The skillet sits upon the display shelf of kitchenware. The bio written on its price tag states: Made in Birmingham, Alabama, circa 1940. “NO 8” branded on the bottom. Approaching 80 years old, yet far from being retired. If this well-seasoned pan could absorb the lives having surrounded it, what would it have to say?
Maggie: Her first gesture in the kitchen was a fried egg. She overcooked it by a mile, but her brand-new husband ate it with great enthusiasm. His bride could do no wrong. Yet, both agreed they couldn’t live on love alone. So, she became one with her kitchen, beginning with a new 1940 cast-iron skillet, a gift from her mother (made in her hometown, Birmingham), who didn’t want the young couple to starve to death.
She would visit her daughter in Mobile often, and cooking lessons became excuses to become best friends with her youngest. Maggie and her mom were given a second chance to know one another now. Maggie’s mom and dad had worked long hours when she was growing up. Raising a family was full-time in itself. Now, both women learned to cook for pleasure. And with each meal and each year, that skillet became richer in color, with a patina that never allowed for an egg to stick or a steak to burn.
Just as the iron became seasoned with time, so did Maggie’s marriage. They soon grew into a family, and as the kids advanced in school, so did Maggie. What began as a lark–a night class in typing–soon morphed into literature/composition courses, and one thing led to another. By the time her kids were grown, she was typing her own manuscripts for publication.
One day, her husband surprised her with a set of Teflon cookware—the newest thing out there! He was going to do the cooking now that he was semi-retired, while Maggie worked on her third novel. During one of her mom’s still-frequent visits (her son-in-law now ready for his own cooking classes), the skillet was requested. “Oh, we have some new stuff for you to work with. That old iron skillet is in the basement.”
Louise: In the summer of 1970, Louise bought her first piece of cookware at a garage sale. For some reason, the couple seemed sad to part with the blackened skillet. Heck, it was just some old pan—used and greasy. But her grandmother insisted that the only way to pan-fry chicken was in a cast-iron skillet. Louise would have rather had some new, modern stuff for her first apartment, but whatever, she was on a budget. As the lady took her three dollars for the skillet, she told Louise that it might not look so pretty, but it would serve her well and (laughing in the direction of her husband) not to retire it to the basement for some Kmart set of junk.
Louise learned, to her astonishment, how to cook. And it all began in that tiny kitchen, so small it seemed more like an afterthought. But she came to enjoy the small space and found she was quite adept at assigning every inch, every nook, in that kitchen to a purpose that resulted in culinary charm and cunning.
The skillet, first rejected as the only damn thing she could afford, later was revered as it might be ugly, but I simply can’t cook a bad meal with it—in fact, it inspires me. And perhaps it did. She went from meals for herself to cooking for friends, and then to culinary school. A cooking career was never what she had in mind (the new world of computer programming had been her goal), and later, when she opened her own café, she told an interviewer that she attributed her skills and inspirations to her first cast-iron that seemed to impart knowledge. Her skillet was her mentor.
In 1995, she felt she’d outgrown Mobile, yet hated to move too far from home. New Orleans seemed the perfect choice. This new home suited her style of cooking, but with a larger and even more appreciative clientele. New Orleans was all about the food!
It was also a bit more edgy and dangerous, and one night, her new restaurant was the target of two armed men. It was after-hours, the staff long gone, and suddenly, the door was kicked in. She was working out a new recipe, the skillet was filled with oil (she’d just fussed at herself for over-pouring), and before she could lower the flame, the men advanced towards her. She grabbed the towel from her hip, gripped the cast-iron handle, and slung the garlicky lava right at them. Needless to say, the police had little trouble identifying the two men, as they were blistered and reeked of garlic.
Katrina: The floodwaters took almost everything that Louise had worked to build. For 10 years, she enjoyed a reliable customer base, a fine reputation, and actually beat the odds and made some money. The restaurant world can beat you up something fierce. But she figured, after that crazy night a decade ago, she could handle most anything. Well, she hadn’t met Katrina yet.
She and her staff made it, and after suffering the next assault of “recovery,” she was able to relocate to Atlanta and begin again … but this time without her talisman. Her skillet was buried under so much muck and mud that she never could find it. But she knew it would be found one day and work its way into a kitchen deserving of its tenacity.
Tim: Today, in a little shop, a young man is about to outfit his first kitchen with a venerable piece of cookware. His mother told him to buy something he could hang on to. Well, they say a good cast-iron skillet will last forever.