Molly Ivins can’t cook that, can she? (book review)

I have a personal longstanding theory that the only real difference between a great journalistic news story, and a great bar story, is that one should never let accuracy get in the way of a great bar story. Otherwise, well done journalism is the same thing – just damn good story telling.

Ellen Sweets has managed to exceed both thresholds in her new book about Molly Ivins. It’s both a fair accounting of Ivins, and a great extended bar story very well-told.

Stirring it up with Molly Ivins – A Memoir with Recipes by Ellen Sweets (foreword by Lou Dubose) is the most recent look into the life and times of a woman who is already well-documented, and Sweets tackles the topic from a unique angle – food. Anybody who knew Molly already knew she was a bit of a foodie, but when Sweets described to me a year ago her book idea of setting her Molly memoir in the kitchen, it frankly seemed like a bit of an odd, yet interesting idea.

But after reading the book it makes perfect sense, and it’s a great read.

Admittedly, I have a sky-high number of conflicts of interest here: Molly Ivins was a close friend of mine. Ellen Sweets is a close friend of mine. And Ellen included me in the book. But precisely because of all of the above, I can tell you with high confidence that if you ever spent evenings with Molly, reading Ellen’s book will give you the gift of spending one more. Even better, if you never got to spend that evening with Molly, you’re in luck – after reading the book, you’ll feel just like you did.

This is not your standard-issue cookbook, although it has a ton of recipes that I can’t wait to try. But if your singular goal is life is to continue to avoid finding out first-hand whether the stove in your kitchen actually works, you’ll still enjoy the book, assuming you love a good bar story about a fascinating, rowdy, complicated, and – at least to progressives and First Amendment advocates – inspiring Texas woman.

I loved Molly Ivins, and I loved this book. The last of it made me cry, the rest of it made me laugh, and the entirety of it made me hungry.

If you want a small taste (sorry) of Ellen’s writing, courtesy of The University of Texas Press, here’s one chapter near and dear to my heart, since it’s about Molly and me. And after you read the excerpt, don’t be a cheap-ass – buy the book.

Westward Ho, Ho, Ho

Molly and I had lots of plans, some sillier than others. One was to eventually relocate to Marathon, a little town in West Texas, and open a pseudo greasy spoon that would serve wonderful food. No white linen, no stemware, maybe not even matching plates and flatware. Just tables filled with pecan-crusted catfish, smothered chicken in onion gravy, perfectly roasted chickens, fresh-picked vegetables, cloud-soft biscuits doused with butter churned from the milk of local cows.

We would come up with menu ideas. My daughter, Hannah the Chef, would execute them, and I would greet guests pleasantly or otherwise stay out of the way. One sure offering would be coq au vin.

Close by our dream café Molly and I would pool our resources–hers substantial, mine meager–and plant a double-wide (hers) and a yurt (mine) on a patch of West Texas real estate in Marathon, where she did in fact buy a double lot. When her health took its final turn south, she ended up selling it to political strategist Harold Cook, a friend who, like a handful of other Austin renegades, was doing his part to Democratize that arid neck of the woods, as in “Let’s turn Brewster County blue.” In the best Molly tradition, it was the kind of sale ranchers probably did a century ago with a smile and a handshake. Like a lot of other friendships, this one evolved from a meal a long time ago.

Molly and me, unfortunately near the end

Cook was working at the time for Representative Debra Danburg, arguably the most liberal snuff-dipping Democrat in the Texas Legislature at the time. Molly, who was writing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, stopped by the office to chase down some story or another. She and Harold struck up a conversation. One thing led to another and the two began to hang out, a coalition built on mutual political interests–solidifed, naturally enough, at a political event.

But let him tell it: “Debra had been scheduled to participate in roasting Glen Maxey [the first openly gay member of the Texas Legislature] at a fund-raising dinner for the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby at Scholz Garten, but Debra had to cancel at the last minute, so I filled in. Molly was emcee for the event, and she introduced me as a legislative aide for Debra Danburg, which, she said, was “just like being Murphy Brown’s secretary.” (This popular and sometimes controversial 1990s sitcom was set in a newsroom where investigative reporter Murphy Brown was plagued by a string of hilariously inept secretaries, often portrayed by high-profile celebrities.)

“I started my speech by reading a mock letter from Danburg, which she’d supposedly written and which started out, ‘Dear Glen, I hate it that I couldn’t be with you and LGRL tonight. I would have been there if I could, but I got another offer that sounded like more fun, so fuck you.’ Molly decided that anybody who would say the f-word in public was A-OK in her book, so we stayed late, got drunk, and after that I was a regular.”

The friendship grew. Cook even made chili in Molly’s kitchen, having learned to cook out of desperation and self-defense while a student at the University of Houston. Too broke to eat out and too proud to scrounge meals at his parents’ house, he taught himself, delving into the kitchen bible of the \’50s and \’60s–the red plaid Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book. He particularly remembers an evening when he made chili for her.

“She kept standing over my shoulder and tasting stuff, suggesting more of this or more of that. I told her I don’t like backseat drivers and to leave me the hell alone and let me cook my chili.”

Over the years the two spent time together in Marathon. She enjoyed piddling around, clearing cactus and moving rocks from point A to point B to make parking space. He became a piddling-around pal, primarily helping with the heavy lifting. Molly told Cook about wanting to build a writer’s shack on the property, but acknowledged that because of her illness, the six-hour drive from Austin was just too much and she wouldn’t use the house as much as she would have liked.

She decided instead to pool resources with her brother, Andy, for a place in the Hill Country village of London, only three hours away. They planned to have a few chickens, maybe a cow or two, and a vineyard, the results of which would be an insouciant Chardonnay bottled under the label “Château Bubba.”

Molly offered to sell her piece of Marathon property to Cook because she felt he understood the spirit of the place and would care for it as she would have wanted. It would have been just like Molly to give it to him had Jan Demetri, her accountant, not intervened. Instead she sold it for the same sum she had paid for it several years before. Who knows how much it’s worth now. But, once again, that was Molly.

Cook ponied up the cash, but they didn’t even do a formal sale for at least another year or so–it was essentially a handshake deal in the best Texas tradition. There’s an excellent chance that neither of them bothered with details long enough to find a notary public. Instead Molly insisted on a formal ceremony transferring “moral and spiritual responsibility for her property.” This not-so-solemn rite was performed up the road, at the home of Ty and Kate Fain. It was originally scheduled to take place at the actual property, but the peripatetic West Texas weather refused to cooperate. Instead, at a New Year’s Eve gathering Harold placed his left hand on a Texas State Directory and pledged to take care of the place and continue the frivolity and ridiculousness Molly had initiated.

As it’s turned out, he has indeed built the writer’s shack that Molly envisioned. The porch is almost as big as the cabin–to accommodate a crowd of friends sitting around talking politics, laughing and telling lies, just as Molly would have wanted.

(Excerpted from Stirring it up with Molly Ivins: A Memoir With Recipes by Ellen Sweets, Copyright ©  2011. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press)



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