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The Kettle That’s Cooked a Thousand Stews

My children and I read through “Red Sails to Capri” by Ann Weil this past term. We enjoyed it so much. My favorite character in the book is Signora Pagano, who sings to her eggs as she boils them to know when they are done. I was tickled by her love and the way she expresses it. As well as the seriousness she has for her business: cooking for and taking care of her family and the guests in their inn.

At one point in the book, Signora Pagano stops cooking for some guests that are lodging with them, and one of those guests tries to keep the kitchen going and cooks for himself and the others in her absence. He is not a very good cook, or a knowledgeable one, and ends up bringing out a charred kettle to show her, “smoking like a live coal.”

Of course, Signora Pagano is deliriously mad- she calls him a “Thief! Robber!” Being like any good-natured guest that has stepped too far, he offers to buy her a new kettle. He thinks this will solve the problem and is under the presumption that she will be blessed by the replacement. Here is her reply:

“Listen Monsieur Jacques, a new kettle has to learn how to cook, just as a person has to learn how to cook. A new kettle is green, stupid, foolish, unreliable. Things stick to it. It has an odd taste. It cooks too fast or too slowly. It is this way and that way— one can never be sure. It takes a year, sometimes two, to break in a kettle. Let me tell you this, Monsieur Jacques; the second stew cooked in a kettle is better than the first one. The tenth stew is better than the fifth. The two-hundredth stew is better than the hundredth. And when a kettle has cooked a thousand stews— ah! Then it is just getting started. Why? Because a kettle has to learn how to cook. Remember that.”

I love this quote because it captures the joy of cooking with a skillet or pot that is well-seasoned and cared for. This is the joy of cast-iron. It just keeps getting better with time. You don’t have to teach it to cook, it already knows.

All of us are under the assumption, like Monseiur Jacques, that a new kettle or pot would be better. After she told him that a new kettle has to learn how to cook and it was out of the question, he replied that the pot he ruined didn’t have a working handle.. she needed a new one. But she replied, “One does not cook the stew on the handle.”

You can’t really teach new pots how to cook in this day and age because they don’t mature. If anything, cooking with them makes them scratched, worn, and uneven in cooking. I should show you a picture of my most-used “nice pots” and a picture of my cast-iron skillet. The condition of each is opposite of what it should be. My nice newer pot is scratched and worn, while my cast-iron looks great!

I wonder if you cook with cast-iron or if you have ever tried it. If you are like me, something different or new (which is actually very old) is a bit intimidating at first. But I agree with Signora Pagano- I love cooking with something that knows how to cook. That brings out the best flavors, is easy to clean, and a joy to maintain.

If you are looking for something to maintain your cast-iron pots and pans, look no further. We believe that the old way is most often the better way and in our combined years of cooking have realized what a joy simple tallow can be when used to maintain and season cast-iron. I, myself, used to use whatever I had in the kitchen to season my skillet, but when I returned home to the US after years of living away from my parents- I was amazed when I saw the condition of my father’s cast-iron. I was flabbergasted, mine had never looked that good! I switched from using “whatever” to using his Oarsman Marine Kitchen Tallow and I am hooked!

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