Food writer Ellen Sweets and columnist Molly Ivins were friends for 20 years. Their bond deepened in the kitchen, where they shared recipes for life and food—from coq au vin to duck á l’orange to “garbage gumbo.” But most of all, they savored the saving graces of food, especially its ability to bring people together. Here’s an excerpt from Sweets’ book, Stirring It Up with Molly Ivins: A Memoir with Recipes (UT Press).
When Molly and I weren’t railing against some aspect of social injustice, we talked about food, from farming and ranching to organics and free trade to the joys of foie gras, vichyssoise, and red beans and rice, prompting a detour to discussing foods that provoke flatulent responses from the average digestive system and thereby providing irrefutable proof that Molly was as capable of low-brow conversation as the next ten-year-old. She could hold forth on almost anything, and it seemed that the more obtuse the subject matter, the more she relished it, although there was nothing obtuse about her love of pork—be it ribs, chops, roast, or tenderloin.
We talked about food as memory, authoritatively and with no scientific data whatsoever, placing the blame for family breakdowns squarely on the fact that so few families sit down and eat together anymore. We shared remembrances of little details, like when we learned how to set the table, how brothers and sisters took turns screwing up the placement of knife on the right and fork on the left, and how nobody ever wanted to load or empty the dishwasher despite the fact that it relieved us of having to wash dishes by hand.
She called me a liar when I told her about The White Trash Cookbook [White Trash Cooking] and how I owned both volumes and had actually found a recipe for an onion sandwich that I made and loved. My father loved them too; thin-sliced Bermuda onion, Miracle Whip (not mayonnaise), and lots of black pepper between two slices of Wonder Bread constitute heaven on a plate. You could gussy it up with a slice or two of tomato, but the basics worked just fine, thank you very much. For some reason this prompted a segue into why Americans ate so much bad food. In the mid-1990s she saw food issues as a neglected component of a serious social narrative. By then I had moved from editing to reporting to being a food writer. I began to focus more on food beyond its value as joy and sustenance, trends and recipes. I thought more about how corporate marketing foisted food-like substances on us, how we fell for it, and how the more we fell for it and the more sedentary we were, the fatter and sicker we got. If you wanted to elicit one of those wonderful Molly sneers, all you had to do was mention Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, or Monsanto—especially insanely litigious Monsanto.
How I wished she could have lived to meet Robyn O’Brien, the feisty writer, born in Texas but living in Colorado. She wrote a remarkable book called The Unhealthy Truth, about how additives and chemicals and hormones in livestock have combined to promulgate allergies and mysterious ailments in children. Like Molly, she came from well-heeled Houston social stock; like Molly, she could rattle off the ironic ways in which corporate agriculture is not necessarily food-friendly and how Frankenfoods are making us fat and sick.
Molly, who stood an inch or so over six feet, fought an often-losing battle with her weight. I had long since abandoned my struggle, along with the amphetamines that were supposed to curb my appetite but made me crazy instead. On food-filled Austin weekends we pretty much settled for just eating good stuff—food free of pesticides, additives, preservatives, artificial colors, nitrates and nitrites. Well, except for red velvet cake, bacon, and smoked sausage. Hebrew National made the hot dog cut.
Once Molly’s health became fragile she paid even more attention to what we ate, almost always buying organic or at least preservative-, hormone-, and additive-free foods.
Mercifully, first lady Michelle Obama took up the healthy-food sword and led a national charge into battle against bad food, moving many communities to take a long, hard look at what they feed themselves.
By the time Molly’s health took its worst turn, neither she nor I was counting calories. Instead of trying to lose weight, it was important for her to gain as that hateful duo of cancer and chemo took its toll. We took great pride, however, in knowing that almost every pound we carried was free of high-fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate, red dye #5, and yellow dye #3. In truth, we spent a lot more time eating than we did intellectualizing and deconstructing food’s sociopolitical underpinnings. Relentless examination of American food flaws can really wear you out. Eating is much more fun.