Monday, November 19, 2007

Finally, something close to complete

This is a complete revamping of a previous essay I posted. Officially, it's a braided piece with two different stories connected by text and this is the first time I've toyed with this type of essay. I like this format and will probably use it more often since it complies with my erratic nature. It's very close to finished with some minor changes that still need to be worked. Comments, as always, are greatly appreciated.

It's a little long, so I broke into three parts for your convenience. Also, I attempted to format it to make it as easy to read as possible, but blogger seems to have some rule against paragraph indentations which I find quite annoying.


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 is one to feed the hordes brought together 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 “don’t need to worry abut them dishes” but she and Pa are leaving tonight to sit with Claude Junior’s family. I want to do my part, however small, and insist it won’t take me long to finish up.

I don’t tell her I secretly want to feel her cast iron frying pans. Running my hands across them, I can feel generations before me passed into the skills of their daughters. Nanny’s pans have been well cured.

Standing before a stove for more than fifty years, Nanny has spent her life caring and cooking for the ones she loves most. Her own mother, raised in the hills of north Georgia, brought her daughters to the kitchen in a gentle process – testing their mettle in the heat and steam – slowly applying layer after layer of love to seal the strengths of her children. It was a curing process meant to last a lifetime.

“Joyce,” her mother would say while she was shelling peas or feeding chickens, “Why don’t you go on in the house and make some chocolate pudding? You always make such good pudding.” Joyce – Nanny now – must have basked under the praise and she willingly followed her mother’s suggestion. Certainly she carried this lesson with her through out life. She is always seeking to find the strengths of her family and fortify them with love and encouragement. Nanny never gives up on a lost child, always striving to bring them back in the fold. She has spent a lifetime caring for family and friends; treating their ills with a hug, a suggestion, patience, a home remedy, or a meal and a place to sleep.

* * *

My mother gave me my first cast iron pan when I moved into my own home at 23. It was small, black and smooth Рjust large enough to saut̩ onions or prepare an omelet. However, I began housekeeping as a mother to a four-year-old daughter and quickly discovered one pan would not suffice.

After a day’s long search that carried me through every local store, I gave up and called Mama 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 gastronomically inept such as me could see these gray imposters would never be worth using. Between gusts of maniacal laughter she said, “You have to cure it.”

“Of what?”

The perplexity of preparing meals had never been one I cared to explore when I lived at home.

* * *

The properties of cast iron make it a natural choice for use in cooking. It retains and diffuses heats evenly across the surface of the pan. It can easily be molded into many shapes including cookware. However, cast iron pans in their natural state are porous and food is prone to sticking to the surface. To create an impermeable cookware, one must cure the pan. Many people prefer to cure cast iron pans by simply cooking with them. By cooking food with a high fat content such as bacon, sausage or ground beef, the pan is cured over a period of several uses.

The process my mother gave me when I bought my first new piece of cookware was to simply coat the entire pan, inside and out, with a thin layer of shortening. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and put the pan upside down on a large sheet of aluminum foil in the oven. Bake it for two hours. Mama said to repeat the process several times.

Generations (part 2)

On the day of Claude Junior’s death, Nanny meets me at the door of her house that began life as a two-room sharecropper’s shack a century ago. The roof is still layered in handpicked cotton under the modern shingles. In her drive to find the light in darkness she calls it her little cottage. Nanny’s eyes are tired and shine with grief. Always, they mirror a lifetime of love and hope and patience.

“You shouldn’t have worried about coming out here,” Nanny scolds as she reaches to hug me. “I know you’ve got too much to do with the babies and school.”

“I couldn’t have not come. You’d do the same for me,” I remind her. And she has many times. Even though John, my children’s father, and I are no longer lovers his family is still my children’s family. My family. It is the way of people who cling to the small criss-crossing maps of kinship. We do it to remember who we are – the molding of ourselves.

She points in the direction of the kitchen. “There’s some dinner –sweet potatoes and collards – on the stove. Lynn brought over some cornbread. Fix you and the younguns a plate.”

I protest because I have not come with needs of my own, but to offer condolences and assistance.

“Go on and fix some plates,” she urged while simultaneously greeting and hugging the children. “We’re about to head up to Claude Junior’s here shortly and there ain’t going to be anybody here to eat it. It’ll just go to waste.” Nanny seems to only use the word “ain’t” when she is insistent and I know a continued resistance of her offer is futile.

I give up and walk into the kitchen. The house is already full of her children and grandchildren, but it always seems that way. Nanny said she once counted twenty people walk through her front door on a Monday. She’s never turned away a visitor or a person in need. It is an amazing concept to me – to have people near me endlessly. In my desire to find peace and solitude, my withdrawal from society takes a near hermit-like approach. She must have an inordinate amount of patience and love of people.

Performing a dance between the stove and dinnerware cabinet while weaving between children clamoring for dinner and drinks and popsicles, I savor the way a small kitchen retains the aroma of dinner. The sweet potatoes float in butter and brown sugar in a cast iron pan on the stove. The cornbread, cracked across the top where heat expanded the crust in the baking, is dark and crispy on the sides and bottom, a state of perfection only achieved through cooking it in cast iron.

I sit next to Lynn, Nanny’s oldest daughter, with my plate and a glass of lemonade. We’ve spent a lot of time together this past year - two single mothers seeking to rebuild ourselves and strengthen family relationships not only for our children, but also from a personal desire to tie back into traditions and bonds. “That cornbread probably isn’t all that good,” Lynn warns me. “I ran out of milk and had to water down what I had left to make it.”

I cannot notice a difference in this pan cornbread and any of her previous pans I’ve eaten. She is, after all, of a matriarchal lineage capable of imparting culinary secrets to their children. It is delicious and I eat two pieces while she insists the cornbread is not good.

* * *

“How do you make biscuits?” I asked my mother. Again, my quest to become Julia Child demanded an exact explanation of where I went wrong. My own biscuits always seemed to look fine when I put them in the oven. They came out a dark, crispy brown in approximately the same thickness and circumference of a quarter. The oven, obviously, lacked some important mechanism to make my biscuits rise and expand.

Mama had grown used to my random demands for over-the-phone cooking classes. She did not laugh, but seemed to be suppressing either mirth at my antics or eagerness to finally be needed by a contentious child.

“Well, Marie Taylor likes to use lard in her biscuits then she pats them out with her hands. Don’t you remember how you’d always see the prints of her fingers on top of her biscuits?”
I considered Marie Taylor’s biscuits and only recalled inhaling them, not considering the little pieces of Marie Taylor’s personality and finger prints imbedded on her biscuits.

“No,” I decided. “And where do you find lard?”

“You can get it over by the Crisco, it’s in a white bucket with a green top. But I just use the recipe on the back of the White Lilly flour bag and pat them out. Your brother likes to make cathead biscuits.”

Jesus. My brother could make biscuits and I made miniature hockey pucks. Perhaps if I’d had more patience as a child or if my mother had found patience with me, I would have known how to cook before I moved out. We’d come to an unspoken agreement years before in order to preserve the peace between a woman and her teenaged daughter. Our shared personality traits divided by a generation clashed more often as not in my search to find autonomy. She provided dinner and I washed dishes. It was a minimal conflict approach.

After moving out, I began to realize I’d let something important bypass me. Not only was I incapable of cooking, I had little to pass on to my children in the way of preserving family bonds. In eschewing the skills and small traditions my mother had to offer, I’d taken something very important away from my brood.

“Be sure to sift the flour first,” she reminded me.

* * *

Cast iron pans share a curious connection with food not found with other types of cookware. Curing a pan changes the porous nature of cast iron. The grease seeps into the natural voids and seals them, creating a smooth, nonstick piece of cookware. Each time the pan is used, the pan absorbs a little more from the food and a tiny memory of the meal is sealed into the cells of the pan.

Doctors have recommended cooking in cast iron pans to patients with a history of anemia, an iron deficiency. The food absorbs particles of iron from the pan increasing the iron levels of the meal. The pan takes natural fats, giving back valued nutrients. (Still not happy with this sentence.)

It is a symbiotic relationship.

Generations (part 3)

Nanny leaves her company to pack an overnight bag in the bedroom painted light pumpkin chiffon. She is a firm believer in the value of color therapy and has told me of the many crying and inconsolable babies she brought into the chiffon bedroom to soothe them with those peaceful hues. My own children have slept well there.

Still desirous to be of assistance in their time of need, I gather all the dinner dishes and stack them next to the sink. While I’ve never been touted as a master chef, I am an excellent dishwasher and am determined to provide my services. Washing first the glasses, the cups, bowls, and utensils I finally come to the pans.

While I’ve managed a basic competency in my own kitchen skills, I’ve still not treated my cast iron pans well. The pan my mother gave me so many years ago has lost the cure through my carelessness. The inside is pitted and dull matte black.

I consider the food still left in Nanny’s pans and waver. I do not like washing pans and almost leave them. But a sudden desire to see the inside clean and free of leftovers – to see the finish on the bottom - clutches me.

Hefting the pan of left over sweet potatoes, I am awed by its weight. I’ve relegated myself to simple aluminum pans since the ruin of my cast iron. Aluminum is not as solid and enduring as cast iron. No one bequeaths aluminum pans.

Nanny has been in and out of the kitchen since I’ve been washing dishes picking up one thing and packing away another. When she comes back, I am scrubbing a sticky spot on the sweet potato pan with a metal spatula. She calmly informs me there was a scrub pad in the sink I could use to clean the debris away.

“Oh,” I reply in ignorance, “I can’t reach it because it’s under all the clean dishes in the other sink. I was just going to get this little bit of brown sugar off.”

“That’s okay. I can get those,” she insists. I am beginning to realize I may have done something wrong. She does not panic, but is possibly a little anxious and I am mulling over the possibility of a faux pas in my dishwashing capabilities.

“Oh, I’ve got it now,” and I rub the rag over the pan and rinse it off.

“Just use the scrub pan next time, if you don’t mind. The spatula might scratch the finish.” The light bulb flashes over my head and I realize I’ve attacked a well loved pan like a barbarian.
We talk several minutes more and I learn to never apply soap directly to the pan since it will take the finish off and the curing process would have to be done over. Nanny is particular in the care of her pans and through a simple mistake in her kitchen, I am learning I’ve committed egregious sins against my own cookware.

* * *
I called Mama. “What are you bringing to the family reunion?” I have not attended a family reunion in years, but lately I’ve been feeding an urge to explore the past and my people.
She considers her list a moment and recites a litany of typical reunion fare: vegetarian hash, butter beans, cornbread, and baked ham.

“You aren’t bringing apple dumplings?” I was disappointed. My mother always makes apple dumplings for any special dinner.

“No. I just didn’t feel like it this year.”

I am excited by the prospect of finally settling on what dishes to bring. “Good. I’m bringing the apple dumplings. Maybe I’ll bring some purple hull peas, macaroni and cheese, buttermilk pie and biscuits.” My biscuits have come a long way.

“Don’t forget to add an onion to the peas,” she reminds me. She had suggested she would simply cook enough for both her own household and mine since I was “still her child.” People are still leery of my food, but I was determined to prove I’d learned something productive in 31 years. That I had listened.

A week later, I carefully cooked each dish one at a time in an effort to allay any mishaps. I am incapable of cooking multi-course meals without disastrous affects. By 2 o’clock in the morning, I’d successfully cooked the dumplings and purple hull peas with the onions. The macaroni and cheese, a recipe highly recommended by an online friend, turned into a five pound hunk of crispy mess when I accidentally set the disposable pan on a hot eye. An attempt to repair the damage by adding an extra pound of cheese was only nominally successful. The apple dumplings from my mother’s recipe and buttermilk pies were exquisite but I’d lost patience after seven hours of cooking one dish at a time and went to bed without making any biscuits.
The next morning, I packed my children into the back seat with pans and foil-wrapped pies packed into boxes insulated with towels and old coats. In a small frenzy, I begged my thirteen-year-old daughter to hold the peas and the dumplings tightly. We lost the peas three miles from the house and I had to stop to scrape them from the floor. I did not berate her. It was my fault for using a flimsy pan. It was a small blow to my tightly-strung pride. No one would taste the delicacy of my purple hull peas. And I’d remembered to add an onion, too.
Later, I stood over the table wondering where all my apple dumplings had gone when an aunt I do not remember walked up to me.

“Honey, do you know who made these apple dumplings?”

I puffed up a bit. “Oh, I did.”

“Well, let me tell you,” she said, “I was talking to James earlier and I told him whoever made these things ought to be either shot are given their own restaurant because they must be a genius in the kitchen. These are the best things I’ve ever tasted. What’s the recipe?”
I was disturbed that someone wanted to shoot me over the apple dumplings. Regrets over claiming the dish began to rise when it seemed my cooking could incense violence. Finally I began to understand shooting the cook for their excellence in the kitchen to be a compliment.
“Well, you just cut the apples into 8 pieces and roll them in cinnamon and sugar and then rap them in crescent rolls and there’s this thing with orange juice and sugar and butter. . . ” I wanted to hold onto the moment, but I couldn’t remember the recipe and I felt every bit the sham for attempting to relay my mother’s recipe as something I did everyday. “I tell you what. My mama makes them all the time and she’ll probably remember it better than me.”

In a short time, my mother found herself surrounded by a covey of little gray-haired ladies eager to replicate apple dumplings for their next get-together. It was my small homage to her for waiting through the years I’d ignored everything she could have shown me until I was ready to listen. I’d cooked them, but she taught me how and I wanted the aunts to know.

* * *

All the families I’ve ever known do not question the value of cast iron. It is an unending belief passed down through some seven centuries, carried across the Atlantic Ocean and Eastern mountains by settlers who finally settled in the rolling Georgia midlands. The proclamation of cast iron goes back even as far as the fourteenth century when King Edward III, sovereign ruler of England, proclaimed iron pots and pans to be a part of the crown jewels.

Edward may have realized the valuable properties of cast iron, but it was the people who understood the history carried in the molecular structure of a pan handed down from mother to daughter. A cast iron pan carries a tiny memory of each meal cooked in it. The cornbread a daughter cooks in a pan that her mother passed down to her carries the faintest traces of her own mother’s cornbread. History and lessons and memories flavor each meal.

I’ve accumulated three cast iron pans over time – one for each child I’ve borne. Soon, I will repair the damage done and infuse them with small memories. Somewhere along the way, maybe I will teach my children the patience and endurance learned from my mother and their great-grandmother. 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 could feel all the family lessons and history soaked up from years of sautéed onions and cornbread.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

It doesn't roll until the last stanza, but I'll play with it later

Magnolias Stink

So you don't like
my robert plant hair
my inconstant habits
my trailer park stance
my mismatched brood

So you think
I'm a little trashy
a tad bit uncouth
I'm completely of no use
and definitely up to no good

And maybe I am
with my two buck smokes.
I stand by your man
in paint stained pants
and hard edged gutter laugh

Because I am
moved with a drive to disrupt
and divide the cultured cult
to steamroll and undo
to make you pay back my dues.