By Harriet P. Gross
Did you ever hear someone say “If these walls could talk … ”? I think there’s even a show with this name on popular HGTV.
Well, I stand in my kitchen, flooded with more memories than food, and say “If these pots and pans could talk … ” What stories they could tell.
My favorite is the griddle given to me, along with a basic one-quart pot and a standard-size skillet, back in 1955, farewell gifts from the staff members of the settlement house where I was doing my master’s level field work. They knew I was getting married and going off with my new husband, also a social worker, to spend the summer as unit directors at a large upstate New York Jewish camp, where the food was terrific.
What they didn’t know was that cooking terrified me. Kids, I got along with fine. Counselors, I could supervise. And I could prepare food at a campfire. But not in a kitchen.
My mother’s kitchen was her private domain where I could only dry dishes, not concoct anything that was served on them. Mother took me shopping for the bridal standards of the day: sheets and towels, tablecloths and napkins, china and silver. Lingerie and nightwear were shower gifts; small appliances were wedding presents. I don’t know where the other pots and pans and kitchen tools came from; what I remember is the pain I experienced in learning how to use them.
The first time I tried to make soup, I bought a bag of Manischewitz dried mix. But I didn’t realize it was just peas and beans, with no little packet of chicken powder to turn into broth when water was added. So I cooked a pot of vegetables in boiling water and served the result. Believe me, it was not soup. And not just the first time I baked potatoes, but many times after that, we ate them for dessert; I just couldn’t get potatoes to come out at the same time as any main dish.
In later days and years, I learned to love the crockpot, the microwave, the Cuisinart, even the pressure cooker, whatever got me into and out of the kitchen fast, with something edible as a result. But I still use that griddle, that pot, that skillet, and they would have some stories to tell …
The other day, my husband said to me, “I want to buy you a present, but you’ll have to pick it out, because I don’t know what kind you’d want. A new griddle.” No. I want my old griddle. It’s bent out of shape, literally, from more than half a century of contention with gas burners and electric cooktops; its surface is deeply pitted from the thousands of latkes — potato and matzah — that have been not-too-gently spatula-ed from it.
If it could talk, it would tell you how I bit back tears over failures, marveled at miracle successes, cursed the messy cleanup left by hot oil spills. And it would whisper, quietly, “Not much has changed, actually … ” I cannot part with it.
That pot was my first piece of Wagner Ware aluminum, bought before people started saying that cooking in aluminum was dangerous, and after I’d purchased a whole set of matching pieces: five more various-sized pots (a second one-quart, a smaller one, two larger ones and a really big one for soup) plus a much bigger skillet than the gift one.
I lived through the aluminum scare and so did everyone who ever ate in my house, and I use those pots still. All of them are almost as shiny as the day I bought them — all, that is, except for the first one. When I got a dishwasher, years after I got my own kitchen, I put that pot right in it, unaware of how aluminum and dishwashers get along: not very well.
The resulting dark relic no longer resembles its brothers and sisters, but I use it more often than any of the others, simply because I continue to put it in the dishwasher. None of the rest has ever had that discoloring experience. But since the damage was already done to No. 1 — might as well take advantage of it.
And about that gift skillet: Scarred, scratched and its handle keeps loosening. I keep tightening. I fried my first lamb chops in it. They were tough, fatty, chewy. Awful. The baked potatoes made a welcome dessert. I’m sure the pan remembers, just as well as I do. If only it could talk …