This second guest contribution comes from Ross Eliot, who wrote a memoir about his time living with Dr. Babette Ellsworth, a prominent college professor, transwoman, and aspiring nun in Portland, Oregon. You can read the first installment of the Babette series here.
On a late Friday afternoon in mid-November 1999, Babette excitedly bustles around the kitchen and skims over her many cookbooks. They boast recipes for cuisine from almost every culture; Basque to Burmese, Italian to East Indian.
“You know Wrahs, this house used to be quite well known for fabulous dinner parties. I would print up a menu, cook fantastic meals and invite every friend and colleague. It takes so much energy, with my health, those days are long gone, yet smaller events can still be worthwhile. Tonight, I have invited several students over for supper. There are standout individuals in every class and I often develop friendships with them. Pursuing personal relations of that nature is not entirely ethical, but at my age I don’t care. I make the college too much money for them to dismiss me over trivial matters. Oh, look here!”
From a cupboard, Babette removes two Tupperware containers. They rattle in her hands. She sets them down and pushes one toward me. I open the lid and see clusters of small conical shells.
“These are snail shells. Now, everyone knows the French adore escargot, but few Americans have eaten it or even know what it looks like. So, years ago, I would go into the yard and collect small garden slugs. I kept them in a plastic container for several days and made sure they consumed only store bought lettuce. This allowed time to expel pesticides they might have encountered in the wild. Then, once my beauties grew plump and fat, I would place them on a cookie sheet and bake it in the oven. Afterward, I seasoned them and placed these shells on their backs before being served. Oh, my guests were always very impressed and said they never knew escargot tasted so exquisite!”
From my book Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth, this was my introduction to the mischievous ways of Dr. Ellsworth, a prominent NW history professor. She earlier invited me to live in the pantry of her grand house, where I spent the next three years as a chauffeur, personal assistant and occasional medic.
I soon discovered my professor was transsexual and had taught for decades at various Portland colleges while appearing male. This career not only included classroom instruction, but extensive local field trips, plus even more far flung student tours that reached as far as China, Brazil, Egypt and Russia. Privately, however, she lived as a woman whenever possible.
Even decades before transitioning, in keeping with her puckish nature, Babette would often visit the locations she planned to lecture about later and take photographs of herself in drag. Then she would include these shots with her slide shows and during presentations, slyly mention her “sister” had come along on that particular excursion.