Hand and Hearth

Laura May’s modern approach to witchcraft imbues a sense of intentionality into her cooking, image: Laura May

Modern Witch Laura May encourages us to enchant our food with a sense of magic by appreciating nature, setting intentions and eating seasonally

Text Mirabella Shahidullah

Historically pigeonholed as a figure of malice, the symbol of the witch has since defied any singular definition. In popular culture there is the good and the wicked witch (Wizard of Oz), the student witch (Harry Potter) and the all American witch (Sabrina the teenage Witch) but what about the purposeful, environmentally-friendly witch? Modern witch Laura May has translated her witchcraft into something that is relevant to everyone – food. Baking botanical cakes and sweets might seem an odd hobby for a witch yet May believes cookery is an intuitive development of the craft ‘When most people think about witchcraft, we imagine that a spell is tied to a person through abjection - literally, an object cast off - a hair, some saliva, a nail. It seems a natural progression that as we ascend into modern consent based witchery a new way to tie those intentions to a person - or yourself - would be by casting it inwards, consuming it.’ 

As a witch, it has been important for May to incorporate a sense of alchemy into her everyday life, approaching life in a way that was resourceful, May states, ‘imbued meaning and ritual into simple things… such as going for a walk or making a cup of tea.’ Though May’s witchcraft allows her to bring a sense of magic into the ordinary, her food is no ordinary thing. Scrolling through her Instagram, beautiful photographs of her cooking fill the feed; breads and cakes decorated with a colourful harvest of florals and fruits, cherry red homegrown tomatoes and foraged findings show off May’s dedication to the craft. A self-taught cook and baker, May rarely follows recipes (or instructions of any kind) instead she relies on using a technique called ‘heirloom cooking,’ a method which is often tied to an instinctual understanding of ingredients and doing things by hand. ‘Of course, it can be really useful to have a KitchenAid or a bread maker, but for me, it takes some of the magic out when food hasn’t been created by hand. For instance, I may whisk something widdershins/anticlockwise if the recipe is a spell concerned with banishing for example […]  I find it easier to create things on instinct.’

May doesn’t follow any traditional recipes, instead she follows a method called Heirloom Cooking, an instinctual approach to baking and cooking, images: Laura May

Fusing magic into her food has helped May in more ways than one. Not only has it allowed her to cultivate her dedication to witchcraft and mother nature, it has also helped improve own mental and physical health. ‘I haven’t always had a good relationship with food,’ May explains, ‘having gone through 20 years of disordered eating... but exploring food, cooking and baking from a pagan point of view and incorporating pagan practises and intentions into cooking and recipes has been a big part of my recovery.’

For May, a principal part of incorporating pagan practices into her cooking relies on how she sources her ingredients. ‘I build a lot of what I do on what I happen to forage. Foraged food and ingredients are so readily available and can’t be found anywhere but out in nature.’ May explains, ‘One of my favourite ingredients is Sweet Woodruff, which I pick in the spring and dry as an herb for year-long use. It has strong magical properties and a wonderful fragrance and flavour. It’s tied to many traditions and really makes me feel connected to ancestry and nature - it can’t be found in the shops.’ For May, the benefit of foraging not only for herself, but it also brings a feeling of wonder into the food for others, ‘Someone’s first try of an elderflower sponge may evoke childhood memories of running through fields in the summer.’ That is the magic of seasonal eating May states,  ‘evoking memories through ingredients that are rarely used... it can take you right back to a memory you didn’t know you had. You never know what the forest will offer you.’

“There’s no greater feeling than feeding yourself or others with food that you have grown or foraged or picked from the earth yourself, that has shared the same atmosphere as you and the dirt that you walk on. Food should be radically seasonal.”

Laura May

Paying attention to where the food we eat comes from is another reason why May has chosen to be a vegan witch. Long before foraging became part of her practice, veganism had always been an essential factor in her relationship with cooking. ‘I’m against factory farming, and I think the way we produce food needs a total revolution, although efficient at feeding many people, the knock on effects to nature, biodiversity, animal suffering and disconnection from our food have been catastrophic. I also believe that this disconnection has negatively affected the health and wellbeing of people.’ However, changing the ways in which we source and produce our food, May explains, should not come from te assumption that everything will be better if we all become vegans, ‘I don’t believe in purity or absolutism, and the onus should not be on the individual to make extreme changes but rather for companies to work towards sustainable food production without suffering – it may seem hypocritical but vegans and non-vegans can advocate for this. Not everyone has the ability or resources to be vegan, but we all deserve better food and animal welfare standards.’ 

One solution that May suggests we could all move towards instead is seasonality, ‘There’s no greater feeling than feeding yourself or others with food that you have grown or foraged - picked from the earth yourself, that has shared the same atmosphere as you and the dirt that you walk on. Food should be radically seasonal. […] This is one reason I try to stick to local ingredients foraged by hand rather than buying dried herbs online.’

Through narrowing your ingredient list to only what is at your disposal, May believes we also grow a greater sense of appreciation of what nature gives us. For May, foraging for food strengthens the connection between purpose and beauty, ‘When I am designing a recipe spell I’ll go to the woods or nature and be drawn to a plant that feels ‘right’ – this will often turn out to have the magical properties I’m looking for and it feels like nature is communicating with me directly.’

For May, appreciating nature on a daily basis often starts from choosing to eat seasonally, images: Laura May
You don’t have to be a witch to infuse a sense of magic into your cooking, starting doesn’t take much work, May states, ‘The most important thing is simple, intention. The intention you carry as you are sourcing, preparing and cooking your food is something that makes a meal magical.’ May thinks it’s about the small adjustments that strengthen your intention while cooking. ‘Connect with your ingredients; choose them purposefully, add and remove flavours at your discretion. I’d suggest getting a copy of Cunningham’s Magical Properties Dictionary – it’s really useful for looking up what certain plants mean and can help you tailor a recipe to suit your will.’

The visual language of food is another key aspect for pagan cooking and baking. You may have heard the phrase before that humans eat with their eyes, and having studied visual culture in the past, May doesn’t disagree. Crafting magical images is just as valuable as preparing the food, ‘use plates, cutlery and glasses that you find beautiful, it doesn’t have to be classically ‘witchy’ or ornate, but choose with intent such as a green plate if you want to feel prosperous or a pink plate if you want to feel or spread love...’ Whatever the intention, May believes that presentation of the food is a way to connect deeply with what you cook, not only for aesthetics, but as a way to helps us appreciate the journey the ingredients took, from the land to our table and as a source of sustenance and nourishment. 

The visual language of food is one way May incorporates magic into her cooking, image: Laura May

As a final piece of advice, May wants us to remember that infusing magic in your cooking is universal, ‘Anyone who cooks is already creating magic – its transformative, tactile, personal and mysterious, adding magic into your cookery is simply adding mindfulness and appreciation into how you cook.’

Text has been slightly edited and formatted for clarity. All images courtesy of Laura May. To see and learn more about Laura May and how modern witchcraft can be incorporated into baking, visit her Instagram.

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