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Green Acre #232: The Allure of Old Kitchenware

Mom’s cast-iron skillets are still making great latkes (potato pancakes) all these decades later. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

I MADE PEA SOUP last Sunday night. I do not grow peas. That’s the end of today’s gardening column. 

The soup burbled away on the stove top in my orange Le Creuset Dutch oven, which was my mother’s. It’s well over 50 years old and still in fine fettle; when they say these last a lifetime, they’re not kidding. I use it for soups and stews and sauces, as she did. 

Mom’s old ricer, shot atop an upside-down tin bread basket. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

I don’t grow spinach either, but use my mother’s ricer when I need to drain every speck of water from the leaves, for pasta or creamed spinach. Like her, I also use it for mashed potatoes and apple sauce (though sometimes I leave that last lumpy). The ricer once had red handles, but the color began to wear away a few decades ago. I caught my Prince sanding it one day and screamed. Those red bits are pieces of my childhood, it was as if he were  sanding away my mother. 

Mama envied me my starting-out kitchen, with all the shiny new cooking gear. “I wish mine would wear out,” she said one day with a sigh. No such luck, Ma. There’s not much left of my original batterie de cuisine, while her stuff keeps steaming along. 

I’m thinking of this today because Washington Post columnist John Kelly wrote about eggbeaters, which sent me down a trail. I’m wondering where the family egg beater went.  

Then, in the obituaries, was a notice of the February 6 death of Maria Guarnaschelli, who, among many other things, supervised revisions to the Joy of Cooking, which many regard as biblical. Out of the original 4,500 recipes, she left only 50 unchanged, eliminating such fascinating features as How to Skin a Squirrel, and how to prepare woodchuck, muskrat, porcupine, raccoon, bear (careful: The fat turns rancid very quickly) and turtle soup—from scratch. Not that I ever slaughtered and cooked

Mom’s garlic press open-jawed atop a vintage tin bread basket. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

any of these critters, but I read every word with fascination. Talk about erasing American history. Heresy!

Back to the future. The potato peeler is a bit bent from time in the garbage disposal, but still usable. I do have a new ergonomic number with fat cushioned handle; it’s fine but has no romance. I have her double-bladed hand chopper too, sitting in readiness in case the food processor breaks and I need to make chopped liver.

In better shape is the garlic press: It may have been shiny five decades ago, now it’s dull gray, but still so strong I think I could take a hammer to it without denting the metal. Dad used to press cloves through and rub them on these three-inch-thick porterhouse steaks he’d grill on the terrace, cancerously charred on the outside, red inside, eaten at the wrought-iron table that’s now on my back porch.  

I have her three cast-iron pans, nesting sizes. A few years after Dad died, Mama and I spent a week frying chicken in the largest one. 

That was in 1978. I was living in DC but commuting to New York for a week each month, staying with her as my job took me around to bookstores peddling extremely esoteric remainder books. (It was a true test of sales skill to unload a few hundred copies of Robin W. Doughty’s opus, Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation, which one can still find, used, on Amazon.)

Remember when peelers looked like this? / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Anyway. I always thought that a proper dinner was a meat, a green veg and a starch. That’s what we ate every single night of my youth. It shocked me to my very core, that trip, when Mom cut up a small chicken on my first night home, and announced that we were going to teach ourselves to make fried chicken. Something so seemingly easy defied us both.

That’s all we ate. No salad, no potato, just fried chicken. When that attempt was not impressive, we tried again the next night, and the next. We tried it with the pan covered, uncovered, pieces crowded and spaced, various seasonings. Each attempt a near miss. A solid week of fried chicken, no sides.   

I was perfectly content—just shocked that she was too. 

Some months later she would stun me with her marijuana crop, lovingly nurtured on her south-facing terrace, but this was my first sight of her as an individual who just wanted to eat damn fried chicken, screw the veggies.

She was an amazing cook, no stranger to frying. Her latkes were sublime. But great fried chicken remained beyond her.

I prefer Popeyes.  

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

Seriously, this mezzaluna-style chopper must have been an antique when Stephanie’s mom was a girl./ Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” loves growing things, but she excels at cooking them up, according to a grateful guest at her table (ahem).


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9 thoughts on “Green Acre #232: The Allure of Old Kitchenware

  1. Jean Gordon says:

    I love anything to do with the kitchen especially old gadgets. Glad to see you have a collection of memory pieces that take you back in time with happy family moments. Enjoyed seeing photos of the actual pieces. Keep writing.

  2. Stephanie S Cavanaugh says:

    Judith — “will the offspring want to add them to their shiny All-clad, Kitchenaid collection?” Sure! When their shiny stuff wears thin and the great’s and great great’s (or great grates) are still plugging along……

  3. Nancy McKeon says:

    Think this one would work for you?


  4. Nancy McKeon says:

    Judith, those old garlic presses (like mine as well) are made of aluminum, so presumably not as hardy as the fancier garlic presses around now. Also not so shiny! I just found one on Amazon from Progressive. It’s about the same size and shape as mine, though I must say it looks a LITTLE shiny.


  5. judith capen says:

    I also love that this is the first time I’m seeing the little hint that buying from mentioned suppliers supports the website: where do i get one of those garlic presses so the s.o. can stop buying yet another shiny one he’s hoping will be his dream press?

  6. judith capen says:

    Kitchen stuff: what a rich topic
    (look at the elicited comments: one about our more more more stuff, cheap, made by struggling workers overseas.
    the other about the quandary we aging sorts face: which of our “treasures” will become treasures to/for our Christmas offspring?)

    My kitchen drawers are sadly bare of inherited kitchen treasures from my side (a single needle-pronged fork from grand? great grand? a few church keys and a cutting board with a blue edge i really think my father made…church keys and cutting board acquired from my ‘rents truly amazing accumulation (not collection, just accretion) acquired when i helped them thin down for the move to the one bedroom…

    The s.o.’s ma contributed more treasures, still treasured and used. but will the offspring want to add them to their shiny All-clad, Kitchenaid collection? (back to the aging theme)

  7. Carol says:

    How did I miss this ?!? I love old kitchen stuff, still have a few things of my Mom’s including her melon baller and ancient “clamp on the counter” grinder. More interesting were some things from my older sister’s kitchen when she moved out of her house of 50 years, we both had a wonderful time. And yes, my Mom too reveled at my new shiny utensils ❤️

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      My “old kitchen stuff” story is quite a bit more recent but interesting. Maybe 20 years ago I packed up my extended kitchen things for a renovation that, for all sorts of bureaucratic reasons, wasn’t completed for more than 18 months, during which time I learned to “cook” in the living room with a toaster oven and a, well, I guess I’ve blocked a lot, don’t remember what else. (I know I couldn’t use my microwave oven because my 100+-year-old house didn’t have a single three-prong outlet anywhere on the ground floor!!) Anyway, as the months churned by, I bought the occasional tool, just to get by–a peeler, a strainer, who knows what else? When I finally was able to open the kitchen boxes that I had stowed in the basement I was fascinated to see that my old peelers, purchased at Williams-Sonoma, were made in Switzerland; my newer one, also bought at W-S (though no longer on the W-S site), was made in China. Some other tool in the “old” box had been made in Switzerland; the replacement, yup, made in China. Et cetera. That one kitchen tool box was a microcosm of how international manufacture and trade–or at least my experience of it–had been completely transformed in the course of a couple of years. Granted, I was probably buying less-expensive things just to get by, but still. When I think about American manufacturing and what would have to happen to revive it (such as have Americans willing to pay more for things so that the Americans who make them can make a living-in-America-not-China wage!) I just despair, or take a nap, which is more refreshing. If people of great means prefer “fancy,” probably European, stuff, and Americans of not-such-great means opt for the lowest price available, where does that leave the US worker? Probably still waiting in line for a vaccine shot but then another line for the unemployment or Medicaid or food-stamps office.

  8. Bonnie Mitchell says:

    Do we all carry forward artifacts from our mother’s (or father’s) kitchen? Wonder what Alex will want to keep? Probably trash it all for the newest crazy gadgets!

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