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Food & Magic

An Interview with Carin McKay

Carin McKay has coordinated the camp kitchen at California Witchcamp for the past four summers. She and the kitchen team have been an integral part of the magic. RQ interviewed her over a bowl of soup at the Squat & Gobble Cafe on Haight Street.

What's it like cooking at Witchcamp?

There is a connection between the kitchen and the people at Witchcamp that is really special. Witchcamp is unusual, because you're in sacred space the entire time. It's such a gift to do that. We think of the kitchen crew as our own affinity group. We don't just cook good food, we get to be close to one another and give each other support. Some of the crew tell me it's the best work experience they've had. At Witchcamp, food has a strong role. It's a powerful backbone, supporting the classes and rituals. I feel good knowing that people will walk away having been well-fed for an entire week.

What's the connection between food and magic?

Cooking is an alchemy. It's some of the deepest magic I know. Where else do you take raw ingredients, mix them together, and "abracadabra," you feed people's bodies and souls. People's energy literally changes after they eat a meal.

When you stir food, you're putting your life-force into it. Fire magnifies whatever you're putting into the food. The stirring and the fire amplify what's already there in the food. You're putting your energy into the food to create something new.

At Witchcamp a small group of us give thanks before every meal. It helps me to slow down and get present to what I just did. The food deserves that kind of respect.

Cooking is risky, literally. If you are not aware in the kitchen you can really hurt yourself. There's a transformation that is taking place. You're surfing an edge of creativity. In cooking, there's an opportunity to improvise, to dance with what you have, to play. That's such a delight to play in food. And best of all, you don't have to be an expert to do it.

What about the magic of the food itself?

Each food has its own unique energy, and has a different effect on your body. It's not just calories and protein. There's an essence. Food contains energy of the earth, air, sun, and water from the exact place where it grew. The energy of a carrot is different from a leafy green. A carrot grew underground, it's a root vegetable. It's more dense, it's digging in deep. A leafy green shoots toward the sky. It's light. Its energy moves upward and is expansive. Those are very different qualities. If you want to be more grounded, eat more root vegetables.

If you want to be more light and expansive, eat food that is like that. You may feel elated, bloated, satisfied, short-changed, or inspired, depending on the quality of the food and the quality of your eating. You may feel like singing a song, kissing your friend, or lying down to nap after you have been fed.

So much of the food people eat today in the U.S. creates a feeling of deep emptiness. We snack and overeat to compensate for that feeling. Processed foods made with sugar and chemicals are devoid of the vitality that fresh food brings. There's a big difference between fresh food and frozen food, no matter what the nutritional chart says. Fresh food contains the warmth of the sun and life itself. Frozen food eaten months after it was picked just doesn't have that quality.

So finding quality food is important. But what about your role as cook?

Throughout the years I have noticed my energy has a big effect on the food. I know as a cook I am supporting people's health and well being so it is very important for me to be healthy inside and out.

For a while, I worked in a restaurant and had a huge flirtation with one of the cooks. We'd flirt endlessly. I'd make this Indian stew with eggplants and peas and cauliflower. I'd be stirring the stew while we were flirting shamelessly. And then I'd serve it, and people would ask, "what did you put into that stew, it's so good!" Or they'd come and start talking to us about romance or sex. I could see that the flirtation was in the food. It was like the movie Like Water For Chocolate, where the main character put her love or her tears or her sexual energy into the food and the people eating the food responded dramatically.

It's a big responsibility when I cook for people. I ask myself: am I centered, am I at peace, am I thinking ill about someone? If I'm in a bad space, it will go into the food. I try to shift my focus to a more positive mental space. I like to create a kitchen with people I love, that feels at peace and is, very importantly, fun! That's not always easy to attain when I'm cooking for 200 people. Sometimes I am on the verge of a meltdown, but somehow, amazingly, I have discovered that it always works out, the job is done regardless if I stress out or not. In this way cooking is a major teacher for me.

Give us some examples of food magic.

I'll bake a birthday cake and have everyone stir in their blessings and intentions. People intuitively know how to do it. You don't have to tell them how. It's really wonderful. Things that we do every day have the most magic. They're the foundation of our being. If you practice magic, or yoga, every day, that has the most power. Well, eating is something we do every day. It's pretty basic. If you're eating harmful things every day, it builds up. And if you do things that are healthful, that builds up. At Witchcamp, for dessert one night, one of the cooks and one of the organizers made Love Cookies. They put a spell of love into the food, putting in the intention of love and good sex. They got together, bare-chested, cookie dough was everywhere, and cast their blessings. Other people arrived to scoop out the cookies, and the whole time, they spoke about love. There were 500 cookies to scoop, so they were talking about love for a while. Did the magic work? Ask someone who went to camp.

Any horror stories about food and magic?

One time two friends and I made gingerbread cookies. We had this motto, "you can't have the gingerbread without the ginger," like you have to have the juice. So we made a spell, we just made it up. Then we each fed the gingerbread to our boyfriends at the time. And each one of those boyfriends became obsessed with us. Its not funny, it was really horrible. It really backfired. It taught me to be careful. We ended up having to break the spell a couple of years later.

What brought you to food as a vocation?

I grew up with a mix of homemade bread and TV dinners. My mother was an incredible baker. She came from a farming background. In that lifestyle, you can your own food, you make things fresh, you bake fresh bread. But she was also a working mom and only had so much time. So I ate a lot of processed food. Growing up rural, there wasn't a lot to do. I'd make cookies with my friends. I really got the pleasure of cooking with people, hanging out on a rainy day and making treats. I was an athlete in high school, and I trained three to four hours a day. I saw that when I ate bad food — went to McDonald's before a game — I couldn't play as well. It cut into my performance. Growing up in (the Northern California town of) Mendocino, I worked in restaurants. Those were my first jobs — cooking, serving, prepping. I was a dessert chef at a couple of places. That's where I learned that sugar is not good for me. I got a job working at a cookie company. All day I'd eat cookies and slam espressos. I'd come home from work depressed and wanting to cry and hide away.

Was that your worst period with food?

The period when I was working at the cookie factory was pretty bad. I'd just graduated from high school, wondering what the heck I was doing with my life. And there were those hot cookies, right out of the oven. You can't not eat something like that. Every day I'd resolve not to eat a cookie, and every day I'd fail. I'd go home and be depressed and suicidal. I was confused about my life. But also, I literally had the sugar blues. I was crashed. There were also times in high school that I'd overeat and then go on crash diets. Body image issues, combined with a serious sweet tooth, created a lot of suffering for me at that time.

What got you out of that?

Changing my circumstances. Going away to college helped. I was still eating in the dormitories. But then I met a friend who taught me to cook improvisationally. I went to college in Santa Barbara, where the food grows on trees. You can get organic stuff really easily. I got a job at a health food coop, and I was around good food a lot more. I still ate junk food, but I was on my way to to taking better care of myself. Now I can look at my health and see the steps I've made. It's a progression. It's taken me years to learn how not to have an energy crash in the middle of the day and binge on sugar. When I learned how to cook, I began to take charge of my health and to think about the well-being of the planet. I'm a food activist. Food is one of the hottest political issues out there. What we eat and put in our bodies reflects the health of the planet as well as our selves. By making aware choices about what we put in our bodies, we influence the crops the farmers grow. This influences how much pesticides are going into our soil, whether or not genetically-modified seeds are being used. What we do every day has a lot of power, personally as well as politically.

Part of what helped me change was being supported by other people. At the cookie company, it was impossible for me not to eat that way. I made a promise to myself to never put myself in that type of situation again.

Say more about food and community.

If you create food, people will come. You'll have community to share that with. If you don't have that, it's more easy to feel isolated and alone. During college, one of my friends and I would have these magnificent dinner parties, with 30 people. We'd make vats of spaghetti. She taught me how to improvise, to not be boxed in by a recipe, to be free and have fun. We'd put in beer, or cinnamon, whatever we could. Everyone who came the dinner party had to stir the food. They had to put in their juice, their energy. We'd have the most raucous parties, and food was the centerpiece. That really taught me how joyful and community-building food was. And that I could be free, I didn't have to be locked into a recipe. I saw that the energy I put into the food made a difference. Call it magic, call it energy — that pleasure and delight we put into it carried out to 30 people. One danger about having community of people who enjoy a certain type of food is the tendency to isolate. There are lots of amazing people out there who can't stand brown rice and tofu, who are not interested if it is organic or not, etc. I have learned to become much more relaxed about what I eat and be able to give thanks for the fact that I have food at all.

Did you study cooking or nutrition formally?

I learned a lot from mentors, but was never classically trained. I learned because I loved it and because it is to me right livelihood. When I was about 22, I moved to the East Bay and started working at the Macrobiotics Center. I learned to listen to my body, look outside at what kind of day it was, check in with my mood — and then cook food. There was no menu. It was the first time I even considered checking out how I felt before I cooked.

What's your biggest challenge now?

Food is important. But to get fixated on it personally is detrimental. It's a fine balance in my work. I'm passionate about food. But what is the bigger picture? Why am I working on my health? Is it just so I can look and feel a certain way? What else? If I put something inside my body that isn't good for me, chances are it isn't good for the planet. Where I still struggle is, I don't want to cook for myself three times a day. No way! And through the years I have learned all sorts of shortcuts to be able to feed myself well. But for me, I'm the best person to be in charge of my daily health. I just finished Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidental where he writes about the real inside scoop of the restaurant business. To say the least, his story portrays a pretty unhealthy, drugged-out lifestyle for many cooks. I really don't want someone upset or really unhealthy to be feeding me on a regular basis. There is something to be said about mom's or dad's love in the food they cook for us.

Sugar is difficult. Not only does my body crave it sometimes, but I'm nostalgic for it. If I feel sad, I still go for that kind of stuff. I still go for that. I know it will make me feel terrible. I can see two steps down the road, and realize I have more of a choice. When I cook for myself, it forces me to slow down. If I don't have time to cook a good meal once a day, I'm too busy.

Any final thoughts on food and magic?

Cooking is alchemy. It's an art. It's beautiful and nourishing. It's a place to put your creative energy. You can't argue with it. There's nothing controversial about cooking good food.

Carin McKay is an integrative counselor, caterer, and teacher who has studied health and nutrition for the last nine years. She teaches nutrition and cooking classes, and has private consultations. Contact