The Cook's Tarot by Judith Mackay Stirt is a big-hearted, saucy tarot deck in the colors of tropical fruit. With its sultry colors, aromatic dishes and houses full of pets, The Cook's Tarot had me at hello. I had not gotten through all 78 cards when I decided that it would be one of my favorites.
The Cook's Tarot cards are large – 3.75 inches by 5.5 inches. The backs of the cards are light and dark olive green, with a crosshatch pattern created by intersecting spoons and forks. The cards are not fully reversible. Apples appear on many of the pentacles suit, drinking vessels on the cups, knives and skewers on the swords suit, and matches on many of the wands. The images are hand-painted gouache. While Stirt was creating the deck, synchronous events occurred in her own life. A friend died on Valentine's Day; this inspired the three of swords.
The azure shades of tropical seas are among the dominant colors, along with rich greens of an equatorial forest, but the cards span the palette. The Fool's skirt is a swirl of cherry reds and dawn pinks. The Devil hangs suspended in a blob of purple hell. The child in the five of pentacles sports a yellow rain slicker. In the eight of pentacles, a baker labors as the first rays of dawn (or shafts of sunset) add a glow to his otherwise dull kitchen. There are some browns and grays for cabinets, furniture, cats, and a teddy bear in the six of cups. Bottom borders are a subdued gold that complements each color in the cards.
Light and shadow are subtle. The five of cups depicts a depressed woman sitting on the floor of a darkened, midnight kitchen. The dimmed colors, and the shadow cast by a gallon of milk on the countertop, convey the time of day and lack of illumination.
Stirt's style is blunt and bold. There are no fine, fussy details. Her style could be called childlike or primitive. The woman in the Lovers looks a bit like a woman in a Gauguin painting. The naked woman in the seven of cups looks like a Keith Haring outline. There are lots of swirling lines. Sometimes the swirls are steam rising from food, or sugar the Fool spills; sometimes they are vines from which The Magician selects a leaf; sometimes they are the letters of a neon sign behind which the High Priestess awaits. The swirls are like tendrils pulling the viewer into the world of the deck.
Stirt is a nurse. "I had no use for anything other than hard facts and reality. No fairies, dragons, or cute kittens for me, please." She appreciates cooks. "If you cook with awareness, you are nurturing the spirit." Thus these cards are close to everyday life. Repeated motifs in The Cook's Tarot include, of course, food, cutlery, dishes and cups, flowers, cats, dogs, tables, chairs, tablecloths, rugs, windows, beds, dishes, faucets, bodies of water and visible signs of weather: leaves tracing wind, raindrops, shadows and sun. Almost all the cards include large, prominent, human figures, in whole or in part. In some cards, such as the aces, not much more than a hand is visible. A few cards contain no human figures. These include Death, which depicts a wishbone, a feather, a meat cleaver, a stewpot, and thirteen chickens awaiting their fate, and the Moon, depicting dogs, a cat, and the shadow of a crab.
Stirt wants to tell stories with her cards. The page of swords suggests an entire novel. A dramatically-lit woman in a trench coat, wielding a knife, stands between a boiling pot and an open computer laptop. A window is behind her; it blows oak leaves and cold-looking raindrops into the room. Your mind races to fill in the backstory.
There's a great deal of humor in these images, but the humor never undercuts the card's meaning. The Tower is an elaborate meal rendered garbage by a marauding pet and a precariously stacked set of dishes on a tectonically sliding table cloth. The Lovers eat a breakfast in bed prepared and served by an angel. The Chariot is a blue-jeaned shopper pushing a full grocery cart. Perhaps my favorite re-imaging of a classic image is the High Priestess. She is a restauranteur, standing behind the transparent curtain of her establishment, preparing the show, and hiding culinary secrets only she knows. Stirt has a gift for including the minimal details necessary to tell her story. The eight of cups depicts the shins, ankles, and soles of the feet of a human figure in retreat from eight cups; the retreating feet step over a spiral rug.
The World card, a casually dressed woman holding aloft a champagne flute, a map and an oyster full of pearls behind her, didn't wow me as I'd hoped, but there are fewer duds in this deck than in most. Most of the cards are visually eloquent delights. The minor arcana have been lavished with as much artistic TLC as the majors. The five of pentacles is an example. A small child perches on a rainy sidewalk outside a fully-stocked candy store window. You can't see the child's face but the child's posture communicates all the outside-looking-in yearning of the five of pentacles card.
The people in the Cook's Tarot are multiethnic in a way that feels utterly natural and unforced. That the skins of the people in the cards are of various hues is of no more or less importance than that pets are multicolored. Other than the angel in the Lovers card, I've noticed only one overtly religious reference in the deck. The seven of cups depicts a Jewish wedding ritual.
The companion book is 5.5 inches by 8.5 inches and 160 pages. Each card receives about one page of text and a black-and-white illustration. Stirt offers a verbal description of the visual image on the card, and an explanation of each of the card's elements. She then offers a few paragraphs on the card meaning, and she closes with a quote.
I was impatient with Stirt's unsourced references to this or that belief attributed to this or that group. Example, "early cultures believed that a single drop of rain fell from the heavens and became the heart of an oyster." Really? Where? When? Who says so? Stirt herself says that "In this age of religious questioning, Tarot has become the spiritual version of church." For that reason accuracy matters. A small complaint; I love this deck.