22 October 2017

The Skillet Speaks of Humility and Care

You will know in your heart when it has been a good half year since the cornbread was last made. Mild shame on approaching the kitchen, reaching out a hand to grasp the smooth weight of cast iron that last felt human touch so long ago the occasion is beyond recall. The skillet has a voice. It calls to you. It is a pity that you have not answered.

Until now, that is. A bag of corn meal rested on the refrigerator shelf for at least two months. A latent desire to avoid waste was the catalyst for this latest venture into culinary redemption. A supposed absence of buttermilk on the store shelves was a flimsy excuse, a cover for impatience and laziness. You know deep down the attempts to find said buttermilk were halfhearted at best.

The buttermilk was spotted up high in a store you visited for the first time since settling in to your new home. Their reputation for higher prices held you at bay, it is true. Still that store could no longer avoided when it became clear it would almost certainly have buttermilk and other treats not easily procured at other establishments. The prophecy came true. Forty-five minutes and a much lighter wallet later, you were putting the grocery bags in the back of the car.

The accountant may not like it. The belly shouted it down. Hungers have their own imperatives. Treasures were garnered. Pitted olives, plump and spicy. Chubby jalapeño peppers confident in their glossy deep green jackets. The king of cheeses in the form of a craggy block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the like of which had not shown its tawny face in your house for what seemed a year. The belly will not be disappointed.

The buttermilk is the key player here. The liquid catalyst to a pan full of golden-brown goodness. Memories of melting butter swirled with sorghum coating the grainy cornbread, or a chunk dropped into the ‘pot likker’ at the bottom of a bowl of collard greens, to be spooned up and savored like the taste of heaven itself. You feel these memories. Your stomach rejoices. What feels like endorphins trickling through the brain as you recall the joys of the oven and stove. It wouldn’t be right without the buttermilk.

So it is you gather the wares and the ingredients. They populate the kitchen counter like so many eager helpers waiting to please. Buttermilk. Two eggs. Salt. Baking powder and baking soda. The heavy glass bowl that has followed you for tens of years and thousands of miles, its surface hazed from countless episodes of mixing and scraping. Old friends, sights for sore eyes.

Heat will be needed, of course. You turn on the oven. Ritual demands that a dollop of lard be melted in the skillet as the oven preheats. Into the fridge, out with the small plastic tub. Scoop of fat in hand, you turn to the skillet preparing to drop it in. The skillet perches on the stovetop. A glossy black mirror of reproach and melancholy reflecting your unease at having virtually abandoned it over the summer.

Lard in the pan. Pan in the oven. Its handle feels nearly alive in your hand. Smooth, ebony, sturdy. This is a pan that has survived for over fifty years and is likely to survive another fifty years. It knows itself. It knows you. The silence remains because it understands you are making a good faith effort to patch things up. It knows you have been busy with survival outside the home.

As the lard melts, the dry ingredients are blended gently in the glass bowl. A smaller bowl holds the buttermilk and the eggs. These partners in joy are whisked together. The resulting liquid has an appeal that cannot be explained. The urge to lap it up is strong. Almost as if it were an odd health drink, a tonic to buck up a distressed stomach while revitalizing a tired liver. But you won’t drink it. You know it is destined for the cornbread. This is a nobler fate for eggs and buttermilk.

Ticktockticktock. The oven creaks and softly groans. A quick peek confirms the shallow pool of melted lard is ready. The wet and the dry are brought together in a union of soon-to-be tasty alchemy. You slip on a mitt and grab the searing hot handle of the skillet. Quickly, quickly, the batter is poured into the skillet. That music of sizzle and pop fills the kitchen. Toasted corn aroma caresses the nose as you smooth the pupal cornbread into the pan. A swift bow to the oven god and the skillet is back on the rack to complete its journey to nirvana.

Ticktockticktock. Impatience mounts. The kitchen air smells of corn and crust. Your belly growls softly. It is a tiger cub anxious to be fed. A faint thrill of anticipation arises as the skillet is lifted carefully from the rack and placed on the stovetop. It is at this point you will know if the cornbread likes you, wants to give itself up to your plate.

It is here that you shake the pan. If the bread slides easily back and forth in the pan, grace has been granted. If it does not slide...well, then it may be that penance is required. A small prayer. A shake. And another.

The bread does not move.

Another shake. Perhaps a slight change in position is registered. But the cornbread stubbornly refuses to move. Your heart sinks a little. Still more shaking and the bread tenaciously clings to the pan. Well, you are for it now. Nothing to do but put the mesh rack over the skillet in preparation for flipping it upside. Good luck and godspeed with any luck it will pop right out.

Tonight there is no such luck. The disk of cornbread falls to the mesh with a tearing sound. Slight sinking stomach to see the large bright yellow patch surrounded by a ring of golden-brown deliciousness. It stuck, no doubt. The good news is that it is only a thin layer of crust that pulled away from the bread. Another quick flip brings the bread upright with a beautifully done top.

The stuck stuff is a different story. You know you have to get it out of the skillet as soon as possible. Over to the sink to douse the screeching hot pan with water. Follow it up with a bamboo spatula squeegeed over the bottom.

Joke’s on you, son. The stuck on crust comes away like a silk robe sliding off a smooth shoulder. A few swipes and nothing remains but for the sodden clump of grainy bread lying in the sink.

You hold the skillet up close. The residual heat warms your face, which is reflected faintly in the glossier patches of skillet. Listen closely and you hear a voice speaking softly in questions and remonstrances. A gentle sadness suffuses your stomach and heart. The skillet has you in the culinary hot seat, and you know it.

It knows you know better. It knows you have been busy with the big picture of recovery and survival. It does not hold these things against you. What it does want you to remember is that you need to take care of the things that will take care of you. And if a seasoned cast iron skillet filled with the spirit of love cannot make you pay attention, the kitchen god will not tolerate your whining if that skillet does not act in accord with your wishes.

You know you are lucky. To have that skillet. To be able to create goodness with it, and the desire to do so. These are quiet blessings.

The skillet goes back on the stove to cool down. The cornbread, slightly worse for the wear, steams gently on its perch of wire mesh. You cut a slice, plate it. Two pats of good butter accompanied by a generous flourish of sorghum drizzled over effectively gild the lily. The first bite confirms what you suspected: excellent cornbread, but you are damn lucky to have it.

Damn lucky. The next batch will be made soon, and the divinity within the skillet shall be properly acknowledged. You swallow another bite washed down with a humble prayer: You will not forget to take care of the things that will take care of you.


  1. Boy , I can taste that cornbread right now.

  2. The days I've spent seasoning my cast iron - the house hot and thick with the smell of igneous oil; they are always time well spent despite the inevitable burn or two. (my klutziness, that) Such love in this piece. Wisdom and cornbread - a dish best served warm.

    1. It is slow time, well spent indeed! I believe I have learned a lot from my cast iron skillet. It constantly reminds me to slow down and be in the moment. Thank you.


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...