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Bringing the umph back to the kitchen

Mills College Weekly

Sensual. Exotic. Spiritual. These are words not typically associated with cooking- especially for women. But kitchen goddess Margie Lapanja offers women this alternative perspective to an act long regarded with contempt.

In this surge of empowerment, Lapanja reclaims the kitchen, moving from the old stereotype of the 1950s wife happily making dinner for her husband and family by 5, to an entertaining and sensual experience.

This wife and mother still cooks for her family- only when her husband tells her what he wants for dinner by 12.

Lapanja, a 5’8″ shoulder length blond in her late 30’s, begins to speak to an audience at San Francisco’s Art and Gourmet Festival in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Wearing thin, gold rimmed eye glasses, a white sweater with matching blue pants and scarf with paisley prints, and black sandals, Lapanja says to her sparce crowd, “I am going to teach you how to be a kitchen goddess today.”

Although her crowd is less than 20 people, the majority men, who have sat down only because of exhaustion, the kitchen goddess exudes sensuality in a hall that is set up with one half with food booths and the other half with a stage and chairs.

Lapanja’s three cookbooks entitled “Romancing the Stove,” “The Goddess’ Guide to Love” and “Food Men Love” are obviously not the traditional “At Home with Julia Child” or “How to Cook Healthy in 30 minutes.” Lapanja does more than instruct how to cook good recipes by incorporating the role of goddesses and feminine mystique.

Throughout all her cookbooks, Lapanja incorporates mythology, pleasure, sensuality and feminine empowerment.

In her first book, “Romancing the Stove,” she has quotes from Napoleon to Toni Morrison to help justify the love that must go into cooking. In between the recipes she has gathered, she has a section titled “A La Goddess” where she puts her own two cents on how to put more kick into the recipes.

To her audience, she explains the history of cookbooks. “The first cookbook was published by a Vatican priest back in the thirteenth century where it concerned honest pleasures,” says Lapanja. “By the late nineteenth century, cookbooks became utilitarian and more scientific. It is only in the last ten years that the pleasure of cooking has returned.”

According to Lapanja, cooking should embody a sensuous and holistic relationship with food. She uses Greek goddesses known for their playfulness and hedonistic values as the main theme in all her cookbooks.

“I’ve always been intrigued by divinity,” says Lapanja. “Anything mythological and anything empowering.”

After handing out her cookbooks as prizes to questions answered correctly by audience members. Lapanja sits along with her publicist at her booth in between two food booths.

Although the crowd in the room is 40-somethings wearing baseball caps and fanny packs eagerly awaiting spices from the Garlic World booth, not once does this kitchen goddess’ aura leave her among the everyday folks.

She sits down on a chair behind her stacks of books, signing two for a customer while being interviewed.

“My role model was Samantha Stevens from Bewitched when growing up,” says Lapanja.

“I used to twitch my nose just like her. I thought being a witch was cool.”

Lapanja recollects how she has always been fascinated by Wicken traditions. She is very much interested in natural divinity and earth worship. Lapanja is also very interested in Greek mythology, especially the word goddess. “Their [Greek] architect was more intriguing than eastern religion, like Buddhism.”

As a little girl, Lapanja grew up in a Catholic household in Indiana, but was never subject to strict traditions like having to go to church. She moved to Vermont for college but dropped out when she got a chance to go to Colorado. There she worked as a baker. “That’s my specialty-baking in high altitude,” says Lapanja. While working at the bakery she was relocated to Lake Tahoe for a four- month assignment. However, 20 years later, Lapanja continues to live at the famed ski haven.

For years, Lapanja was a professional baker in Lake Tahoe selling her claim to fame cookie, the cowboy cookie, to skiers.

During her thriving career as a baker, she began noticing the magical effects of cooking.

As she states in “Romancing the Stove” she noticed that cooking had effects on people: from mending broken relationships to aiding athletes in their sport. It was then did she decided to write a cookbook.

“Food is a gift,” says Lapanja, “we’ve got to get back into the kitchen to reclaim a healthy and exciting relationship with our food again.”

She explains that the early 70s and 80s mainly focused on dieting and deprivation and that now is the time for women to return to the kitchen and see it as a playground open to different things.

And how better to lure a woman to cooking but by wrapping it up with magic, love potions and stories of goddesses?

Lapanja wants to replace the drudgery that so many women experience in the kitchen with pleasure.

It’s her sidebares that make her cookbook stand out because she speaks in a conversational tone.

In one section she even speculates what goddesses would cook at this day and age: Demeter, goddess of wheat and grain would have cereal; Aphrodite, goddess of love, would cook aromatic apple pies for love potions; and Athena, goddess of wisdom and worldly knowledge, would hire a caterer.

“Goddesses are a guide,” says Lapanja. “It makes me feel empowered when I cook what people love.”

Lapanja feels that everyone’s life depends on making one dish well. “Your self esteem improves when you know you perfect something.”

Lapanja hopes her cookbooks inspires women to cook.

When women say they cannot cook, Lapanja feels that those women are limiting themselves.

“When someone says they hate or can’t cook, I just want to hug them and say ‘don’t limit yourself,” explains Lapanja.

In an era where women are breaking glass ceilings and making the boys club co-ed, Lapanja’s perspective on cooking joins women empowerment.

Her perspective is liberating women from the old ways and reclaiming the kitchen with passion.

Enjoy the sensuality food has to offer. Go straight to the excitement and follow Lapanja’s motto: “Eat dessert first.”