Easy Reader: Ellen Sweets’s Stirring It Up With Molly Ivins a Five-Star Feast
Sometimes when dreams don’t come true, they come partially true. On Rick Perry’s entering the presidential race, I dreamed (that’s to say, daydreamed) that superb Austin, Texas-based political commentator and first-rate reporter Molly Ivins, who died in 2007, was still here. She’d know everything — good and bad (mostly woundingly comic, I figured) — about the publicly God-fearing, evolution-theory-questioning, job-creating(?) candidate. I could almost hear her passing along everything worth passing along, and she’d sure as shootin’ do it in her inimitable thigh-slapping fashion.
Well, don’t you know that within days after fixing on this unsatisfied need, I become aware of Stirring It Up With Molly Ivins: A Memoir With Recipes by Ellen Sweets (University of Texas Press, 272 pp., illustrations, $29.95)? Turns out that the author, a writer and often food editor, had been friendly with the late, great Molly for several decades during which they shared a love of cooking and eating.
Turns out further that knowing Miz Molly — as the well-named Sweets sometimes refers to her — in the kitchen, at the supermarket and grocery store, and around the dining-room and restaurant table is a great way to reflect on who Molly Ivins was, how profoundly and amusingly she thought and the enormous amount she had to contribute to our understanding of Texas and national politics. Not the least of her contributions, it so happens, are the recipes for her favorite foods, which ranged along the wide spectrum between extremely elegant to hilariously inelegant.
“Beer-in-the-Butt Chicken” is only one example of the latter sort but — as Molly adapted them — that’un gives an idea of the humor with which she embraced life, right up to and including her death from cancer. A woman who scoured stores and the Internet for every type of classy and less classy utensil, Molly was unflaggingly eager to gather friends around her not only in order to feed them but — as the devoted Sweets emphasizes — because they would feed her with their wit and knowledge of the world. A list of the people with whom she broke the bread she often baked isn’t exactly endless but it sure is long and includes, not surprisingly, many of the leading liberal thinkers (often Yellow Dog Democrats) of the last half century.
As a reviewer whose oven is only turned on to heat the apartment when the heat goes on the blink, I can’t comment on the proof of the 46 puddings included (some Ivins’s, some Sweets’s, some borrowed from friends, associates, swanky estaminets and greasy spoons), but I can say that this is a collection that’s had an effect on me other cookbooks have rarely had: It’s made me consider taking up cooking. As a chocoholic, I certainly pored over the ingredients needed for “Texas Mud Pie.” I can also say that when Sweets mentions adding a “smidge” of this or a “skosh” of that, I nod approval, since my grandmother, a surpassing cook, was also from the “glub-glub” school of food preparation.
What I can say is that as Sweets recalls the myriad meals Ivins and she readied or participated in — and her memory for which meals went with what get-togethers does strain credulity, but it doesn’t necessarily break it — the enthusiasm she brings convincingly evokes Ivins. Although the volume is not meant as a biography, it gives a substantial sketch of Ivins’s 62-year life — her coming from a well-heeled family and at odds with a difficult father who eventually committed suicide, her career in journalism and progress from early reporting days in Houston and Minnesota and through a trying period with The New York Times, her travels with friends on, for instance, a fishing trip with a glass-ceiling-shattering group of women friends dubbing themselves the Salmonettes, her bout with alcoholism and her final cancer battle.
Before Sweets is finished tributing her marvelous, larger-than-life (and yes, large) friend — whom she does admit could be a tough cookie on occasion (no recipe for that) — Sweets echoes the very reason why I’ve been longing to hear Ivins’s twangy voice. She writes, in sync with my wish, “If only Molly were here to direct some of her formidable energy Perryward.” Amen! She also quotes Molly as insisting she wasn’t funny but only knew funny stories.
Here’s where I come to the full disclosure part of this review. I knew Molly Ivins, though my first impulse isn’t to call her a friend but an acquaintance. On second thought, however, I will call her a friend on the theory that if someone with whom you’ve spent some time when you thought she was hardly taking you in suddenly makes a sincere and accurate observation about you that you thought only you knew, that’s a friend.
This astonishing exchange took place at the home of Boulder, Colorado couple Tracy and Michael Ehlers, with whom Molly stayed when she attended the Conference on World Affairs (CWA), a yearly convocation on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus at which she was a star speaker and where I also frequently showed up. I, too, heard Molly exclaim she wasn’t funny but only knew funny stores. Yes, she knew funny stories, but she was also — as she constantly is in Sweets’s account — funny as all-hell.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I was ever at her home for one of those unforgettable meals. I’m not even sure I ever ate anything she made with her own accomplished hands and creative impulses. Perhaps, she did rustle up one or more of the dishes Tracy and Michael put out on the many late nights they entertained lucky CWA participants. I can say I have eaten one of the dishes for which Sweets includes the recipe. It’s the “Curried Peas” Molly loved that are served by CWA mover-and-shaker Jane Butcher at her annual Thursday night blow-out. And yup, those peas are scrumptious.
And yup, this book by literal keeper-of-the-flame Ellen Sweets is one you can take to your heart and your hearth.