Witchcraft is an assortment of practical tools with spiritual aims, right? Or spiritual tools with practical aims—it kind of depends on how you look at it. And the way that I approach witchcraft is in a very practical way. I think when people think "kitchen witchcraft," they think herbalism, but there's so much more than that.
I dropped out of college—I was studying robotics—because I always wanted to be a chef, but my mother told me that going to culinary school was like going to clown school. I think she realized, eventually, that if all I want to do is make cakes, that's it.
So I moved back to New York, went to culinary school, and my first job was as pastry assistant to like a very high-end Midtown pastry chef. After I left there, I bounced around a couple of different places, and found myself at Dominique Ansel, where I was working, like, 110 hours a week. They had these beautiful bay windows in the pastry kitchen, and I was watching people walk dogs and drink cappuccinos and thinking, I haven't seen sunshine and I'm up to here in pastry cream. One day, I told them, "I'm gonna get some sugar" and I went downstairs, and changed, and never came back.
I wasn't into witchcraft at the time—I was just someone in the neighborhood, who was tangentially interested in yoga and tarot and all that, but I was working too much to have a spiritual practice. Then, I made friends with the previous owners here at Catland, and when I left the pastry industry, they just let me sit here and knit for eight hours a day and read books and learn. I had this voracious appetite for witchcraft history and religious history, and I was meeting all these incredible people, and going to these amazing rituals. it kind of just fit very neatly into my understanding of spirituality and the way the universe works. So when they gave me the pitch to sign on and take over the store [as an owner], I was like "Hell, yeah," which kind of catapulted my study and my practice into like a very serious place. Because when you do witchcraft for a living, you have to be witchcraft, 24-7. When I started incorporating food and wine into my practice, I thought of it as a natural extension of these things that I know, having been a chef for so long and now being a witch.
In the "Kitchen Witchcraft" class [at the store], we =talk about how to bake a cake with herbs for traditional significances, how to use uncommon ingredients like moonwater and blood and burnt-up old songs in your pastries, how and when to feed them to people... and how not to kill them, obviously. Also, how to construct a recipe out of a sigil.
A sigil is when you use a sentence that forms an intention, like "I want to go out with Fred," and you would take the letters that form that sentence and make them into a symbol that looks nothing like it. That symbol represents your intention, but also removes it from your conscious mind and puts it into your subconscious mind, where theoretically you can do more work with it and you can tap into the universal subconscious.
I encourage people to create one for their intention, and if you have cake batter that you're about to put in the oven, you can take a cake knife and just carve it in. You can put it on a piece of paper and bake your cake on top of it. You can do it in your frosting and then smooth it out.
As far as the "Wine and Witchcraft" class goes, it's a lot of history about the use of liquor-based entheogens. Entheogens are things that would elevate or change your consciousness for ritual, so [for instance] some people use ayahuasca—it's an entheogen—or communion wine. And then we go through a wine tasting, which is kind of the laypeople part of the event. But you're not gonna not drink wine.
I'm a triple Gemini, so I love talking and I love teaching. I grew up in what I would consider a heavily witch-crafted environment, but my parents would not consider it that way at all. My parents went to church and then came home, cleansed the house, and read tarot—and they didn't see any disparity between the two. It was never discussed as witchcraft. Food has always a big part of my upbringing—I'm Croatian! You'll see memes about a small lunch at [your] baba's house, and it will be four banquet tables.
I don't use a lot of esoteric ingredients in my witchcraft cookery. When you think what is witchcraft?, practical witchcraft is a means for poor people to get power that they don't have. A lot of American and European folk magic is just stuff you would have around the house. That's why Florida water is a witchcraft thing; that's why cinnamon is a witchcraft thing. Very rarely will it include an ingredient that you don't have [access to].
There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding witchcraft and the occult. The philosophical misconception is that people think that witchcraft is evil, that it inherently does bad, whether it's your actual actions or aligning yourself against monotheism. There's such a variety of witchcraft traditions throughout history and also in the modern world, so to pin down one thing and to say you work with the devil—like, whose devil? Which devil?
The practical misconception is that people will ask for one thing to fix their whole life. That one item: "Which candle will help me get a job?" And I'll [say], "No, no, no, no, no. A candle's job is to catch fire. You need to do something with it." This seems to shock people.
I think that misconception leads to a lot of people to thinking that witches are fakes just out to get your money or charlatans.
I actually don't insert witchcraft into my day-to-day cooking that much, because when witches go home, they don't just like do witchcraft all night. Just like when pastry chefs go home, they don't make muffins. So I go home and eat my Totino's pizza rolls just like everyone else. There's nothing magical about that.
There's one food spell that outlines a few basic practices of kitchen witchery, based on a recipe from Persia, that is called "love cake." Love spells aren't just for attraction. This could be used as a little pick-me-up, or to strengthen the bond of an existing relationship, or to cue up a night of seduction.
As told to Alex Swerdloff. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Melissa Madara is the owner of Catland, a former pastry chef, and a practicing witch that draws on Christian, hoodoo, indigenous (Shawnee), and Appalachian traditions.
This article first appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2016.