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Pots and Pans as Memory Keepers: A Tale of Two Skillets

By Michele D. Baker

“What keeps me motivated is not the food itself but all the bonds and memories the food represents.”
Michael Chiarello

My grandmother Margaret was a force to be reckoned with. She was the youngest girl of 15 children – all single births – and by the time she came along, several of her older sisters were already married and had children, so she grew up with nieces and nephews who were older than she was. Very early, she discovered a couple things: she didn’t like to sit still, she loved children, and she was a good cook.

When her little brother came along, she helped take care of him, working in the garden, weeding the flower beds, and making dinner. In those days, most of the cookware was made of durable cast iron, suitable for cooking evenly on a wood-fired farmhouse cookstove. Because of the large family, she used an oversized cast iron skillet for many meals – it was large enough to hold a five-pound pot roast with potatoes, carrots and onions. This particular skillet has cradled cornbread, hosted a mountain of mashed turnips, and even broiled to perfection a whole Thanksgiving turkey with stuffing around the edges.

Image of 6" skillet nestled in 14" skillet, stick of butter, potholders

Later, when my grandmother married and had five children of her own, she used this skillet for the Easter roast lamb, Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas goose. My father would bring us grandkids over to his parents’ house for holidays, and that skillet would be on the stovetop, the meat resting before my grandfather carved it with the electric knife that was all the rage in the early 70s.

When my grandmother died, I was the lucky recipient of this skillet, and I began to understand its true value. The inside has been seasoned to perfection with the juices and fats of hundreds of meats and sauces over nearly a century. It can hold ten pounds of potatoes and ten decades’ worth of memories. It can withstand the heat of the oven, can sit atop campfire coals, and has withstood the proverbial heat of the kitchen. It has held meals and memories of weddings, graduations, church picnics, christenings, and funerals.

I’m not sure how my family acquired this behemoth 14” Griswold skillet that weighs nearly seven pounds when empty. When it was new in the 1930s, this skillet was the most expensive one made and cost about $2 (domed lid not included), a huge sum for the farm workers and laborers of that era. My great grandfather was a blacksmith with a thriving business in a tiny village between Chicago and Des Moines, but even so, it’s unlikely anybody would have had that much available cash to spend on a skillet. The romantic side of me likes to daydream that perhaps a tinker stopped by to get his horse shod, and they “horse traded” the skillet in payment. It’s a minor mystery that, unfortunately, will remain unsolved.

The huge frying pan is too big and too heavy for the rack with the other pans, so in my kitchen it lives with the cookie sheets in the drawer underneath the oven. Despite its size, it’s one of my favorite pieces of cookware. Every time I roast or bake something, I pull out that pan, and to this day, it still cooks the annual turkey, although now I use a cooking bag to make it simpler to get out all the wonderful turkey drippings. It is a heavy pan, even more so when full of meat and memories, so I always use two hands – and two of grandma’s crocheted potholders – when taking it out of the oven.

My latest culinary prize is also a skillet. This one I purchased as an “it’s a Thursday” gift, which is what I say to myself when I really want something but don’t want to wait until my birthday or Christmas. It’s a tiny 6” Staub cast iron skillet with turmeric-colored enamel on the handle and base. Although I value well-made items and am willing to pay for solid wood antique furniture, silk or linen clothing and hardback first editions, I’m a bit embarrassed at how much I paid for this tiny skillet, suitable only for cooking a single egg. But it was love at first sight, I’m afraid. A foodie friend had the sky-blue version and claimed it was his favorite. (Of course, then I needed one, too.)

This French-made skillet browns without sticking, sautés like a champ, and even pops right in the oven for the perfect broil. I feel so chic when using it, as if my French ancestors were standing next to me. It is the perfect pan for any recipe from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child. The surface of the skillet is nonstick without the nonstick coating, and although it could go in the dishwasher, I usually lovingly bathe it in hot, soapy water before allowing it to dry in a wooden rack. Every time I cook my single serving in it, I smile. Then I think about my friends, my family, and my grandmother, realize how lucky I am, and understand that I am making memories with this skillet, too.

As chef and author Jeff Smith says in “The Frugal Gourmet Keeps the Feast” (1995), “Feasting is… closely related to memory. We eat certain things in a particular way to remember who we are.” I’m sure that is true, and now I have two skillets to hold the memories.


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