Clicking through TV stations the other day, I caught one of those shopping channels during a kitchen show. Their decorative sets of pans, fashionable sets of baking dishes, and ultramodern sets of cooking utensils vaguely reminded me of the kitchen over which my mother presided during our childhood. Beyond her good china and the silverware in the polished wooden case lined with velveteen, however, I recalled few matching sets of anything.
But what could we expect? The war veteran and the nursing school student who became my parents began married life on a tighter-than-tight budget, most likely with lots of hand-me-down kitchenware. But Mother had a hard-working farmer for a husband and an ever-expanding parade of daughters to feed. Armed with her Betty Crocker cookbook, she had to just keep cooking with whatever vessels and tools she could cobble together.
I clearly remember the staple of every kitchen back then: the cast iron skillet. Mother used hers to fix bacon and eggs for breakfast and then fry chicken or salmon patties for the evening meal.
She did store for the next day the run-off oil/grease from the day’s entrees, a cooking practice nowadays deemed unhealthy. Given the choice, I would still choose eggs scrambled in a cast iron skillet with day-old bacon grease. And no 21st century healthy hamburger – made from meat or veggies – will ever compare to the juicy ones Mother fried in her durable metal skillet.
Other pots were also shuffled from burner to burner. Mother’s go-to pan was the copper-bottomed saucepan she used for chocolate pudding, macaroni & cheese from a box, and boiled potatoes – it stood up well to the beaters of her mixer during potato mashing. The versatile pot even offered the extra benefit of an alternate lid with stirring rod for popcorn popping.
Mother did own a good, solid Dutch oven, that I never saw her put into the oven. Its mismatched lid obviously had belonged to some other long-lost pan. But lid-schmid: she created mouthwatering chili in that stovetop pan, and the chuck roast smothered in tomatoes she cooked in it was beyond delicious.
There was an entire array of pans that she did put into the oven. My recollections include a dark gray, tray-like pan she used exclusively for meatloaf. Mother never took the shortcut of a loaf pan for her meatloaf – not my mother. She turned her hamburger “dough,” held together with an egg and torn-up Wonder Bread, out onto this pan and hand-patted it into a stand-alone loaf. By the way, she invariably served her meatloaf with potatoes baked on some bumpy metal ring, whose real use has never been definitively identified. Right about now, I am hankering for a next-day, cold meatloaf sandwich, the likes of which are now unfortunately lost to this world.
That meatloaf pan could have doubled as a cookie sheet. Mother instead used shiny aluminum sheets without raised edges for cookies, although there was limited cookie baking until we girls started turning out snickerdoodles and molasses crinkles for our 4-H cooking projects.
For her part, Mother regularly lined up baking powder biscuits on those cookie sheets, using the faint shadow of former biscuits as her placement guide. And once a year, she switched to a larger cutter to make sweet biscuits for strawberry shortcake.
All manner of ovenware joined her glass pie plates. She used various square baking dishes in glass and metal for gingerbread and cornbread as well as rectangular ones for baked macaroni & cheese and “flat” cakes – plus a couple of round pans for the layer cakes she baked. I was in junior high before I ate anything resembling a cupcake not baked in a cupcake paper inserted into her muffin tin.
Mother had an entire drawer full of tools to use with all those pots and pans. Later on, when I came home from college or my own apartment, I saw her using a whisk. But back in the day she depended on an entire cadre of rubber scrapers and wooden spoons during food prep. Her metal measuring cups and spoons did come in sets, and she used glass measuring cups for liquids. Not outdated at that time were her egg beater, her nut chopper, and her flour sifter. Personally, I was intrigued by the red-and-white plastic egg separator – the few times she used it.
As with any good cook, Mother relied on a set of knives. I use the term “set” loosely here because her bladed tools were not displayed on the counter in a fancy knife block of some kind. Each particular knife had a particular job. There was the foreboding butcher knife, which my father often wielded against chunk bologna. To cut her baked goods, Mother used a variety of knives, some serrated and some not, including the one with the partially-melted plastic handle.
She also owned a well-worn paring knife, although somewhere along the line, she “discovered” the type of potato peeler we use to this day. That “new-fangled” gadget saved her lots of time as she quickly peeled spuds into – surprise, surprise – the dented, misshapen pan reserved specifically and exclusively for potato peeling!
So, let the shopping channels hawk their cooking merchandise for beautiful display in a gourmet kitchen. My mother’s “set” of kitchenware, even randomly stuffed into a cardboard box, would be the collection of a lifetime at any price.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.