I’ve written on Canes and Clocks and Chairs.
On porcelain teacups, on a wooden ale-bowl. On New Year’s Eve and a game we played. So now what can I write about? Something that is universal, something that includes yesterday, today and tomorrow. What better perhaps than pots and pans, humble yet irreplaceable. Faithful, but at times treacherous, parts of our lives and memories.
What would we do without them? No matter what you call them, pots and pans are basically containers for the various activities we as humans engage in. Frying pan, saucepan, skillet, cast iron, copper, steel, earthenware. And even basketry.
Pot of gold, although one panned for gold, it’s still the pot one looked for at the end of the rainbow. Pooh’s honey pot. There are now other meanings to the word, but I’ll stick to the kitchen variety.
How old was I? Perhaps, ten. It was dinnertime and I was sent into the kitchen to get the big pan of potato stew. I had almost reached the table, when the handle gave way, the pan rotated around itself and the contents tumbled on the floor. I can still see and feel what happened. I wonder now what we ate for dinner that day. Was I chastised for being clumsy? Probably.
On a farm one needed a whole battery of pots and pans. Mostly of course for cooking, but they might have been for making jam or canning. One was just the right size for boiling potato dumplings. Large, capacious. Would have been perfect for cooking pasta, but ours was not an Italian family and even though I now follow my German mother’s recipe, my raw potato dumplings always disintegrate the moment I drop them in the bubbling water.
I was best perhaps at making apple pie. The crust, with lard, the apples, Macintoshes from our orchard. Would I have put the dough, once rolled out, into a Pyrex pie dish? Or would it have been a baking dish of some other material, where I would cut the excess dough, holding up the pan and thinking of how Snow White had neatly cut off the dough on the pie she was making for the Seven Dwarfs? The Pyrex dishes I still have can’t be the same as those of 80 years ago and the pies now would be baked in an electric oven and not the coal-burning black monster of my childhood. I can still see the embers glow red when the rings on top were removed to add more coal.
Then there were large pots that might better have been called vats where laundry was boiled. No washing machines in those days. The only “mechanical” aid my mother and I had was a ringer that would take the excess moisture from the sheets as we fed them into the rollers before hanging them outside behind the house. If it was winter by the time we got them in, they were stiff as boards and our fingers tingled. If it was summer, we might then go down to the garden to pick a bowl of strawberries, or a bunch of cosmos.
Some pans have memories of their own. They are part of a specific person, part of a specific moment. Or perhaps, several moments. When my sister-in-law in Perugia passed away, my son Claudio and his wife went to clear out her apartment, including of course all her pots and pans. They sat on the kitchen floor – these are still usable, no these are to be discarded, and the piles began to grow. Alba, my son’s wife, was much more practical and many a pot ended up in the discarded pile, only to migrate back to the keep pile when she wasn’t looking. That pan, my son said, can’t throw it away. When I was staying here with her and studying at the university, she would often make spinach, and just as often let it burn. That’s the spinach pan.
Burned food. Spinach or potatoes or a stew. Sometimes it’s hard to remember there is something on the fire and many a time I have remembered only when a haze of smoke began to float through the room. There are all kinds of remedies according to the Internet to clean up these unfortunate victims of forgetfulness – natural remedies such as baking soda and vinegar. In the end, though, it was often just plain elbow grease, or one might be courageous enough to throw a, by now, unrecognizable pot away. Sometimes I might try to masquerade the smell before my son came home by boiling red wine with cinnamon sticks and cloves. Claudio’s nose was never fooled as he entered and sniffed – OK what did you burn?
Pans that have to do with holidays. That lovely set of enormous pans, enameled white inside, a present from my son so I could make the traditional Easter coratella of lamb innards, or a pan of fried artichokes. With glass lids so they wouldn’t spatter. For Christmas of course, it’s baking tins for my mother’s Stollen. She used peanuts instead of walnuts or almonds since they were cheaper. My father’s doings, always trying to save money. Or Claudio and his cheese and walnut bread, where he simply throws the ingredients into the mixer and the golden brown loaves always turn out fine. Seems Teah the dog thought they were good too. Five small loaves had been put on a tin on the radiator to rise. When I went to put them in the oven, I blinked twice for there were only four. We looked on the floor, under the desk, perhaps they had slid off the tin. We finally came to the conclusion that yes, one had fallen off the tin and since there was no sign of it, Teah must have eaten it. I even called the vet to make sure that eating a whole loaf of unbaked leavened bread wouldn’t make her sick. It didn’t and I’m sure she loved it, but got no other supper.
Chestnuts, incised with a cross, were roasted over the embers in that long-handled pan with a perforated bottom that hangs to the right of the stone fireplace, waiting for November. Its equivalent, perhaps, might be that stained stainless steel pot, missing a handle that is perfect for making popcorn. It might not be very Italian, but I grew up with corn popped in a wire mesh basket, and then after becoming Italian found that a tightly covered heavy pot works just as well, although the magic of seeing the kernels pop is missing. The best popcorn pot also turned out to be the best pot for any number of things. Blackened, stained, or shiny silver, it was just the right size for boiling spaghetti for dinner, or an egg. Yet, as my Tuscan friend Giulio said, an egg is just as good boiled in a chipped enamel pot as in gleaming stainless steel. An egg perhaps, but some things like beans are still best slowly simmered in a clay pot next to the embers.
Perhaps no other pot has so many memories. When Lamberto was born and I was still in the hospital, it was Mario who had to make the meals for himself and his five-year old son Claudio. This was the pot he put on for soup, with water and a bouillon cube. When the water started to boil, he added what he thought was small soup pasta. Claudio looked uncertainly at his dish when it was ladled out and asked his dad what those black dots were. It wasn’t pasta after all but canary seed, a mistake explained by his father’s poor vision.
A pot. A potter. Pots were always meant to hold, to contain something that by itself had no shape. When they were in earthenware, it was the potter who gave shape to what they held. Pots of all sorts and sizes, great and small. As Omar Khayyam wrote “They stood along the floor and by the wall;
And some loquacious vessels were; and some
listen’d perhaps, but never talk’d at all.”
That pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Rainbows at the villa there often were. But they never led me to a pot of gold. Or perhaps that pot of gold consists of my memories. For we too are containers of memories, of all shapes and sizes.
Perhaps now that the house is empty, my favorite pots and pans are listening to the nibbling of the mice as they hunt for a crumb. Perhaps they are thinking of the time someone had a party and the largest of the pots was filled with water for the pasta, or someone was stirring polenta, round and round in circles, with a wooden spoon, while on the other burner the wild boar stew, with all its herbs, had simmered for hours in its own casserole.
Cast iron, grill, pie dish, muffins, skillet, Pyrex, frying pan, pressure cooker, even a wok that had made it all the way here from New York, packed tight in a suitcase that just barely contained it. Pots and pans with memories of their own, ever ready for new ones.