by Mabel Suen
Reporting and food go hand-in-hand, as Gut Check (especially our waistline) knows all too well. However, for Ellen Sweets, a St. Louis native and award-winning journalist who has contributed content everywhere from the Post-Dispatch and her father's paper, the St. Louis American, to publications in Colorado and Texas, it's a way to form lifetime friendships.
Sweets met well-known political columnist Molly Ivins at an American Civil Liberties Union meeting while living and working in Texas. The two hit it off immediately through their mutual passions for progressive politics and food. They soon embarked on a number of at-home kitchen adventures in Ivins' Austin home. In Stirring It Up with Molly Ivins, Sweets provides insight into the Francophile-foodie and fun-loving side of Ivins that wasn't as well known to the public eye, demonstrating how Ivin's aptitude for creating in the kitchen with and for others was therapeutic before and especially during her battle with cancer.
"Molly lived in France for a long time and knew French food well. She was an excellent cook," says Sweets. "We didn't do a lot of fancy cooking. We did family dishes like gumbo and chili. Molly was the sort of person who'd say let's have a barbecue for friends with things like potato salad and deviled eggs. I'd say, 'Let's make apple pie,' and she'd say, 'Let's make tart tatin.' I'd suggest cherry pie and she'd opt for cherry clafoutis."
Ivins, whose work was syndicated in more than 400 newspapers large and small throughout her life, had a softer, simpler side than the fiercely adroit journalistic personality many people knew her by throughout her professional life. Between sessions of casually reading Ivins' jam-packed Rolodex of federal judges, members of Congress and the like for fun as if it were a book, Sweets recounts memorable moments in the kitchen including a dinner party that, unbeknown to guests, Ivins completed with an accidentally broken toe and a fire detector flare-up.
"We burnt a roux once, and you can't burn it! We were looking out the big kitchen window, and there were four hummingbirds at her bird feeder. We stood there and watched. First there was one, then two, and Molly whispered, 'I don't think I've ever seen that.' A third and fourth appeared, and then the smoke alarm went off," Sweets recalls, with a laugh.
Sweets says that Ivins, a fun-loving fan of her Smith College predecessor Julia Childs, practiced the following philosophy in her kitchen: "Enjoy. It was a place where she went to relax and to cook for friends. That, to me, is the real meaning of the book. When people ask me what we're going to do now that she's gone, my response is always the same: She's never going to be gone as long as people cook for friends and raise hell!"
Sweets' debut book, released on October 1, is a memoir of Molly with 35 of her favorite recipes. Meet Ellen Sweets on Tuesday, Dec. 13 at Left Bank Books (399 North Euclid Avenue; 314-367-6731) for a reading and signing of Stirring It Up With Molly Ivins at 7 p.m. Check out Left Bank Books online to order your own copy.