Nanny’s cast iron frying pans are smooth, black and cool to the touch when I scrape the food out and gently wipe a rag over them. Nanny, paternal great-grandmother to my children, is a seasoned veteran of cornbread, sweet potato casseroles, collards and hasty meals thrown together to appease the ever advancing army of visitors. This meal was one to feed the hordes brought together this time by the death of her brother-in-law, Claude Junior. Nanny, as I’ve known her since I became part of the family, has always been the most genteel of hostesses insisting I didn’t need to “worry about them dishes” but she was preparing to travel with Pa to tend to Claude Junior’s family and see about arrangements. I want to do my part, however small, and insist it wouldn’t take me long to finish up, and besides, no one want to come home days later to dirty dishes. I don’t tell her I secretly want to feel her cast iron frying pans.
Mama gave me my first cast iron frying pan when I finally set up house on my own at the age of 23. It was small, black, and smooth – just large enough to sauté onions or prepare an omelette. However, I began housekeeping with a family of three already in place and needed more pans. After a days long search that carried me through every local store, I gave up and called my mother in frustration when all I could find were gray and bumpy cast iron pans. They were not the black, smooth ones I’d grown up with in my mother’s house. Even the inept such as myself could see these gray imposters would never be worth using. She laughed at me.
“You have to cure it.”
My mother had neglected most of my culinary education. Or rather, it seemed a mutually agreed decision to preserve the tentative peace between a woman and her teenaged daughter. Our shared personality traits divided by a generation clashed most often as not in my search to find autonomy. Many women of my grandmother’s era seemed to hold housekeeping close to them they way some may hold hard earned doctorates as sign of their abilities and importance. I cannot say my mother learned any of these skills from her mother and most likely learned to cook on her own or from her stepmother. My uncles will still laugh about the biscuits my mother made when they were growing up and claimed they once knocked down a wall with one. It seems she was sandwiched between a mother who had no skills to pass down and a daughter who did not want them.
Cooking was not a bonding experience in my family. In fact, my mother’s people have never been ones to bond in the traditional sense. Instead, we fight and argue and sometimes seek alpha dominance. Love is not a topic we feel the need to discuss or routinely exhibit. Instead, love seems to be expressed through a certain oddness where arguing is equated with love. Arguing shows concern and an effort to bring a certain loved one to the appropriate decision. Love has not so much been a pussyfooted kindness, but an unspoken demand from each of us. In exchange, we stand beside each other in the lean times, the stronger caring for the weaker ones. We push our own worried and fears aside when one is sick or in trouble. We do no cry then. Then we are poured from a cast of metal spines, clear heads and mildly hot tempers. Love is not expressed through words and hugs, but a level headed determination to find all the answers and provide the best solution possible to a problem. Love is a strong shoulder to lean on and a clear voice ask what needs to be done. At other times, we are all oil and water and cannot be mixed well enough to find peace in each other’s company for too long. In a family stocked with outlaws and inlaws left over from marriages gone bad, love is more of a loose confederacy. Even now, there is an awkwardness between us when my mother or I say “I love you.” It as if we are turtles deprived of our protective shells and we find ourselves unshielded before the world. It is expression enough in her gift of a frying pan and curing instructions. We know.
When I first began dating John, my children’s father, Pa and I had not yet been familiar with each other enough to hurl our now customary insults: “Good lawd, Ugly! I was havin’ a damned good day till you come along and messed it up. I do believe I done gone blind.” Pa is a big man, standing well over six feet with white hair and twinkling blue eyes that express too much mischief for a man his age. Like many men of his generation, he is missing more than one finger – lost in an effort to provide a home and meals for his family. On one of those summer days in the beginning of my relationship with
I met up with Nanny in the shared yard between one of her daughter’s homes and her own small white house that began life some hundred years ago as a two-room sharecropper’s cabin. The roof is still layered in hand picked cotton under the modern shingles. Her eyes easily tell her lifetime of guiding her loved ones and she explained to me Pa’s decision to cure a frying pan in a handed down method of curing it over an open fire with bacon grease saved in an old coffee tin. He sat over the heat of the open fire gently turning and wiping the pan until the process was completed.
For some five decades, Nanny has stood in front of a stove providing meals for the people who mean the most to her. First, under the tutelage of her mother raised in the mountains of north
King Edward III, sovereign ruler of
Unlike women in my family, Nanny is not opposed to crying openly in the face of uncertainty. It seems my children’s family wears their hearts on their sleeves and it is not in the slightest bit unusual to hear Nanny say, “I love you, son” to an adult grandchild. Expressing such personal emotions in the open was different from anything I’d ever known in my life. While it had never been directly stated by anyone close to me, attitudes told me it was a sign of weakness - emerging from this protective shell we don in our day to day interactions with each other and the world that has run against us since anyone can remember. It has taken many years for me to understand to walk through life without a permanent armor is a courageous act in itself.
I’ve amassed a collection of three cast iron frying pans since I began my time as an adult. In these years I’ve cooked with aluminum, anodized aluminum, nonstick, glass, and stainless steel in a vain hope my dinners would be palatable instead of just a serviceable meal to stave off the pangs of starvation. Slowly, I’m learning it is not necessary the fault of the pots and pans I choose to employ, but my own impatience with the intricacies of domesticated life. One cannot speed estimated cooking time under the premise that turning the burner to high will cut time spent over the stove in half. Years of personal experiments have confirmed this for me. My pans have also paid the price for my gourmet inaccuracies. The cast irons have sat in an ignoble place on the bottom cabinet shelf for quite sometime because I’ve ruined the finish and have only recent brought myself to the truth: their failures are of my own making. Washing Nanny’s pans was an affirmation that my own pans can be useful again with a little care. I plan to cure them again soon. They are growing older and are not going to always believe that Cajun blackened chicken noodle soup is a real meal.
I would like to pass them down to my children – one pan for each child; well seasoned with years of family meals and little lessons taught in between. Maybe somewhere I will be able to teach them it’s okay to cry in front of others and it is okay to stand up and defy the world when the cause demands it. These lessons are easy, it’s knowing when to choose the right course of action that life can work itself into knots. Years after they’ve left me to forge their own way in the world, it would be nice if they gently rubbed their hands across the smooth blackness of a cast iron pan one day and remembered life and family and love can be complicated, but every day is worth the effort knowing someone else will find small joys in their efforts. Hopefully, they will remember their mama loved them enough to cook even though I never seem to master the mysteries of a kitchen.