled since leaving home instantly overpowers the hay. And the look on my face gives Eve so much pleasure she applauds.
Irish stew: Meat. Potatoes. Carrots and onions. Gravy. Enough for dinner and maybe even a snack later.
That's how I was initiated into the game of "stump the ravenous guest," and over the years it has become a "family" ritual. Last Thanksgiving, after a communally prepared dinner (my companion's Deep South and dee-licious sweet-potato pie, John's Irish green sprouts, Susan's turkey and my cornbread dressing), while we sprawled before John's well-laid fire and Eve and her new little sister Dasha played for us on their tiny violins, Susan mentioned that her mother Heidi Kirschner had at last published a book about fireless cookery.
Flipping through the book we read: Bring food to a boil, simmer it briefly, and pop it into an insulated container where it will keep cooking with no more supervision or fuel. A pot roast nestled in the cooker in the morning will be complete dinner at the end of the day.
We read: The type of food that lends itself best to this method (pot roasts, fricassees, etc.) is usually easy to stretch to accommodate unexpected guests.
We read: The fireless cooker uses less fuel than the crockpot and food cannot be overcooked. Flavor tends to be better and the fireless cooker can be left unattended with no concerns about electrical hazards. The fireless cooker is less expensive.
We read: Fireless cooking is fun!
There are also complete instructions for how to build your own fireless cooker (using plywood, hay, straw, blankets, et cetera.. you can also cook in a covered basket), as well as recipes for dozens of meals from beef Bourguignon to Bouillabaisse that I have eaten, dreamed about, or helped prepare. Including the memorable Irish stew we had that first night.
Simmering time: 20 minutes
Cooker time: 3 hours
2 pounds lamb neck or shank, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
3 large potatoes, diced
6 large carrots, diced
1 stalk celery, cut into 1-inch long diagonal pieces
1/2 head Savoy cabbage, about 1 pound, coarsely chopped
1 to 1 1/2 cups water or broth, enough to fill pot two-thirds full
Salt and pepper to taste
In six-quart pot, saute meat, onion, and caraway seeds; add liquid, bring to boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes. Add vegetables for last five minutes of simmering time. Place in fireless cooker. At serving time, bring to boil and simmer five minutes; correct seasoning. Serves six.
So much for the good and the strange. The flaw in Fireless Cookery is the illustrations. Through the "Europeans" in the drawings are all shown dong industrious things—making their own gardens, dinners, and cooking boxes—the "African," whose function is to emphasize the importance of fireless cooking to poor, fuel-depleted, Third World countries, is shown merely eating. And rather stereotypical too. Perhaps this will be changed before subsequent editions of the book.
This summer, we hope our friends will visit us in the country. And, using Heidi Kirschner's book, and Susan's memory of the fireless cooker her parents built for her and John (a wedding present), we will build a fireless cooker of our own. Not simply because it will cook food deliciously and save us money. Not simply because we will then be able to play "stump the ravenous guest." But because by now this tradition handed down by Susan's mother has become part of the ritual and substance of our friendship, and over the years of sharing, arguing, crying and laughing (through the pain of political assassinations, the disillusionment of truly nightmarish Presidential elections, but also through the joy of our children being born and growing up and out own struggles to grow and to love), everything we've managed to cook together has nourished us all so very well.
Fireless Cookery: A Traditional Energy-Efficient Method of Slow Cooking, by Heidi Kirschner Madrona Publishers, Inc. 2116 Western Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98121, $6.95)
Alice Walker's third novel, “The Color Purple” has just been released by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, the publisher of many of her books. She was the subject of the “Ms.” cover story last month—with articles by Gloria Steinem, and Mary Helen Washington.
Copyright © 1982 by Alice Walker.
Want to learn more about Fireless Cookery? A good place to start is Cooking with Retained Heat.