When she was alive, my grandmother appeared to be behind her times, clinging to her old-fashioned ways of doing things; at home and by hand, she wrung every bit of useful life out of everything that passed through her possession. By current standards, she was a woman ahead of her time, who composted food waste, ate organic food she grew and canned herself, and wasted nothing, recycling and upcycling what she could, and passing along what she could no longer use to someone else, who could make use of it.
She taught me to darn socks, and to crochet lace to trim new curtains made from worn-out sheets; the yarn for the lace came from worn-out sweaters that she unraveled and wound into balls. There was no reason to use something new when you had something perfectly good that could get a job done, which is why I have memories of using a washboard and wringing out wet laundry through the rollers of her tub washer, then running with the dog between lines of laundry hung out to dry in the backyard. Her one concession to modern laundry was a dryer, that she only used during the winter, when clothes would freeze if left outside.
Some of the old technology she preferred, for the simple reason that it did its job better than any modern replacement could. Her cast iron skillet was one of these things; she picked it up for some insignificant sum at a yard sale, and used it for everything, and when she died, I asked if I could have it, and when the estate valued it at similarly insignificant sum, it was given to me.
Along with her pan, I inherited her values: using things as long as they are usable, and for the most part, this works quite well, being an economical approach to living. Modern manufacturing, though, means that it is often not economical to repair things, so using them as long as possible sometimes means using what you can of something and trying not to miss what doesn’t work any more. Our microwave died, feature by feature: the digital display stopped working, but the oven clock could be used for timekeeping; the glass plate was dropped and broke, but a regular plate placed into worked just as well.
The Child grew frustrated, and wanted to replace the microwave with one that had a glass plate and working display, but I held firm: A penny saved is a penny earned, after all. The microwave still served its primary purpose, reheating leftovers and popping popcorn – there was no real need to replace it.
And I was right about this, right up until the moment I wasn’t, one Sunday evening when I popped some mac and cheese into the microwave and pressed the button, ignoring the odd noise it made until I noticed the aggressive odor of something burning, something that was definitely not my late-night snack.
I turned off the microwave, which is built in, and learned some useful things. A child who thinks their house may be on fire can locate and evacuate four pets at a remarkable speed, even allowing time to call the fire department, who, if you’re lucky, will arrive at your home at a remarkable speed and, if you’re luckier, maneuver their hook and ladder onto a driveway shared by four houses without driving it across your front lawn the way every other neighborhood visitor does.
Of course, the lawn was not my concern when they arrived, it was the possibility that a fire was right now smouldering in a wall behind the microwave that I could not remove from its housing. The firemen graciously ignored the barking dogs in the yard and agreed that they would also sleep better knowing that whatever smoking was not going to erupt into an inferno later that evening, and carefully but quickly disassembled the microwave and removed it from the kitchen.
Where the microwave once was, there was now an empty cabinet, which is a nice thing to have, but since it neither reheats leftovers nor pops popcorn, I headed out a few days later to acquire a new microwave at one of the large home supply stores. I brought the measurements and the old microwave’s manual, and the salesperson informed me that getting something the right size would be a special order, which translates as: You are going to be without a microwave for three weeks.
As it happens, I was going to be without a microwave for longer than that, because when it finally arrived at the appointed time, it was entirely the wrong size.
This sounds like like a first world problem, and of course, it is, but the reality is that I live in the first world and it is a problem. I grew up without a microwave or, for that matter, a dishwasher, yet it has been many years since I lived without either of these conveniences, and my life is structured around having them, not cleaning the many extra dishes that must be washed when you cannot simply reheat food in the bowl from which you plan to eat it.
My grandmother could have had a microwave, and a dishwasher, if she’d wanted, but she didn’t want them and got along perfectly well without them for some ninety years, but that knowledge does not help me in my current predicament. What does help is this: Some evenings, I pull out my grandmother’s cast iron pan, and cook dinner in it. I marvel at its lightness – it is much lighter than cast iron pans you could purchase today – and at its perfect nonstick finish, the end result of years and decades of seasoning. It is a pan that could not be made in any factory, and that requires very little in the way of cleanup.
Mostly I use it for the kind of simple things she would have made, grilled cheese and eggs, but sometimes I get a little fancy. One evening I pulled out my copy of Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking, and gave her recipe for chicken with shallots a try. I loved the recipe’s utter simplicity, involving only one pan that everything is added to as the recipe progresses. The shallots are left whole, and acquire a nice sweetness as they simmer at the bottom of the pan, beneath the chicken. The shallots, tomato, and garlic cook together into a nice sauce, that can be mopped up with some nice crusty bread, if you have it, or poured over some rice or noodles, if you prefer.
I made some minor changes to the recipe, using canned tomatoes since I didn’t have fresh ones on hand, and omitting the flaming brandy step, because I’m not sure that my kitchen or my nerves are quite ready to have me playing with more fire at dinnertime.
My grandmother never went to France – in fact, she never rode on an airplane – though it’s always possible she watched Julia Child or attempted some French recipe she found in the local newspaper. But she would have been pleased that her old pan was used to cook it, and the next day, to reheat the leftovers, too.
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp butter
- 3 lbs chicken pieces, skin-on and bone-in
- 2 cups shallots, peeled and left whole
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
- 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
- cooked rice or buttered noodles for serving
- Heat a heavy skillet over high heat, and add the oil and butter. Season the chicken liberally with salt and pepper, and when the oil in the pan in shimmering, add chicken pieces and brown on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Be careful not to crowd the chicken; you may need to work in batches.
- Reduce the heat to medium-high, and add the shallots and garlic cloves to the pan, as well as any chicken set aside if you browned in batches. Cover the pan, and let the chicken simmer, shaking the pan from time to time, until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes to the pan and simmer until the sauce is well blended, five to ten minutes.
- Serve the chicken on a bed of rice or noodles with plenty of the sauce spooned over.