“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.