Her hands, mahogany-toned vessels, tell many stories: of the world, her world, her life; of sorrow, grief, pain. Those same hands cradled mugs of coffee in the wee mornings, scribbled notes on the back of her church bulletin in perfect cursive, and enshrined her cast-iron skillet, the one found sitting on the stove in her small, cramped kitchen. Especially on Sundays.
In Huntsville, Alabama, Sundays were something special. Along with being the Sabbath, it was feasting day. No other day was food tended to with more care than Sunday. And on Sunday, my grandmother called forth all her love and buried it deep within the fried chicken she made, letting Crisco melt from solid gloop until it crackled.
I see her rinsing off the chicken and removing it from its packaging, being careful to pluck the stray chicken feathers from a piece here and there, then sprinkling Lawry’s and black pepper over the mass of chicken sitting in a colander in the sink. I imagine her then dredging the chicken—the wings, the thighs, the breasts, the legs—through White Lily flour, sprinkled with specks of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. The Crisco continues to crackle quietly on the stove; she moves it off the flame so it doesn’t burn.
And gingerly, with love, adoration, knowing it was the only calm she could grant her family, her husband, and six kids that one day of the week, she dropped the chicken into the grease and looked after it until it browned. Even after the chicken was doled out to my grandfather, aunts and uncles, after sitting on a large plate and sips of red Kool-Aid were had, that cast-iron skillet held the love and lore that had long been forgotten. And even though I can’t revisit that time, because it was long before I was even a consideration, I somehow know that cast-iron skillet signified much more than just a piece of cookware. It was unbeknownst to itself to become an heirloom, a symbol of heart, home and nourishment, amid an ever-changing life and world.
Teaching was what she loved, and she began teaching Sunday school as a teen; the smells of collard greens, fried chicken, sweet yams, and skillet cornbread wafted up from the basement where after-church meals were served. She taught because teaching gave her life more meaning, more dimension. But she also cooked.
My mother has always told me stories of how she took an upstanding role in her family—sewing, cooking, and teaching everyone around her. She wasn’t the oldest, and yet at a young age, most likely before she even wanted to, she was in a role that required her to be benevolently giving of herself. Before she thought to give to herself.
The cast-iron skillet, the skillet which was originally my grandma’s, became my mommy’s when she left her family’s home and married my father. It was around that time she left Huntsville, much to the dismay and confusion of everyone around her, to take a teaching job in Atlanta. The skillet was a signifier of home and comfort, everything she had left behind to create a new life ahead of her.
When I was a child, I watched my mother craft my favorite meal in that skillet, smothered pork chops drowning in a browned gravy of onions. In a bout of amazement, I’d watch her transform the massive slabs of pink-ish colored meat, meat appearing to look insignificant, into a culinary work of art after a full day of teaching other people’s children. She’d salt and pepper each thick pork chop with beautiful marbling and dredge it through White Lily flour. And when the canola oil sizzled, she put a pop of flour into it, then she knew it was time to start frying.
I’d get close enough to the skillet so small pops of grease splattered on my eyeglasses. She’d shush me away with a single motion of her right hand so she could finish. I’d watch perturbed as what looked like blood oozed from each pork chop as it cooked and jumped when my mother turned each chop from side to side, side to side, side to side, to complete the golden brown confection. And once they were done, and placed on a plate ladled with paper towels to drain the grease, she’d plop a little butter into the skillet, and then some flour and let it brown until it smelled nutty. Then cup after cup of chicken broth to let the gravy thicken, the onions tossed in at the very end.
It took me a long time to understand why they were called smothered pork chops, when it was, after all, just pork chops in brown gravy, but once I noticed how the pork chops were smushed into the skillet with the gravy until they disappeared, the gravy bubbling up around them, almost drowning them, I understood.
She cooked many other things in that skillet: her mother’s fried chicken, fried chicken livers, bacon, fried eggs. It was more than a symbol of good food to be had and to be nourished. It became, over a time, a pillar of what we knew and held to be true about family and home, that it was more than just a notion or a measured action. It was a legacy, a legacy of cooking, togetherness, shared stories, shared love.
I left Madrid the summer of 2014 because I was lonely and wanted to get back to writing. Teaching English was not the career path change I romanticized it to be. It came with long hours, low pay, and loads of drain and frustration. I’d also wistfully left Madrid for Washington, D.C. in pursuit of a budding love affair with someone I’d connected with while living in Madrid. Months into living in DC, the promise of that relationship had died, and I was left with only embers of what was to be, no friends, and no employment.
So I prepared to leave again. Leaving is apparently what I’m monstrously good at.
I left D.C. with a desperate suddenness two years after I’d arrived there. It was a bold decision I kept shrouded in secrecy. My one-way ticket back home to Atlanta was purchased a week out and I told no one for days. Moving to Atlanta held hope for me, as it did for my mother when she had moved to Atlanta years before.
I was uncertain, incredibly doubtful, fleetingly unsure that making yet another leap was a good decision. I found the skillet while rummaging through the kitchen cabinets one day. I’d planned a day complete with a visit to our nearby, sorta famed, indoors, all-year, seven-days-a-week farmers market, but I knew the skillet would be my best find.
The outside of the skillet was craggy and well-worn and the inside of it glittered with grease, a sign of a well-seasoned skillet ready for use. I picked up a whole chicken at the farmers market meat counter. I bought twine to tie the legs together with. I slathered the chicken with a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and smoked paprika. I roasted the chicken in that skillet, the same skillet my grandmother fried chicken in, the same skillet my mother made smothered pork chops in.
Each time I cook from that skillet, it is like opening myself up to new questions, visions, and stories. To cook from it is to ask myself the steadied meditation of, “Who do I want to be? What do I trust myself to create?”
I cook from that cast-iron skillet and some rugged sense of spiritual connection blooms. I feel connected to my mother and my mother’s mother. I can feel and touch their pain, their joy, their ire and fury. For some it might sound magical, a little silly, or like a family fable. But when I'm staring at the skillet, when I am cooking from it and with it in my hands, I feel a part of something much greater than myself. I cook from the hearts of two women in my family, two women who I'd otherwise say I had nothing in common with. The need to feed, the need to nourish is enough. I am enough. I am emboldened to cook, to create, for the mere fact that they came before me and they cooked.
Did you inherit any cookware from your family? Tell us about it in the comments!
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