What The Real Witches Of America Eat

The bounty of the earth is celebrated in the high rituals of pagans. Above, a Wiccan priestess is silhouetted by the afternoon light. In the foreground are examples of Wiccan cooking for the vernal equinox. Clockwise from near right: beat-pickled eggs; roast beef in tarragon; bowl of eggs boiled with onion skin wrap; bread with eggs; Ukranian painted eggs; and apple crumble. Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images hide caption

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Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images

What do witches eat? If you’re thinking of blood and feathers and cauldrons bubbling with eye of Newt and toe of frog, you couldn’t be more off-menu.

The correct, and disappointingly dull, answer is pizza, bread, fruit, nuts, granola bars, Cornish hens, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks coffee, leg of lamb, beer, cheese, Merlot, frozen cheesecake, and other supermarket comestibles.

The banal diet of the neighborhood witch is one of several stereotype-busting nuggets to be found in Alex Mar’s book Witches of America, an immersive first-person study of paganism in the U.S. Her book was preceded by a documentary called American Mystic. In the course of describing how and why Americans from different backgrounds and belief systems are drawn to the occult, Mar also reveals how food is used in the rites of contemporary witchcraft.

As part of a quest that fused spiritual self-inquiry with anthropological research, Mar, who describes herself as “an over-educated liberal New Yorker,” dove deep into pagan communities in San Francisco, Illinois, New England and New Orleans. Keen to find out if “even a piece of me skews magical,” she attended mega witch conventions, participated in exorcism exercises and dance revels, attended a Gnostic mass and a workshop on poisonous herbs, offered gumdrops to Santa Muerte (the popular Mexican folk saint of Death, who is known for her sweet tooth), and even trained briefly in witchcraft.

But she is candid enough to admit that when she started on this fascinating and unpredictable journey into the occult, she nursed similar prejudices about food and witchcraft.

“I’m half-Cuban, half-Greek from New York, and Greek cuisine includes octopus, tripe and sea urchin – so I’m quite used to foods that many would consider squeamish,” she told me. “But I still had the notion that witchcraft was performed with very repulsive ingredients. Somewhere in my subconscious, probably from the Brothers Grimm, magic is performed using raw animal parts and human blood. And yes, folk magic in some parts of the world does use animal parts and animal blood, but when it comes to everyday food, what witches eat is no different from what others eat.”

She discovered this early on in her research. One of the first witches Mar met was “Morpheus,” a skinny, redheaded pagan priestess in baggy jeans who welcomed her to her trailer in the Bay Area with “a pan of premade enchiladas.” Soon, Mar watched as carloads of witches drove up to an Autumn equinox gathering at Stone City in the Bay Area (the hub of American paganism) armed with picnic gear – “baggies of herbs,” coolers, and “brown paper bags crammed with discount groceries.”

Witches of America is full of modern-day Wiccans and witches who Skype, drive pickups, and drop off their kids at school. And though Mar did meet a young necromancer who “harvests” heads from a New Orleans graveyard, he is clearly an outlier.

Many witches keep their magic lives quiet and prefer to remain in the “broom closet,” coming out only to friends and fellow believers. Morpheus, for instance, is the alias used throughout the book for a woman whose day job is with the federal government. But she is also a respected Bay Area priestess who sings to the moon, and who dragged crushingly heavy stones down dirt roads to build a henge to The Morrigan, the Celtic goddess of war.

Since paganism has deep pre-Christian roots in nature worship and the harvest cycles, the bounty of the earth is celebrated in its high rituals.

At the very first pagan ritual Mar attended, Morpheus, dressed in fitted black velvet, presided as priestess at her self-built henge. Mar had watched her bake a bread sculpture of a sun god, lay it out on a dish and place “a dry ear of corn between his dough-legs” for a phallus. The figure was carried up the hill and laid out surrounded by pomegranates and apples – symbolizing the fertility of the earth.

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Later, Mar watched Morpheus take two jars filled with cream and dark ale, the favorite foods of The Morrigan, and pour them out as offerings.

Today, the term “witch” is used to describe the nearly 1 million Americans who practice paganism. Once used as a derogatory term, the word “pagan” has been reclaimed and is used as a giant catchall, says Mar, “for people who practice a nature-worshiping and polytheistic religion, which has its own rites and rituals, just as any other religion has.”

“One of the things that impressed me was how practical pagans are,” says Mar. “If you could get an ingredient for a spell at a discount store, that was fine. It was better to be serious about your practice than spend the whole weekend going into the woods looking for an herb that can be found in the produce section of Whole Foods.”

Where food has a starring – and endearing – role to play is at Samhain (pronounced SAH-win), the major pagan holiday, which coincides with Halloween. Pagans believe that at this time of the year (from late October into early November), the veil between the worlds of the living and dead is thinnest, and therefore the best time to commune with one’s dead ancestors and loved ones. And what better way than to break bread with them?

“At these Samhain gatherings, many witches will dance and drink and eat the things the person they are remembering enjoyed,” says Mar. “The belief is that you can channel physical pleasure to the dead person, you can invite them to come closer and taste their favorite foods for that one night. If, say, you had an aunt who was partial to cherry pie, you would leave one out for her. Some witches drink whisky for the deceased who loved a good whisky. I find this aspect of the pagan community very moving – the fact that foods you consider everyday can be made into an offering, not just the ceremonial foods like a chalice of red wine sanctified by the church.”

Perhaps the one area where popular fairy-tale notions of food and witchcraft match the reality is in the casting of spells – something Mar learnt first-hand. Finding herself in the coils of boyfriend trouble, she asked Morpheus, by then a friend, for a “binding spell” to protect her boyfriend from the “emotional voodoo” of his former lover.

Morpheus emailed back with a Freezer Spell that involved buying a cow’s tongue from the butcher’s, slitting it open, inserting something representative of the ex-lover, like a photograph, and writing out what Mar wanted to do to her. Then, instructed Morpheus, dress the photograph with “any mixture of these things: mustard (for disruption), red and black pepper (to make ill words burn in her mouth), cloves or slippery elm bark (against malicious talk), and the most important one, alum, to stop her tongue.” Finally, sew or pin up the tongue, wrap it in foil and stick it in the freezer.

And so Mar drew up her shopping list. But that’s about as far as she went. “I was a little bit self-conscious about it,” she says. “Sewing up a cow’s tongue and chanting over it was too dramatic, and I hesitated.”

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Tall Heights Stretches Its Sound In 'Infrared' Lyric Video

Tall Heights formed in 2010, when guitarist Tim Harrington and cellist Paul Wright were performing mainly on the streets of Boston. That origin story helps account for the duo’s minimal instrumentation. Harrington and Wright included only what they felt was essential to their pensive, classically-informed folk: guitar, cello and their two voices.

Flickering guitar lines and an underscoring of cello have dominated Tall Heights’ sound ever since, and Wright and Harrington felt comfortable in their setup: just two guys playing folk music simple enough for the street. But more recently, they decided they wanted to push themselves in a new creative direction, even if it felt uncertain. So the duo used its latest record, Neptune — its first on Sony’s classical label— to explore new sonic terrain. Songs like “Infrared” experiment with lush, atmospheric synth tracks and steady, ominous percussion.

The new lyric video for “Infrared” evokes impermanence with its scenes of endless rolling landscapes, empty theater seats and grainy film strips. This is by no means an accident, as guitarist-vocalist Harrington tells NPR in an email. “I will be dead soon, and so will you,” he says. “How obvious then that we’d pen stories of salvation, how sinister that we’d use them as weapons or commodities.”

The duo’s more modern sound, paired with the vintage feeling of the lyric video, creates a sense of unease. With scenes tinted black and white, neon green, sepia and other unnatural tones, the video doesn’t seem rooted in reality — juxtaposed with the glimmering synth lines, it feels almost alien.

“Just because infrared light is beyond the capacity of the human eye doesn’t make it invisible, and Persistent Productions’ lyric video puts it out there on the visible spectrum,” Harrington says. The video is a sensory treat in all aspects and is full of movement, whether it’s in the form of a rolling film reel or a car speeding down an empty stretch of road. As the video fades, the line “a little heart with a beat” is repeated over and over; it closes the song with hope to hang on to.

Neptune is out now on Sony Music Masterworks.

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I Shall Faint: 'Unmentionable' Unpacks Victorian Womanhood

Unmentionable

Victorian manners occupy a space both sublimely funny and quietly horrific. With deeply specific and often counter-intuitive advice, Victorian pundits attempted to establish class markers and prescribe “acceptable” behavior that tended to come down harder on women than on men.

How specific and stifling? When at a dinner party, a lady eyeing the dessert course would have to hope a man was willing to cut her pear for her, as she was implicitly discouraged from doing it herself.

In theory, such ridiculous particulars were merely a level of Byzantine minutiae that haunted the rich and idle; most modern folk manage to get by without knowing the details of private-jet etiquette. In reality, however, this obsession with propriety affected all women, stifling open communication and often hindering women’s access to education, marital rights, and health care. Even the ideal parameters of a woman’s period were dictated to her, often on the authority of writers who weren’t even doctors. This fascinating and ongoing hypocrisy is what Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners hopes to unpack.

Therese Oneill has built a byline deconstructing the Victorian mindset for venues like Mental Floss and The Atlantic, and it’s clear in every page of Unmentionable that she’s done her research on what the Victorian lady was expected to tackle, from dinner-party etiquette to arsenic as skin care. As a historical primer, it would have big shoes to fill; if research is all you’re after, Ruth Goodman’s already taught us exactly How to Be a Victorian, in an exhaustively informative day-to-day take on 19th-century life. But Unmentionable largely avoids setting itself up for comparison; its focus is narrower, and its approach baldly editorial. Presenting the surreal and infuriating past is not enough — the vagaries of courtship, running a household, and taking a bath fall under a modern and distinctly snarky lens.

There’s perhaps never been a better time to snicker a little at what’s come before us; Hamilton, Kate Beaton, Horrible Histories, and Drunk History have all laid plenty of groundwork for turning the Good Old Days into a cabinet of morbid curiosities. And the tone behind Oneill’s premise — that she’s an omnipotent force that’s knocked the reader back in time and is maintaining a very personal line of communication as she shows you around — will likely make or break the reading experience.

Some of the irreverent observations hit a suitably dry remove, as in her introduction to Orson Squire Fowler, “a phrenologist. A word that sounds doctor-y, but many words do. Like ‘timbrologist,’ which is an old word for stamp collecting, a pastime that holds as much medical influence as that of phrenology.” Other asides tilt so forcibly toward Casual Fun that the authorial voice threatens to knock you straight out of the book.

If you find the tone hard to take, then Unmentionable becomes both a glimpse into history and a case study in whether details of the Victorian gray market for birth control are interesting enough to carry you through strained interludes about the language of fans. (The style feels particularly awkward whenever Oneill touches on topics like slavery, for which this tenor of quick, snarky asides is ill-advised.)

But there’s enough research here to entertain a Victorian newcomer; for readers looking for a primer on their more baffling habits, this could be a good place to start — if young ladies are going to gnaw on their umbrella handles in the street, you might as well find out about it.

Genevieve Valentine’s latest novel is Icon.

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The Return Of Bilingual Education In California?

Students at Las Familias Del Pueblo, an after-school program in Los Angeles, practice sentence structure and language. Morgan Walker for NPR hide caption

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Morgan Walker for NPR

Nearly two decades after California banned bilingual education, voters next month will have a chance to restore it. Proposition 58 would officially end the era of English-only teaching and re-introduce instruction in English and a second language as an option.

About 1.4 million English Language Learners, or ELLs, make up roughly 23 percent of California’s public school students. Most are Spanish-speakers.

Critics of bilingual instruction say it delays kids’ ability to read, write and speak proper English because they spend too much time learning in their native language. That view was widespread in 1998, the year that 61 percent of voters passed Proposition 227, ending what was called “transitional bilingual education.”

Prop 227 did not outlaw all bilingual education programs. It did, however require that parents sign a waiver if they wanted to keep their children in a bilingual classroom. Without a waiver, ELLs were automatically placed in English-only classes.

A lot has changed in 18 years though. Public support for programs that help children master two languages has grown significantly in California. More and more parents see biliteracy as a crucial skill that will open doors for their children. And districts like San Francisco and Los Angeles have created sizable bilingual programs using that waiver provision.

One influential supporter of Prop 58 is Shelly Spiegel-Coleman. She’s head of Californians Together, a Long Beach nonprofit that’s behind the so-called “biliteracy movement” in California. She says knowing at least two languages now is as important as being proficient in math, science and reading.

Advocates of Prop 58 point to a 2014 Stanford University study of 18,000 ELLs in San Francisco. It found that, by fifth grade, ELLs who had gotten waivers to remain in small bilingual programs were equally proficient in English and did just as well on state tests when compared with ELLs in English-only programs.

Drawings hang on the walls at Las Familias Del Pueblo. Morgan Walker for NPR hide caption

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Morgan Walker for NPR

Ricardo Lara, a Democratic state senator from Los Angeles County, is the sponsor of the ballot measure. He calls it “an attempt to right a tremendous wrong”.

He says the debate over bilingual education is different this time around.

“Californians know and value and understand the importance of having their students be multilingual, bilingual and multiliterate,” he said recently. “And so we’re removing those barriers and ensuring that we going to continue to have those dynamic programs in the state.”

Under the measure, for example, school districts would still decide locally whether they want to expand bilingual education or not. English-only programs would remain, but parents would no longer need to sign a waiver to place their children in a bilingual program.

Opponents fear this would allow schools to transfer ELLs to a bilingual classroom without the parent’s consent.

Leading the charge against the bilingual measure is Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who orchestrated the original ban in 1998. His campaign was inspired by a protest by immigrant parents in Los Angeles in 1996.

Back then, a group called Familias del Pueblo launched a boycott at the Ninth Street School in LA’s garment district. Latino parents complained that, as much as they wanted their kids to continue speaking Spanish, only 1 percent of the students at the school knew enough English to transition out of the bilingual program.

Unz insists that bilingual instruction is ineffective and cheats ELLs of a quality education. He argues that ELLs need no more than a year of intensive English instruction before moving on to English-only classrooms, and that while challenges remain, those students today are better off.

Latino students “are doing much better than they had been doing 18 or 20 years ago,” he says, “or that they would be doing if they weren’t being taught English.”

In the years after the ban, test scores for English Language Learners statewide improved considerably. Supporters interpreted it as powerful evidence that English-only was a better way to get ELL’s to succeed, even if it meant that children would lose their Spanish.

Years later, the academic achievement and test scores of ELLs began to drop off. So much so that in 2015, a coalition of civil rights groups won a landmark case on against the state for failing to address the high failure rates of ELLs. State officials have since agreed to new monitoring procedures to ensure that districts provide the necessary services and interventions required under the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

This time around, the bilingual debate has been much more muted than it was in the 1990s.

Ron Unz says the proposed initiative is likely to pass, thanks to upper-middle-class families who see bilingual instruction as a form of academic enrichment.

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