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Why Do I Have a Cast Iron Skillet?

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Related: Why I am no longer a “foodie.” Why I feel guilty or maybe jealous when I see Narragansett Creamery yogurt. Why I will sit down and tell you for an hour why I think brunch is bad for us as a culture. Why I think caring about food is a way of saying you’re just looking for ways to waste your time until you die.

I fell for food my senior year of college. Maybe I was just caught in the middle of the right zeitgeist, the right people on the Internet were saying all the right wonderful things about food. All of a sudden this thing I had been doing my whole life, eating, was a sacred act laden with unknown meaning. And talking about food is so sexy. French macarons, Vietnamese banh mi, wild-rabbit pappardelle. It fills your mouth with foreign syllables, rich with cultural heritage.

But of course there was also the personal component, which was a deep and enormous sense of meaninglessness. When you’re cast adrift in the world and you don’t know who you are or what your purpose is and you’re 22 years old, you cast around wildly for something you do love, to hold fast to.

[Look at that word, “cast.” Look at all the different things it means. A cast is a thing you wear around your arm when it is broken. A cast is something you can do with a glance, or with an aspersion, or in an unflattering light. You can use it to mean throwing something into the sea, or for when you’re desperately looking for options, or for when you are talking about iron.]

When I was 22 and a senior here is what I knew: I loved food and I loved my boyfriend Benjamin.

I was lucky on both counts. Benjamin was a virile 21-year-old, who grew up on a farm, spoke bad French, made love with passion, and had ridiculous standards for eggs (what kind of eggs to get, how to cook them, how to eat them (with ketchup)). I had not any notion of farm-to-table or whole foods or any of that hippie stuff that I would later come to learn so intimately, but I did have a simple love for food, untainted by insecurity. I discovered later that it is the rarest of qualities among women, like a diamond in the rough — to eat without guilt, to nourish without shame.

At the time all I knew is that I would eat anything. I had no money of my own to speak of, of course, but I happily spent my parents’ money on both street food and fine dining alike, justifying it all as fortifying the growing tendrils of my soul. In other words, I was a spoiled brat.

I did many dumb things during this time. I know I had to, but the shame of it has not left me.  The first thing I did was that I decided I wanted to be a food writer: so did, of course, every other flighty young writer graduating into the worst economy in decades. I sketched out an independent study on food writing for my last semester (the semester Benjamin was abroad and I was heartbroken): I would write about the wonderful dinners we’d had, the way emotion and food mixed so quickly and easily onto the plate. I would interview people about their food experiences, and I would write about what foods I cared about.

I ended up failing the independent study, obviously. Too much sitting in the stacks daydreaming, not enough writing. But I did learn a few of things. I think my intuitive hunches were all true — food is intensely personal for most people. Emotional, often. Probe the story of a favorite food and you’ll trace its root to love. Tater tots drizzled with truffle oil is just bullshit, I can’t help you if you don’t know that by now. But Kraft macaroni and cheese always makes me think of one afternoon with my sister where we laughed so hard she snorted pasta.

I visited Benjamin in France and we drank Cotes-du-Rhône and ate saucisson en brioche, and it was so good I had to close my eyes and savor the flavor, shutting out conversation, the maître-d, Lyon, the entire country. On my way back from the trip, I knew that there was no way my fragile heart could move away from Benjamin for the year it would take for him to finish his degree. I suddenly saw a future that seemed achievable: I could stay in Providence and experiment with food. Explore it. Get a job waiting tables. Think about it. I had no goal beyond that, really — I just wanted some space to think, and love, as I chose.

I had too much stuff and I moved even more up to Providence. I needed my space to be perfect, a haven. In many respects, it was: I had lace curtains, a round table, teacups, even a small television. I spent most of that year thinking about the service industry, though, when instead I meant to think about food. In a burst of late-stage naïve idealism, I applied for several waitressing positions, because if I loved food I needed to learn more about the industry.

The point is, I was miserable. Benjamin and I broke up. Life lost almost all of its purpose. I stopped going to campus, which meant my social circle dwindled to a few roommates and some waitress friends. The New England winter is long and dark, and I worked in a haze of loathing, for my customers, for the food I saw every day, for myself. I developed a coffee habit and stole coffee from the restaurant I worked at to supply it. I did crossword puzzles. I killed time.

And because I had nothing else to do, and I had to eat something, I cooked. I made pumpkin ravioli with wonton wrappers. I baked bread with garlic and sundried tomatoes. I made blondie brownies and carrot cake cupcakes with pink icing. I made walnut cookies, if I remember correctly, and brought them into the restaurant. I browned butter and flavored it with sage. I burned myself making my own pita bread. Enchiladas, at some point. I made pasta carbonara, with farfalle, based on an Epicurious recipe, every few weeks. It was insanely delicious. I was a good cook.

Around the corner was a bougie cluster of food stores and boutiques — Wayland Square, the rich square in the rich part of town. I bought chicken truffle pate and baguettes and my roommate and I drank wine or scotch at Red Stripe. It was a strange life, straddling poverty and great wealth, which is perhaps what  drew people to Paris in the 1930s. We had no money for car insurance, but we could eat the best bread for miles around. I spent more than half my budget on food. We would also sometimes walk to the Portuguese bakery, ten blocks away, in the poorer part of town, and buy croissants, empanadas, Portuguese muffins. Looking back, I realize we were lucky, to live so close to our physical needs, discarding all else. But there was always an enormous sense of loss, a great sense of something missing. It was all meaningless. It was just food.

I had started volunteering at the student farmers’ market at Brown in the fall. Providence is short of many things, but not food culture, and with that, a vibrant community of local food producers. Chief among them was a charismatic, ubiquitous young woman named Louella Hill (class of 2005), who had started her own cheese-making shop, Narragansett Creamery, immediately upon graduation. She networked like a motherfucker, knew everyone, bartered her cheese for other products, and must have eaten like a queen every day. She had grown up in farming, was an earthy white hippie type, and effortlessly spoke the language of locally sourced food and natural. I ate so much of her ricotta cheese when I lived in Providence, SO MUCH OF IT, with lemon and honey. It was amazing. She is really good at what she does. And she was always nice to me.

I hated her.

Yesterday I saw Narragansett Creamery yogurt in the dairy section of Westside market at 14th and 7th. The woman is making it happen. The last time I saw her, at the Providence winter indoor farmers market at the Pawtucket artists’ colony, she was also radiant and pregnant. I think about how in the last five years she’s created a legitimately awesome business empire and a child, or maybe children, and then I want to stop thinking.

The point is, I was trying to be someone I was not.

***

I bought a cast-iron skillet at HomeGoods, on a whim, because I felt like I needed one. Everyone in the food world is always jizzing all over cast iron skillets. Benjamin’s family had a whole array of them that they’d had since his parents were married. It was gross but it was also so captivating, this idea that life could be so solid, that a marriage could be encapsulated in a set of cookware. His parents both used them on a regular basis, and they were smooth with years of use, seasoned to perfection.

I would often, in my misery times in Providence, go driving to Seekonk because it reminded me of growing up in Florida — strip malls, fast-food joints, and chain restaurants. After struggling so hard to live properly in Providence — eating cage-free eggs, recycling, composting, canning my own preserves, growing tomatoes and basil, guilting myself over buying non-organic onions, always buying farm co-op milk — it was a relief to breeze into Target, where I was briefly free of the specter of local-food judgment as I browsed DVDs or shopped for sundresses.

HomeGoods is another beast entirely. HomeGoods, I contend, is the end of culture. It’s full of crap no one needs. And yet sometimes you can be poking around the kitchenwares and find the coolest random Le Creuset shit, half off. No one needs this, of course, but it was a kind of exciting world to play with, when you had nothing else in your life except cooking,.

The skillet is an Emeril brand skillet, which does embarrass me, because, Emeril? Come on. But it claimed to be pre-seasoned (lie), and was only 12 dollars (don’t tell me how much cheaper I could have gotten it for, please). I waffled over it for a while, but I bought it.

It has been a pain in my ass ever since.

So, yes: It is versatile. You’re less likely to be anemic when you cook on cast-iron, because you actually eat the iron. It’s good for hitting intruders with. But it gets really hot, so you can’t like, hold it all the time. And it’s so not nonstick. It is the opposite of nonstick. It is STICK. There were instructions on the Emeril paper label for seasoning it. They didn’t work. After a few initial apparently successful attempts, the skillet developed some kind of gel-like coating on the bottom, part vegetable oil, part congealed animal fat, part rust. But the coating meant it wasn’t STICK, so I cooked on it for a while, but then it was disgusting, so it got put into a cupboard or the oven and forgotten about.

By the way, my time in Providence imploded like a bad soufflé — I broke up and then got back together with my boyfriend, quit all of my part-time service jobs in disgust with myself, loaded up my car, and moved the fuck home. I abandoned a lot in Providence — my old prom dress, my graduation dress,  the round table, the curtains, the teacups. I gave away the bed and the TV. But for some reason the cast-iron skillet came with me on the week-long meander back to Florida. When I unpacked my car, I put it in the oven and then ignored the fuck out of it.

My parents had no clue what to do with it either, by the way. They didn’t grow up on cast-iron, they grew up in India, where servants did the cooking for them. When my mother started cooking on her own she had the good sense not to romanticize it as some kind of sacred ritual. She saw it as a feminine cross to bear, and made it as simple as possible. I didn’t know how to clean it and didn’t know how to like, deal with it, deal with the coating, deal with the congealed abandoned dreams, deal with whatever it meant, deal with my life.

My sister was home that summer too, dealing with an eating disorder my parents refused to talk about. I was in a weird position of defending food, all of a sudden, defending food and my ability to eat an entire loaf of bread with butter and paté without guilt, while my parents experimented with diets and my sister starved herself. She also didn’t know how to clean the skillet. And she was on my case about cleaning the skillet because she cooked her own meals in the kitchen and cared about how clean it was, while I slept most of the day and watched movies at night.

I don’t remember what happened next. I do remember that I baked my sister a cake for her birthday, because I had nothing else to do. It was from a chocolate cookbook, and it was the best cake I think I’ve ever made in my life. I baked it in a heart shaped silicone pan that I’d bought on a Valentine’s Day sale whim at Target — along with heart-shaped measuring spoons and measuring cups and a spatula. I don’t know where any of this stuff is now. It got lost somewhere between here and home and Providence. I don’t know why I still have the skillet but don’t have anything else.

The cake was ridiculously decadent, and I did the douchey thing where not only did I bake it from scratch, but I took it out of the pan, placed it elegantly on a plate, dusted it with confectioners’ sugar, and adorned it with chocolate leaves that I’d painstakingly made by painting leaves from our garden with melted chocolate. My sister didn’t eat for three days so she could eat the cake, which I suddenly realized the day of her birthday, when we went to the beach and my size-2 sister was shy about showing her body in a bikini. Denial is a comfortable, shallow pool, where you can float with your eyes closed.

Somebody in my family, probably my mother, cleaned the skillet. And then I got back together with Benjamin, and I decided I’d move in with him in his tiny room in Boston on a whim and at some point in the moving back-and-forth, I brought up the skillet. I still rarely used it, but Benjamin started cooking with it. He was patient with it in a way I never was, and understood what it needed in a way I felt unable to. I was even more lost in that tiny room in Somerville, so lost I didn’t even feel lost, I thought I was happy. And maybe I was, because I made honey-wheat bread in a dutch oven and I ate cinnamon doughnuts from the bakery in Ball Square every day. I made beans and rice and tacos for our four roommates, and I drank St. Germain with relish. I went to bars and ordered cocktails with muddled blackberries and mint in them. I felt real. I felt that I was finally sitting in a bar in a city ordering expensive cocktails and listening to obscure music like I’d always wanted to.

Then I had a near-complete physical breakdown, instigated in part by a) drinking way too much coffee with tons of sugar b) the aforementioned doughnuts c) working at an ice cream parlor, in which I hated myself, hated the work, and stole pints of ice cream to justify my existence. I had no money, I wasn’t doing anything I cared about, and my system shut down. All of a sudden there were a list of things I weren’t allowed to eat anymore. I moved home (again!), to be looked at by doctors who didn’t know what to do with me.

Benjamin kept the skillet when he moved to his new apartment in the North End, and when I was standing on my own shaky legs again, I went up to see him for a few months and we lived in an equally tiny room where he’d hung up a picture of us. We were falling apart, anyone could see that but us. The skillet, I found, lived on his stove, where he made eggs on it every morning. Someone he’d coaxed it into usability. The bottom was black and smooth like it was intended to be, and his eggs never stuck. I used it, occasionally, with rarely the same success.

Several months later, we broke up for good. I was at the Haymarket buying vegetables with my sister because all I was allowed to eat anymore, it seemed, was vegetables. Benjamin came by unannounced and dumped two bags of my assorted paraphernalia from his place with us, for us to lug back to my new apartment in Cambridge. The skillet was in there, leaden, heavy, cold. I put it in a cupboard and forgot about it. The only time I ever took it out was to put it in my car, because then I was moving to New York. In Bushwick, it stayed in another cupboard and I never cooked because the kitchen was dirty and small. Then it came to Crown Heights with me, to a sunny sixth-floor apartment, in my red suitcase (the story of the red suitcase is another good story, I’ll tell it to you sometime). It was filthy with god-knows-what, maybe egg, maybe rust. One day weeks later I was cleaning and I decided I should clean the damn skillet.

I’d been making my bacon and eggs every morning in a cute little nonstick pan, but after I cleaned the skillet I heated up some bacon in it, and then I fried eggs in the leftover grease. The eggs stuck, of course. I scraped at it with a wooden spoon and tried again the next day. And the next. And the next. The eggs keep sticking, but I have some techniques for handling the sticking now, which is mainly to scrape at everything with a fork and damn plating. I haven’t cleaned it with soap in months because then it’s impossible to use, everything just sticks everywhere. It lives on my stove, black and shiny with grease. My entire morning routine is built around how long it takes me to fry bacon and eggs in the skillet.

I could use a nonstick pan. I don’t know why I don’t. I have given away, sold, and lost many things in my life, but not this. I don’t know why this skillet has stayed when so much else has fallen away. Somehow this thing crept into my life and won’t leave, a complicated object that absorbs heat, fat, flavor, and apparently stories — sensitive to soap, but not abrasion, quite the opposite of me. You’d think to cast iron would mean to throw it away, but it seems to always come back.

Fate plays some part here. It just stayed, and enough people in my life conspired to help me keep it, when I didn’t know what to do with it myself. But if I had to cast about for a deeper meaning, it is that it reminds me of who I once was. The person you are today is built on the ashes of who you were yesterday, and you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.

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Sonia Saraiya is a writer based in Brooklyn. She used to work at an ice cream parlor and has never eaten ice cream since. Find her at @soniasaraiya or at http://soniasaraiya.tumblr.com. More from this author →