Amidst all the chaos of the last nine months came a quiet moment last week that seemed like a breath of unmasked, Covid-free air. This was after the Four Seasons Landscaping/sex-toy store/crematorium fiasco and before Rudy took the Trump show on the road, appearing in various courtrooms in once-red states and showing us that he bleeds mascara from both temples.
No, this precious moment came when a friend on Facebook—and in real life—said that she needed a new skillet and was looking for recommendations. I offered one and, following the thread she had started, learned that I am not the only one who is passionate about cookware.
And we’re not just talking about cast iron, whose most passionate users seem like members of a strange cult that has serious aversions to soap and water. No, this thread mentioned stainless steel, aluminum, clad, Teflon, copper, and other types too numerous to mention.
I must have at least forty pots and pans of various sizes made from a variety of metals. From sauce pans and stock pots to sauté pans and griddles, my collection is vast and varied—a mishmash of styles, sizes and brands. And naturally, I have a favorite pan—an 8” skillet manufactured in China by a company called Basic Essentials. I found it several years ago at Ross Dress for Less. It cost less than $10.
It is hard-anodized aluminum (whatever in hell that means) and is reliably non-stick unless I lose focus on the task at hand. It’s a perfect omelet and crepe pan.
Although it’s been said that only a poor workman blames his tools, I like to give credit to the tools I find that support my efforts in the kitchen. And I should also mention that I have a favorite burner on our range (front right). Such are the afflictions of a serious cook.
I have no recollection of the cookware my mother used as I was growing up, but she was past the point of blaming her tools.
The best I can figure, my mother learned to be a bad cook from her mother.
While my grandmother, who we called MeMa, hated to cook, my mother loved to spend hours in the kitchen. Nobody could figure out why, because much of what she gathered into melding together our evening meals was, well…less than stellar. She seemed to enjoy the food she created from the thousands of recipes she had clipped from magazines like Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, and Redbook. The rest of us just shoveled it in, hoping that we could control our gag reflexes until we had left the table.
We ate out often, my father always saying that Mom needed a break from cooking. My father was a very diplomatic man.
My mother was rather bookish. She was a decent piano player, but lost without sheet music. Similarly, she was lost without a recipe while in the kitchen. In either case, there was no guarantee of a quality product.
MeMa was the first of many feminists I’ve encountered in my life. Born in the 1890s, she had attended college and become a schoolteacher in a one-room school in rural Nebraska. When she married, she became a partner in the newspaper business with her husband, performing all of the tasks it took to run a weekly paper—from writing stories and selling advertising to setting type on the delightfully clanky Mergenthaler Linotype, and delivering the end product to rural outposts, driving a car in a time when most women didn’t.
Like my wife, Geri, the only thing domestic about MeMa was that she lived in a house.
Her disdain for cleaning was remarkable—she just didn’t do it because she had better things to do. The house she and Granddad lived in was small, its walls adorned with portraits of FDR and JFK, reflecting their yellow-dog Democrat politics. The house was cleaned weekly by some woman who also did the laundry. I can’t imagine that MeMa ever made a bed or vacuumed the carpet. As I said, she had better things to do.
She cooked only because she and my grandfather needed to eat. Her repertoire was, to say the least, limited. She made fried chicken with mashed potatoes and canned string beans. She also made beef pot roast with roasted potatoes and carrots. Breakfast was limited to bacon, white-bread toast, and sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sugar. On Sundays, she would add fried eggs to their breakfast menu; late in the day she would serve roast chicken with roasted potatoes and canned peas.
They ate lunch out six days a week at the café across from their newspaper office and always had the same thing. Granddad would have a hamburger with chips and a Dr. Pepper. MeMa would have a grilled cheese sandwich and black coffee. They never ate the dill pickles that came with both their lunches.
MeMa owned a large cast iron skillet that was used to fry chicken, bacon, and eggs. She guarded it like one could imagine Jacques Pepin guarding his favorite chef’s knife. It had never seen water, let alone soap. By the time she died at the age of 95, the skillet had lost at least an inch of both diameter and depth to the buildup of oily crud. It could only have been salvaged with a hammer and chisel.
While it’s difficult to think emotionally about Teflon, stainless steel or aluminum, nothing brings tears of sentimentality like cast iron cookware. I’m not sure why.
While certainly ovenproof, cast iron is heavy and cumbersome. I rarely use any of the four I own, two 12-inch skillets and two 6-skillets, one of the latter of which lives on our backyard deck and is used as an ashtray.
Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.
Photo montage by Courtney A. Liska
Mac ‘n Cheese
A perfect addition to any holiday table: a casserole of macaroni and cheese.
3 Tbs. unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
1, 12 oz. can evaporated milk
1 cup half and half (1/2 cup cream and 1/2 cup milk)
½ -1 Tbs. onion powder
2 tsp. garlic powder
½ -1 tsp. Creole seasoning
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
½ cup mozzarella cheese, grated
½ cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
½ cup jack cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
8 ounces uncooked elbow macaroni
Cook macaroni according to the package directions. Drain.
Add butter to skillet. As soon as butter melts whisk in flour. Continue whisking until flour is fully mixed with butter. Then cook for about a minute.
Slowly add evaporated milk a little at the time, followed by the half and half; keep whisking to keep the mixture from forming any lumps. Simmer for about 3-5 minutes until mixture thickens slightly.
Add seasonings, onion and garlic powder, Creole seasoning and cayenne pepper.
Bring to a simmer and let it simmer gently for about 2 minutes.
Stir in the cheeses (reserve some as toppings later), and continue stirring until the mixture is melted and evenly combined. Add salt & pepper, to taste.
Then add the cooked pasta to the pot, stir to evenly incorporate.
Transfer the pasta mixture into a pan or a lightly greased 2-qt. baking dish. Top with remaining cheese.
Bake at 375 Degrees F° for 20 minutes or until golden and bubbly.