Accused Terrorist's Cookbook Is A Radical Departure

Posted: May 01, 2000

The recipes might best be described as suburban potluck international - noodles Romanoff, Oriental shrimp, taco dip, Spanish rice. The cover is red-and-white checked, a la Betty Crocker. Even the spiral-bound paperback format is wholesomely familiar, the kind used for Junior League and church fund-raisers across America.

But a slim cookbook now on sale ($19.95) on the Internet and at a handful of left-leaning bookstores in Minnesota and California has an unusual, subversive twist. The smiling cook on the cover of Serving Time: America's Most Wanted Recipes is Sara Jane Olson, the 53-year-old physician's wife and mother of three daughters who was arrested in June when FBI agents surrounded her minivan in St. Paul, Minn.

The woman whom authorities identified as longtime fugitive and Symbionese Liberation Army member Kathleen Soliah poses in a striped apron, handcuffs in one hand, a cartoon spatula in the other. The photo plays off her wildly clashing dual images: '70s radical and middle-class homemaker.

Friends in Minnesota say they came up with the idea for the cookbook to raise money for Olson's defense. She goes on trial in Los Angeles in August, accused of conspiring to kill police by rigging two Los Angeles police cars with nail-filled pipe bombs in 1975 in revenge for the deaths of six SLA members killed in a standoff with police the year before. The bombs did not explode.

"Sara loves to cook. She would put on these fabulous spreads for holiday parties. So we thought, let's start with a cookbook," said Mary Ellen Kaluza, who put up her house as collateral to help raise Olson's nearly $1 million bail.

Mary Sutton, a friend who designed the book, said the aim was to attract attention and sell copies, hence the jocular approach.

"People jump to conclusions and assume guilt, so we just decided to do a humorous perspective on it all," Sutton said.

That's why the red-and-white checks on the cover actually form the pattern of a dartboard. And, like the cover, the dividers between recipe categories show photographs of Olson hamming it up for the cameras.

Olson's husband, Fred Petersen, has said he knew nothing about his wife's past. Neither did Kaluza, who met Olson more than 20 years ago when they both began working locally against apartheid. Kaluza said she learned of her friend's arrest on an airplane, staring at the familiar face in another passenger's Time magazine.

"It was pretty shocking news, but the shock was overshadowed by what the family was going through and what needed to be done," she said.

So while Olson briefly sat in jail last summer, her friends sorted through her cookbooks and recipe cards, bringing them to her when they visited.

Olson earned certification in restaurant skills from Baltimore's International Culinary Arts Institute in 1984 while her husband was studying at Johns Hopkins Medical School. She wrote the introduction to the 102-page Serving Time.

"In jail, anything's a distraction," she wrote of being asked to focus on cooking while behind bars.

Olson's lawyers have denied that she was ever an actual member of the SLA, the radical California group that achieved international notoriety when it kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974.

In the cookbook, she jokes about her pending conspiracy charge, writing: "In the 1970s, I learned about organic food when I moved to the Bay Area in California. I belonged to the Food Conspiracy, an umbrella group of neighborhood food-buying clubs that bought organic food from rural farms and local distributors . . . So, I guess, I do admit to once being a member of a conspiracy."

After being indicted in the attempted bombings in 1976, Kathleen Soliah went underground and adopted the name Sara Jane Olson. She legally changed her name to Olson after her arrest last summer.

In the cookbook, she reminisces about her Soliah grandparents, with family photographs and a few traditional Norwegian recipes.

Supporters, who began selling the cookbook this winter in the Minneapolis area, say they quickly went through the first 1,000-copy printing. They are now selling from a second, 2,000-copy run. The effort has received criticism in the Minneapolis-area media, where one newspaper columnist described the cookbook as "too winking" and said: "It's starting to look like Olson's having a bit too much fun in her role." A gossip column offered fitting alternate recipes - including hot fugitive sundae, cole SLA, and on-the-lamb stew.

Last month, Olson and supporters went on a book tour to her old haunts in California - holding a book sale in Palmdale, her childhood home, where her parents still live. While she could not talk about the case because of a gag order, she signed books and reminisced with former teachers about her teenage days, when she was a star student at Palmdale High.

People showed up, too, in Santa Monica, for a book signing at Midnight Special, a popular independent bookstore with bookshelf sections labeled "welfare/homelessness" and "environmental justice" and copies of Karl Marx's Das Kapital stacked on the counter for impulse buys.

Sales clerk Guy Williams said he thought Olson's defense was a good cause. "You look at her and you get a sense of how the injustices of this country are still being carried out. She's another Mumia Abu-Jamal, another Geronimo Pratt," he said, referring to the former Black Panther and radio reporter on death row for killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981, and another former Panther who served 25 years in prison before his murder conviction was overturned in 1997.

Williams said he especially liked the food samples Olson brought with her to the store.

"I didn't eat the chocolate cake. I ate the carrot cake. But the stuff I really liked was the avocado dip," he said. "That was delicious."

Nita Lelyveld's e-mail address

comments powered by Disqus