Consuming Passions: A Food Obsessed Life


"Every Sunday, the whole family gathered at Mama Hughes's house in Amite County, Mississippi. They were ferocious eaters and talkers, devouring rumors and innuendo with gusto. Food was their common language, and everyone understood the dialects."

— Aunt Tempe, reminiscing about family dinners

From Michael Lee West, author of the acclaimed American Pie, She Flew the Coop, and Crazy Ladies, comes a delightfully quirky memoir of an adventurous food-obsessed life, laced with delicious secret recipes passed from ...

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"Every Sunday, the whole family gathered at Mama Hughes's house in Amite County, Mississippi. They were ferocious eaters and talkers, devouring rumors and innuendo with gusto. Food was their common language, and everyone understood the dialects."

— Aunt Tempe, reminiscing about family dinners

From Michael Lee West, author of the acclaimed American Pie, She Flew the Coop, and Crazy Ladies, comes a delightfully quirky memoir of an adventurous food-obsessed life, laced with delicious secret recipes passed from generation to generation. Wonderfully presented and thoroughly entertaining, this warm and witty work unites West's evocative voice and humor with the uniquely American form of kitchen tales in the tradition of Laurie Colwin.

West lends her distinctive humor and often hilarious insights to stories about her trials and tribulations as a Southern woman who became an "accidental gourmet." In this irresistible memoir mothers swing from chandeliers, elderly aunts brew love potions, a South American nymphomaniac stirs up trouble at a Louisiana barbecue joint, Margaret Mitchell's bed is discovered during a routine antique hunt, a cabbage-eating ghost haunts relatives, mother and daughter peek under fig leaves on statues, and bees attack—all in pursuit of good food.

By watching a multitude of relatives cook, squabble, and carry on tradition, Michael Lee West went from a noncooking student to a full-on gourmet of food and words. Using her own experience and the witticisms of relatives, or clever inspirations overheard in parking lots on the way to the mayor's funeral, West fills these pages with insights such as:

"Potato salad is our friend. It will never let you down. It's a shame we have to eat it, but that's life" and "Live and learn. Die and get food. That's the Southern way." Often bawdy and always entertaining, West is wonderfully outrageous, charming, and delightful.

"Anybody can cook. But it takes a special person to feed the souls of her guests."

— Miss Johnnie, sitting in a rocking chair, musing about hospitality, 1979

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060183714
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/1/1999
  • Pages: 260
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Lee West is the author of Mad Girls in Love, Crazy Ladies, American Pie, She Flew the Coop, and Consuming Passions. She lives with her husband on a rural farm in Tennessee with three bratty Yorkshire terriers, a Chinese Crested, assorted donkeys, chickens, sheep, and African Pygmy goats. Her faithful dog Zap (above) was the inspiration for a character in the novel.

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Read an Excerpt

Family Recipes

A Food-Obsessed Life

To a foodie, lust comes in two varieties—romantic and culinary.

— Mimi Little, scratch Southern cook and expert at love

Many hundreds of years ago, when I was a small girl, I used to eat dirt. I would squat in a Louisiana ditch, a dark-haired child in a yellow dress, busily whipping up a mud pie. Using a spoon from my mama's best silver, Francis 1ST, I added a little ditch water. Then I swooned, overcome by the color and texture of the mud. It resembled rich brownie batter. Without hesitation I licked the spoon. My pie tasted sour and felt gritty against my teeth. I ate another spoonful, dribbling mud down my chin. All of a sudden Mama flew out of the house and jerked me up by one arm.

"Stop that!" she cried, plucking the spoon from my hand. "Little girlsdon't eat dirt! And they don't use their mama's sterling for mud pies, either."

Bitter dirt, bittersweet memories from childhood.

My relatives spent the better part of their lives dreaming up recipes. Some were designed to lure men, and in a few cases they were made to repel them. I grew up listening to remedies for a lonely heart, cures for the blues, antidotes for colds and fevers, and how to reverse sinking spells.

Every summer I left New Orleans and went to stay with my Mississippi grandmother, who spoiled me with forbidden foods. Mimi introduced me to coffee, mayonnaise sandwiches, and bacon deviled eggs. Every morning when her soap operas came on, she'd give me a jar of peanut butter and a handkerchief full of apple slices. I would climbinto the mimosa tree, propped between two branches, and open the jar. There were no other children for miles. When the apples were gone, I'd use my finger as a dipper. In that tree, I invented imaginary worlds, where elves danced under the clothesline and stole human babies from their cribs. My Mimi encouraged me to believe in these creatures. She said that fairies-perhaps even ghosts-existed at the edges of things. I saved leftover biscuits and hid them on the back porch, and by morning they were always gone. "The fairies were starved!" Mimi said.

On Sunday afternoons, when the clan gathered for dinner, my mama and her six aunts used to sit on the front porch, discussing the virtues of spinach, whether mustard belonged in potato salad, and which aunt had the perfect squash casserole recipe. it seemed natural that I would absorb all of this folk wisdom and food talk, but my cooking gene failed to emerge until middle age.

This is not to say that I stayed out of the kitchen-I adore all kitchens. I like the way they smell, and the way people stock their pantries. It fascinates me if they arrange their food according to the alphabet, by food groups, or jumbled together. When I wasn't lingering in strange kitchens, I was in my own, dreaming about food.

In my first kitchen, my culinary preparations were primitive. I did not saute, braise, or roast; I heated food, either in the saucepan or the microwave. The results were usually disappointing, but I devoured them. On this cuisine, I managed to produce a fair amount of cellulite-proof that I was surviving on sub-par food.

My unusual culinary habits caused quite a stir in the family. After all, I'd descended from generations of scratch cooks. My mama was a self-taught gourmet, and I needed Fannie Farmer to wash lettuce. Since I was a registered nurse, some of the aunts blamed my profession, saying it had robbed me of a healthy appetite. 'All of those hysterectomies and lobotomies and tonsillectomies," said Aunt Dell, shivering, as if I myself had endured these procedures rather than assisting with them. "It's a wonder she can eat anything."

Aunt Tempe disagreed. "Nursing is the perfect career for a young lady. Think how versatile it is! With all that surgical training, she can bandage burns, truss turkeys, and debone chicken."

While I had a keen interest in eating, I just wasn't interested in complicated cookery, especially if it made a mess or required long stretches of time. Like most every woman I knew, I was juggling twenty things at once—diapering a baby, rushing to soccer practice, wheeling a cart around Kroger, vacuuming, teaching myself how to write between five and seven A.M. I didn't have time to deal with puff pastry, and I hated sifting flour. Deep in my heart, I feared the seamy side of food: weevils, hot grease, and botulism.And it seemed to me that good cooking demanded time. I told myself that I didn't have it to spare.

Still, I loved food talk. It was the next best thing to eating. At family dinners, we examined each dish, critiquing and consuming. The gumbo was superb, but it would have been divine with more oysters. If only we'd wrapped bacon around that salmon before we smoked it. A stick of butter would have transformed your icing, dear. We adored discussing pit barbecue, homemade ice cream, and how to make Fourth of July cake, which is a simple, yet eyecatching dessert: a frosted sheet cake decorated to resemble a flag, sliced strawberries for the stripes, blueberries for the stars.

Before I was sent out into the world, my mama taught me the ladylike, company side of food—a refrigerator stocked with two kinds of wine, red and white, to be served with assorted crackers, cubed pepper cheese, and seedless grapes. I learned how to throw a tea party: cucumber sandwiches, hot and cold chicken salad, cheese wafers, and a lip-smacking tea punch that called for large quantities of vodka. By the time I acquired a husband and children, I had developed a repertoire of speedy, but savory, entrees. My most successful recipes included No-Peek Pot Roast, Creamed Chicken, and Smothered Pork Chops-all borrowed from other working mothers.

After my fortieth birthday, I attended six family funerals. Our clan was shrinking; the aunts were getting old. Pieces of our culinary history were vanishing. Food had ruled our lives, dominating all holidays and reunions, lending spice and eccentricity to our dinner table. Why, recipes were like kinfolk. Mimi's mashed potato salad reminded me of a pale, plump cousin who avoided...

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Interviews & Essays

On Friday, June 11th, welcomed Michael Lee West to discuss CONSUMING PASSIONS: A FOOD OBSESSED LIFE.

Moderator: Welcome, Michael Lee West! Thank you for joining us online this afternoon to chat about your new book, CONSUMING PASSIONS. How are you doing this afternoon?

Michael Lee West: I am doing fine.

Molly from Metairie, LA: What is the craziest recipe you have ever seen prepared?

Michael Lee West: French-fried rattlesnake. Someone sent me a postcard one time that had the recipe for French-fried rattlesnake. I didn't make it. I would be too cowardly. from xx: I read that actress Laura Dern bought the movie rights to your novel SHE FLEW THE COOP. Can you tell us anything else about that?

Michael Lee West: Showtime bought it, and Laura Dern will produce it if they actually do make it into a film. I am writing the screenplay.

Brenda from Mobile, AL: In what special ways do you think food influences southern families in ways that the rest of the country misses out on?

Michael Lee West: I think it must go back to the time the South was colonized and the houses were farms or plantations that were so far apart that when people got together they celebrated with food. And I think that tradition has kind of lingered in the southern consciousness. I think Victorians had the language of flowers, and I think southerners have food almost rising to the point of family members. I don't know if we really cornered the market on this because I have so many friends who live in California or Boston and other places who act the same way. I think "foodies" are everywhere, but we are crazy about our food down here.

Connie from Allentown, PA: What is your favorite recipe in this book?

Michael Lee West: Well, I would have to say my mother's gumbo.

Paul from Morris Plains, NJ: Your previous books have all been fiction. Why did you decide to write a nonfiction book after the success of your previous fiction?

Michael Lee West: In a word: an affection for food. The other books have all been stuffed with food and some with recipes. It is a great indulgence. An obsession for food and dreaming about it and reading cookbooks in bed.

John from Good afternoon, Michael Lee West! Did you get a hard time growing up because your first name is Michael?

Michael Lee West: I did! Everyone thought I was a boy. I was scheduled to be put into the wrong phys ed class --ugh, imagine that. Even now when I call room service they all say, "Yes, Mr. West."

Sharon from Oyster Bay, NY: What recipes in your book do you recommend for a nice summer afternoon picnic?

Michael Lee West: Fried chicken would be classic, and if you use prepared mayo, of course potato salad. Or something a little less folksy: the Tea Room Chicken Salad is very good -- you can put grapes or pecans in it. Of course, a lot of iced tea.

Joanne from Jacksonville, FL: Who would you list as the authors who have had the most influence on your literary career?

Michael Lee West: Anne Tyler -- basically all southern authors, living and dead.

Clarisse from Memphis, TN: Michael Lee, I am a big fan of yours, have been for quite some time now. I really enjoyed AMERICAN PIE. Do you have any future plans to write any more fiction?

Michael Lee West: Oh, yes. I am working on a novel now that is a sequel to CRAZY LADIES called MAD GIRLS IN LOVE, and there is a book after that. So yes!

Greasie Gus from Satesboro, GA: Hey, Ms. West. I hear there is a recipe for mud pie in this book. Is that true?

Michael Lee West: No! But if you hear of one, let me know. It could be interesting.

Henrietta from Shreveport, LA: Do you spend much time up North?

Michael Lee West: No. I don't.

Moderator: Are there any books that you have been saving for the summer?

Michael Lee West: I am going to read TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT by Graham Greene; that is one book I would like to read this summer. I am currently reading EVERYDAY ZEN for beginners.

Clarisse Cummings from Huntsville, AL: Did you find it therapeutic revisiting so many personal family memories while writing this book?

Michael Lee West: Not therapeutic -- it could have been dangerous, perhaps, writing about them, but I guess I enjoy writing about my wacky family. I don't know if I would call it therapeutic. It is fun.

Dolores from Corpus Christi, TX: Why in your opinion do "southerners" love to eat so much?

Michael Lee West: I don't know if it is a southern thing as much as a "foodie" thing, but we certainly do take the rap for that in the South. I don't know if anybody has done a study of overweight southerners...

Phil from Louisiana: What do you like to snack on when you are writing about food? Do you ever find yourself driven mad with hunger by your own language? It must be like food pornography at times...

Michael Lee West: I love Tabasco pecans! I do like those.... I truly don't eat that much when I am writing, and I don't cook much when I am caught up in writing. It seems like I live on Diet Coke and Twizzlers when I am writing. Pizza, I guess. Then when I finish a book, I start cooking again -- things like pasta, roasted red peppers, and pound cake. It is funny, but I basically drink Diet Coke. Oh, wait -- when I am writing, I find I eat and cook a lot of Lean Cuisine. But I find it difficult to cook and eat a lot when I am writing. I don't want to break my writing rhythm.

JC from Washington, D.C.: Who are some of your favorite southern writers?

Michael Lee West: Well, all of them I guess: the ones I mentioned earlier, plus I love Pat Conroy. He puts a lot of food into his works.

Georgia from Georgia: Could you tell us about finding Margaret Mitchell's bed while antiquing? That must have been amazing -- how did you come across it, and what did it look like?

Michael Lee West: A lady sold antiques in our town, and she had the bed in her personal collection. After her daughter died she thought about selling her antiques. She invited the whole town to view her antiques, then a few years later she decided to sell it. It is a four-poster solid-cherry bed with massive posts that are very tall. You need stairs to climb into bed. But we don't know if it really is Margaret Mitchell's bed. She bought it from a man who said he got it from Margaret Mitchell's childhood home, but it has never been authenticated. It took five men to carry the posts up. It is so big that nobody will live in it. I am going to take a saw and chop off the legs when I get home. Someone said, "You will ruin the value of it." I said, "I don't care; I will never remove it out of this room. I don't care."

Clarissa from Bennington, VT: What is a classic love potion? Could you tell us some of the ingredients -- and more importantly, do they work?!

Michael Lee West: My research turned up many kinds of so-called love potions, but the one in our family has not really been known to work. It has everyday ingredients, a kind of wishful-thinking recipe, I suppose.

Penelope from Brooklyn, NY: I read on your book jacket that you live in a renovated funeral home. How did this come about? Did you do the renovations yourself? Do you ever feel that the house is haunted?

Michael Lee West: I found the house and fell in love with it. It is very old -- 100 years -- and it has been renovated several times. We did some of the renovating, but much had already been done. We remodeled the kitchen. No, I never thought there were any spirits lingering about; it is a very cheerful and sunny home.

Moderator: Thank you, Michael Lee West! Best of luck with your new book, CONSUMING PASSIONS. Before you leave, do you have any closing comments for your online audience?

Michael Lee West: Thank you for writing, and I hope that you will try the recipes in the book. If you have any recipes you want to share with me, send them to And please look for MAD GIRLS IN LOVE next spring.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2012

    A fun mix of food and southern life with to die for reciepes fro

    A fun mix of food and southern life with to die for reciepes from the cook's family.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 1999

    My Recipe for a Cheesy Book

    Mix one part clean MFK Fisher culinary insight with an equal portion of sweet Laurie Colwin's best-friends in the kitchen advice, season with Nora Ephron's searing Heartburn humor and top with a good grind of The White Trash Cookbook's spice and you get...a boring old hash of reheated leftovers. No one could have approached this book with more enthusiasm and good will then I did; I love all of the above writers, and their style and wit have had a profound effect on me. Cooking compared to love! Cooking in which even the smallest ingredient deserves your undivided attention! Southern eccentricities! I was more than ready for my next folksy food fix, so I feel especially disappointed to have encountered so many ripped off ideas, so much unoriginal and embarrassing stylizing, and so little real substance, not to mention contradictions (see the chapter about mayonnaise as a case in point) and typographical errors (at least I think that referring to food that could 'feed a thong of guests' was an error?) If you are hungry for a good cooking read, check out any of the authors in the ingredients list above. If you've already read them once, take my advice: skip this book and read them all again. I wish I had.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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