King of the kitchen
I couldn’t believe my luck. Sturdy, large and well seasoned, this was no ordinary cast iron,
Roasts, frittatas, fish, naan – my cast-iron castoff could handle anything I threw in it
Every chef has their favourite tool – something they can’t live without, something they carry with them through every move, something that inspires them to create. Mine was an old cast-iron pan. I called it the king of the kitchen: King because it was big, and heavy, and useful.
Thirty-seven years ago, I went back to school to pursue my PhD while my husband left Canada for a year on sabbatical. I ended up living in a posh Washington condominium largely inhabited by elderly widows and retired couples who had downsized. I grew up in the Prairies and, while I had lived in a number of places and countries, this was my first experience of high-rise urban living.
The condo came with a magnificent view, aswimming pool, 24hour security and a concierge. I had not known what a concierge was or what they did until I moved in. One of his jobs was to call residents every day to make certain they were alive and well. Since I knew no one in the city, this seemed a good, extra measure of security.
The condo came with another nice perk: Unwanted items were often left on a table in the garbagedisposal room in case they might be given new life by another resident.
One day, I came across a large, 12inch, cast-iron frying pan. It was a real beauty – clearly far from new, but in good condition and well seasoned. Aficionados of cast-iron frying pans know this “seasoning” can be a difficult feat to achieve and maintain. The long process of rubbing in salted oil, repeatedly, combined with many hours of slow baking will eventually achievea perfect cooking surface – essentially
For more than 35 years, the oven was rarely turned on without the frying pan being part of the main event or, at least, part of the preparations. I couldn’t imagine my kitchen without it. In fact, my incredible pan lived in the oven.
a non-stick surface. If done well the first time, it can last for years.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I didn’t understand why anyone would discard such a wonderful pan, and I gleefully took it back to my apartment.
I had learned to cook with cast iron on a wood stove at our cottage when I was a child and have always had at least two in my kitchen. I use them for everything. While pans that can go from stovetop to oven to grill are common now, in those days they were somewhat of a rarity.
In the beginning, I used my new cast iron for frittatas, fish and anything that required more than the small pan I had brought with me. But it was when I returned to Canada that the frying pan came into its own.
We lived in a large, old, Victorian house and were keen entertainers. For more than 35 years, the oven was rarely turned on without the frying pan being part of the main event or, at least, part of the preparations. I couldn’t imagine my kitchen without it. In fact, my incredible pan lived in the oven.
It was heavy enough to be a roasting pan – beef, chicken, duck and even a small turkey. It made wonderful gravy and Creole sauce. I could cook enough ground beef with seasoning and extra ingredients to make a base for spaghetti or lasagna for a large crowd, or months’ worth of food for the freezer. As it could also be used in the broiler, it was perfect for making naan.
About 15 years ago, I noticed I could no longer lift and turn my favourite pan with one hand in order to drain ground beef. But I adapted. About 10 years ago, I noticed that when used for a large roast or small turkey, I would need to ask my husband to lift the pan in and out of the hot oven. Five years ago, I had to stop making my own naan as I could no longer lift it in and out of the oven and broiler. (Fortunately, this coincided with the popularity of store-made naan, so it was not too much of a sacrifice.)
One weekend, I realized I could no longer easily lift it at all. Just taking it in and out of the bottom of the stove was too much for my aging hands and arms. My husband would, henceforth, be responsible for our trusty cast-iron friend, but we both realized that even this solution might not last long.
The frying pan’s days as part of our family were now numbered, even though it was still in excellent condition and well seasoned.
All these years later, it occurs to me why I found it on the discard table in the first place. Someone else had found it too heavy for aging arms and wrists to lift.
My husband and I now live in a high-rise condominium building populated mainly by widows and other retired couples who have downsized. It comes with a heated indoor pool, good security and a magnificent view of the Niagara Escarpment. There are also a number of younger residents in the building.
The informal custom in this building is to leave small items with some remaining useful life near the garbage room in the basement or to post notices for larger items “to a good home” on the residents’ bulletin board.
I thought of offering my large cast-iron frying pan to members of my own family, but they are well established with well-equipped kitchens of their own. Besides, I rather like the idea of my frying pan going on to live a new life with another family. I hope it will retain its place as King, a respected and valued possession in someone else’s kitchen for many years to come.
Barbara Wake Carroll lives in St. Catharines, Ont.
We want your personal stories. See the guidelines on our website tgam.ca/essayguide