Sometimes the things we collect as adults are the things we lost as children.
When I was growing up, we had exactly one cast-iron skillet in my family. It was something I took for granted, like the fact that we ate meatloaf on Monday and Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks on Friday. Our black, 12-inch, cast-iron skillet was always there, stored in the oven with the baking sheets.
The skillet seemed to have always been there. I never met any of my grandparents, so I never had the chance to ask them if it had been theirs. Perhaps my father bought it, but he died when I was seven, before I thought to ask. I never queried Mom about it when she was still alive, either. And none of my 11 siblings had any idea as to where that skillet came from originally.
It didn’t matter; it was The Skillet. When I was tall enough to reach the knobs on the back panel of the avocado-green electric stove, I learned to cook with the skillet. It was clunky. Heavy. Like the thick red hardback Merriam-Webster dictionary I carried around to look up words I didn’t know.
The skillet clanged across the electric burner elements, scratching against the hard, round coils. It sounded like steel wool on aluminum. I’d turn the knob to number 6, then wait.
I’d gaze out the kitchen window and into the tiny yard, a land thinly patched with grass and edged, briefly, with orange tiger lilies along the chain-link fence.
The scent of smoky oil, charred bacon, fried onions, and sausage filled the air. I loved that smell. It clung to my clothes. I was proud to make dinner and contribute in a family that had many mouths to feed and little food to cook.
I’d lay thin strips of bacon on the surface of the skillet. I loved the pop and splatter of the fat meeting cast iron, like glass marbles bounced on the sidewalk when dropped. Sometimes one or two tiny bursts of grease would jump out of the skillet and onto my forearm. They’d stick like glue and burn my flesh, the warmth turning to a sear within seconds. My dash to the sink to run cold water over the burned spot was never fast enough.
I didn’t know I should add the bacon to the pan, then turn on the heat.
But eventually I learned how to properly cook bacon, and how to sear chicken livers and caramelize onions, and how to simmer Italian sausage with green peppers in a tangy marinara sauce. (Marinara sauce: another thing not to do, in a cast-iron skillet.) I’d scrape the surface of the skillet as I cooked, adding hours of love to my creations.
One day, however, I made the ultimate cast-iron mistake: I washed the skillet.
With warm, soapy water.
I scrubbed vigorously. I rinsed, then squirted more green liquid Palmolive detergent into the skillet, filled it with hot water, and scrubbed vigorously again. Hard.
My nails grew ragged. Finally, the surface gleamed. I placed the cast-iron skillet on the rack in the oven to dry.
Days passed. We ate pots of chili, spaghetti, and boiled cabbage with ham. I didn’t think about the cast-iron skillet until it was pulled out of the oven to make room for a turkey teriyaki casserole.
It was covered in splotchy patches the color of pumpkin pie. The surface of Mars, dry and hard, flaking and peeling.
I’d ruined it.
I cried, then prayed for forgiveness at Saturday confession.
I don’t remember ever using that cast-iron skillet again. I don’t know if someone inherited it when Mom sold our house, or whether she took it to her condo, or whether it was thrown away.
Almost four decades elapsed before I bought my own cast-iron skillet. I’d read about friends and colleagues using cast-iron skillets for baking pizza, cornbread, and cakes. I knew that cast iron was the perfect skillet to sear fish, bacon, and meats. I’d read plenty on how to care for cast iron and how to season its black surface so foods wouldn’t stick.
Shortly after I married for the first time, I bought my first cast-iron skillet in a rural farm store while shopping for birdseed. I lifted small, medium, and large skillets to gauge which one connected me most to the old family kitchen with the buttercream walls.
Settling on a 12-inch black skillet, a replica of the one I ruined as a teenager, I felt I was taking a small step in the right direction.
But back home in my own kitchen, the skillet felt heavy. Awkward.
I was intimidated by memories of that rusted, ruined skillet. Instead of conditioning and seasoning the new skillet with bacon fat and pork shoulder, I went shopping for another cast-iron skillet.
I bought a smaller, gray-toned, nine-inch skillet, rationalizing that the size and color would make a difference. I wanted a skillet to create comfort meals for me and Elvis, my husband; I wanted to remember the sweet memories of my past, and fuse them with the meals of my future.
Satisfied with having one skillet to remind me of my past, and another one to create new memories with, I oiled them and then baked them, low and slow. I envisioned crisp bacon, caramelized steaks, and perfectly seared salmon fillets.
But the following week, I attended a blogging conference, where I won a 10–piece Calphalon cookware set. My cast-iron skillets sat on a shelf, unused.
Several months later, Elvis saw the skillets while rummaging on a shelf for his grill tools. He casually mentioned that they looked like the skillets his mother used to fry country ham in when he was a kid.
So we got out the skillets and seared two fat, juicy burgers in them. It was a christening of sorts, and a promise of many more meals to come.
The smells of my childhood came back to me that day. And now I know not to wash away the smells of family.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
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