Stirring It Up with Molly Ivins
Longtime friend Ellen Sweets remembers her days in the kitchen with the famous journalist.
By Laurie Barker James
As a fledgling journalist at Arlington’s Young Junior High School, I got to have lunch with Molly Ivins. The legendary writerly rabblerouser who died of breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 62 had previously, famously worked for both The New York Times and The Texas Observer and was at the time two years from the end of her tenure at the Dallas Times Herald. If she was weary of her battles with Dallas city leaders and the work of a regular column set in a city she didn’t really care for, Ivins never showed it to my classmates and me. She spent the hour regaling us with stories about war-room journalism and ways to make a difference in the world.
That’s the Ivins many people know: the consummate public speaker with the rapier wit, liberal ideology, and deeply Texan drawl. But in Stirring It Up with Molly Ivins: A Memoir with Recipes, Ivins compadre Ellen Sweets, a well-respected writer in her own right, opens the curtain a little and shows that there was more to the formidable six-foot-tall Ivins than her cigarettes, cowboy boots, and love of the First Amendment.
The two met in 1990 not long after an opening at The Dallas Morning News brought Sweets to Texas from her hometown of St. Louis. Sweets, who writes that she “didn’t know a soul,” introduced herself to Ivins at an American Civil Liberties Union meeting where Ivins was guest speaker. The famed columnist took Sweets by the hand and introduced her to the people who would become Sweets’ de facto Dallas family. The women, bonded by love of travel and liberal ideology and both recovering from overbearing parents, spent hours, mostly in Ivins’ Austin kitchen, making soul food and soul-deep memories.
Sweets, currently based in Austin, has written about everything from homicide and racism to food and is a recipient of a James Beard Foundation award for her food writing. (She’s also got a killer name for a foodie.) And her experienced biographical reportage and loving food knowledge make a beautiful combination. Sweets blends recipes, cooking stories, stories about famous Ivins friends, and her own experiences with racism growing up in segregated St. Louis into a mix richer even than Molly and Ellen’s Garbage Gumbo (the recipe for which is on page 60).
Although Sweets was the official food writer and Ivins the political pundit, Ivins apparently had a staggering ability in the kitchen. For a friend’s birthday, Ivins made Four Seasons Chocolate Fancy Cake, a 24-ingredient recipe that calls for two hen-houses’ worth of eggs and for the cook to painstakingly jelly-roll the layers before “frosting” the thing with chocolate marzipan. It’s the kind of recipe that a 1950s housewife would lavish days over. Ivins was no ’50s housewife, but she loved the complexities of fine cooking.
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