07 January 2019

Gossamer Threads of Cast Iron

A book, a skillet, and a hungry belly were the elements of a personal chemistry uniting in an emotional solution inside my head, the wondrous precipitate of which was to realize the sheer quantity of history held in my possession. The cornbread was fresh out of the oven. Black cast iron skillet gripped in one mitt-clad hand, wire rack held in the other, I flipped the bread over and on to the rack. Perfect. Balance had been achieved and honored. The unctuous sheen of glossy black metal unmarred by stuck bits of cornmeal testified to things right and proper, transfixing me on the spot in the kitchen. Something deep, something ancestral spoke.

Dinnertime had come around as it usually did. It beckoned to me to put down the book* I was reading and head into the kitchen. Hunger took precedence over a fascinating look at food and the people who raise and harvest it in modern-day Appalachia. The "mountain south" was not exactly on my mind as I puttered about, assembling good eats via practice, sense memory, and prized artifacts of the kitchen. Yet its presence hovered about. It wore like a light mantle spread across my shoulders, full of comfort and guidance. The touch was in charge of my hands, though that was in no guise very clear. My back brain was working on it all the while.

I did not grow up in the mountains of Appalachia. But my mama's mama (G-maw) and her people did. G-maw was born in West Virginia, close to western Maryland. She was of the mountains, of a holler. Her extended family, as well as my maternal grandfather, had deep roots clustered in West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. G-maw was a teenager when the Great Depression hit. That in combination with mountain life could not have been easy. It certainly was educational in that it taught her survival skills and granted a kind of wisdom that serves one well in life when making the best of what you have in hand. G-maw carried that experience to her new home in southeastern Virginia where she took up with my grandfather and began to raise a family.

Some of this was on my mind as I read that book. The language used and the descriptions of places, people, and food occasionally jolted me with the shock of the familiar. I recalled mountain topography from the occasional visits in my youth to relatives in West Virginia. The hollers, the switchback roads, the great green womb of trees hunkering by the roadside. Summer evening in a place not awash in light pollution or noise. The notion of snacking on saltines adorned with thick slices of bologna. That last one jumped from the book's pages to gob smack me, as I recognized it right away. As a youth, I ate more than my share. As an adult, the habit faded into memory. What the book did was to bring it back in full force. G-maw used to eat that stuff, and so did my family. I learned it as a tradition even though it was not taught as such.

Growing up in southeastern Virginia near the ocean is literally hundreds of miles from the mountains. Figuratively speaking, the soils of each were (and still are) two homesteads looking at one another over a river of time. With the exception of college (five years in the Blue Ridge Mountains) and a stint in the Midwest (five years near Kansas City, Missouri) all of my life has been spent in easy driving distance of the coast. My rhythms of life, speech, and eating habits all suffused with the coastal South, even when I tried for many years to downplay or hide my roots. I did not know as a young adult that to practice that sort of self-deception plants the seeds of anxiety and doubt. Seeds that will bloom later. Yes, they will. They catch up to you.

That time was a constant search. A longing I could not explain or fulfill no matter how many questions I asked. On the one hand I was pursuing the American dream mandate of job-marriage-2.5 kids-and a minivan. On the other I was losing sight of where I came from, and by extension, where I wanted to be. Eventually I was at loggerheads with myself. I lacked the insight to find the peace of mind or sense of ease in my own skin that I so desperately wanted. Anxiety, emotional numbness, and a serious digestion related health problem forced me into a corner. My search for escape routes led me smack into the middle of food, eating, and truly learning how to cook. And not just cook for survival, but to cook for some peace of mind.

G-maw passed away while I was a college student. Some years later I received the gift of some cast iron skillets that had belonged to her. I knew little about cooking well then so I had no idea of the magnitude of this gift. Those skillets followed me to my first apartment out of college, my first new house, an apartment and a house as a divorced bachelor, through changes in relationships and geography, to ultimately reside in the kitchen of my apartment not far from the Chesapeake Bay. In all those years, I learned a few things. including respect for that cast iron. The skillets were faithful and true, devoted as dogs tend to be towards those who love them. They helped keep me alive.

They spoke to me, those skillets. For years I did not understand what they were telling me because I balked at giving credence to spirits. To my mind that would have been akin to surrendering to the demons of depression, self-loathing, and melancholy that periodically seized hold of my imagination. The difference lay in the tone and quality of the voices competing for attention. What the skillets were imparting was delivered at a steady, quiet pace. Respectful and attentive, never overbearing or toxic. It was the voice of history, of my family guiding me along a path I was not fully aware of taking.

This is where cornbread stepped back in that evening just last week. I was making it in the very skillet my grandmother had used to make fried fish and hushpuppies for me and her, when I was a kid, washed down with iced tea spiked with lemon. My recent reading in that book about mountain food and people pushed to the fore memories of my time with G-maw. A lush scent of crackling crust and toasted corn filled my kitchen to trigger a thunderclap realization of my ancestry. 

I am more a child of the lowland and the sea than I am of the timberline and the holler, this is true. But the mountains are in my blood, evidenced by DNA and ingrained habits as a human being. I make cornbread in that skillet because that is what my grandmother made in it. The action made sense to me like water makes sense to a fish: you can be surrounded by something that gives you life and be oblivious to it and its inherent sacredness. You know it by its absence. To come back to it is to know comfort and connection. In the instant I flipped that cornbread out of the skillet I dove back into that matrix. I felt my grandmother's hands on mine, saw her smile from somewhere up in mountains much closer than I imagined. I was home, knowing that my heart beats in two places connected by gossamer threads of humble cast iron, well-seasoned by history and love.

*Victuals, by Ronni Lundy

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