Cooking with Molly

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Rather than whimper about my newfound icky-city home, I resolved to join something where I might meet kindred yellow-dog, populist spirits. So as soon as the Jefferson Day dinner ad appeared in the features section, I made a note, sent a check, joined the Dallas ACLU, and went along, repeating again and again, “Hello; my name is Ellen Sweets. I just moved here I don’t know a soul.” I was still repeating it in my little pea brain when I parked, followed the signs, and arrived at the entrance.

Sitting on a stone bench on an unseasonably chilly evening was a rather substantial woman. She looked up, smiled. I extended my hand and said what I had planned to say. Her smile broadened. She shook my hand and replied in that unmistakably husky and resonant voice of hers, “Well hello there, Ellen Sweets. My name is Molly Ivins.”

With that, she extinguished the cigarette, took my arm, and explained that while she couldn’t invite me to sit with her, she would find some folks she thought I’d like. Like dominoes, friends began to fall into place, most notably John and Susan Albach, and Betsy Julian and her husband, Ed Cloutman. When I didn’t hang out with them and their Dallas crew, it was off to Austin. Spent so much time in the state capital people thought I lived there.

One year we did a Cajun Thanksgiving, complete with seafood gumbo and turducken. We e-mailed plans back and forth, planning a timetable for making the sweet-potato casserole, the carrots sautéed in brown butter with shallots, collard greens, baby brussels sprouts in Dijon-cream sauce, mashed potatoes, and giblet gravy. The four-hour meal ended with cherry and pumpkin pie, and various guests spread-eagled on the floor, bemoaning their lack of self-control.

Molly’s house became my stopping place. We often didn’t do much of anything other than cook. The two of us in a grocery store was often a double-barreled disaster. We’d make a list and either forget to bring it or completely misunderstand who was to get what. Cruising Central Market, I’d think we needed more of this and less of that. She insisted my sense of proportion was totally without merit, so I’d sneak an extra something that she would then promptly remove. We became adept at pointing out the error of one another’s shopping ways.

Molly’s opprobrium was gentle and oblique, such that it often registered hours later that she had in fact called me a twit. When she screwed up, I just sputtered, lest some inappropriate vulgarity issue forth. A food writer’s vocabulary is no match for that of a brilliant political pundit. Deep breaths were especially in order when “Chef Ellen” had to divine a way to stretch food for four into a meal for six—or sometimes eight or 10—by the time Miss Molly completed spontaneous invitations conveyed at a quarter past the last minute.

Over many years and many, many meals, there was never a dull one. Molly’s dinner parties were a thing to behold, whether duck a l’orange with leeks and pureed potatoes, or chili with cheese and sour cream, or barbecued chicken, potato salad, and slaw, or a standing rib roast and baby vegetables.

We drank, we talked, argued politics, embellished the truth, and in all probability told outright lies. Several times I made it down for her beloved tree-trimming parties replete with Elvis ornaments. Who will ever forget Final Friday sing-alongs with the New Lost City Ramblers, or storytelling, or slam poetry evenings?

For all the varied meals we consumed around that wonderful round table, from fried chicken to poulet Basquaises, Molly always returned to two favorites when we cooked together: seafood gumbo and chicken soup. When I visited her in December, I brought a container designed to get her through a couple of lunches. Molly promptly consumed the contents. We sat in the kitchen—Del Garcia, Hope Reyna, and Betsy Moon—and reminisced about the Observer party that had been dedicated to Molly a few weeks earlier. We even managed to extract laughter from the continuing idiocy of, well, you know who.

Native Americans have a belief that when a loved one dies, the spirit remains for 12 months to guide the living through their pain. I will feel her breath over my shoulder when I make gumbo again, telling me I don’t need okra and file powder. I’ll remember her especially when I forget the list, or snatch up an item that was never on it anyway.

Ellen Sweets is a food writer for The Denver Post.