Monday, July 20, 2009

Beloved cucina

I seem to be on this kick where I'm baking a lot of bread. Well, I've always baked a lot of bread in my bread machine, which I would sleep with under my pillow if it weren't certain to give me a kink in the neck, but I mean baking bread with my own sweet hands and my oven. To this end, I'm thinking about asking my mother to buy me a baking stone from Williams-Sonoma (or maybe one from King Arthur Flour) as a Christmas gift: it's one of those things that's juuuust expensive enough that I would never buy it for myself, but I have to admit that it is the intensely practical kind of gift I love, and I'm sure I'd get a lot of use out of it.

I was reading the reviews, wondering if the Williams-Sonoma model was the stone for me and was pleased to see that it got a glowing 4.4 out of five stars from twenty-six reviewers. That seemed pretty solid to me, but I was curious to read why the people who'd given the stone low marks had done so. That's me, a top-flight researcher.

Here's what I found out: The several reviewers who panned the stone (haha...I couldn't help it) said that they didn't like it because it got stained and dirty-looking. And I was all like, stained and dirty? But that's the whole point, isn't it?

In a cook's kitchen, how do you know which casserole dishes are the most favored? Which the favorite saucepan? Which cookbook the most treasured, and even which hotpad is the most reliable? Which knife is the one that comes to hand first, which wooden spoon stirs the soup best?

I believe that the best loved dishes and spoons and casseroles and books in a cook's kitchen will be all the Velveteen Rabbit-style pieces. You remember that childhood story by Margery Williams, don't you? The one where the little boy loves his squashy plush rabbit so much, it finally becomes real? The whole crux of the story is that a toy doesn't become real until one of its button eyes is gone and its fur is all rubbed off in places; I think it's the very same with the kitchen ware of someone who really loves to cook.

I have a stoneware casserole from Pampered Chef that I bought when the girls were just babies. It's taken a lot of years to season that thing, and it has seen everything from chicken pot pie to birthday cake to tacos stacked precariously upright. It's so well seasoned, it is dark brown in places, and not because I don't wash it. Shut up. I'm not that bad at keeping house.

Likewise, I love my cast iron skillet. Now I admit, there's not a whole lot you can do even in my kitchen to damage a cast iron skillet. But there's just nothing like it for making fried chicken, or hash browns. (Do not speak to me of skillet-baked cornbread -- we are Yankees and we do not eat that here.) Until a couple of months ago, I had a favorite casserole dish, one of a set of three nesting Corning casseroles that my mother gave me from her kitchen when I got my first apartment. When Meelyn broke it, I cried. I was ATTACHED to that casserole. What else am I going to make broccoli and rice casserole in during Lent? And scalloped potatoes? There are just so many foods that are so right in a round, 2-quart casserole dish.

My favorite pot holder is actually an oven mitt and it has a couple of burned marks on it (don't ask) and numerous stains, although I promise you it is clean. My friend Melanie got it for me as part of a housewarming gift about fifteen years ago and it is such a good fit on my hand, I can't bear to get rid of it, even though it is getting a little thin in places. People who wear it to take cookies out of the oven are liable to scream shrilly and scatter cookies across the kitchen floor, but I just can't stand to throw it away. We've been through so much together, including grape jelly. If you've ever made grape jelly (instead of being a sensible person and going to the market to buy a very nice jar of jelly that didn't cause a sticky disaster in your kitchen) you know just what I mean.

You can tell my favorite cookbooks just by looking at the shelf they sit on. Usually, the paper dust-covers are gone and their spines are exposed, frayed and stained. My two Julia cookbooks are among the worst, but they belonged to my grandmother before they belonged to me. I have terribly fond memories of last summer's forays into the ways of Le Cordon Bleu and that cookbook's baptism with chicken stock when the slow-cooker overflowed. I love church cookbooks and the two I use the most often are a mess - pages kind of stuck together in places, notes scribbled in the margins ("add hlf of sm dcd onion" and "1 tblspn sugar not enough!") and dog-eared pages. My favorite knife's handle's finish is more worn than the finish on the handles of the knives I use less often.

So when I read about these cooks who don't want a BAKING STONE, for heaven's sake, to get stained and dirty, I just don't get it. It's when stuff shows wear, like the chipping-off ersatz Pennsylvania Dutch motif that was painted on my late, great Corning casserole, that you know something is loved and used. It means something when you have a wooden spoon that is worn smooth by the palm of your hand. When you look at your spotted baking stone, it reminds you of all the loaves of good bread and all the fun pizzas you made for your family.

If you have a collection of Hummel figurines or an assortment of Murano glass paperweights or your great-grandmother's Victorian chandeliers, by all means keep those things shiny-clean - that's how you know non-kitchen items are cherished. But kitchen stuff? Let it show its wear. Don't be such a nervous nelly about everything's being scrubbed within an inch of its life. Let your kitchen be seasoned with love.

Unless we're talking about mushrooms, in which case I am right there with you. little bristly brush in hand.

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