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.