This was my mother’s cast iron Dutch oven. Heavy and carrying a sense of substance and history. I think it was a wedding present to my parents, over 60 years ago. Seasoned and well-cared for, it barely shows its age, except in the smooth, matte patina of its interior, reflecting its years of soups, stews and pot roasts that it brought to fruition. It sits now on a shelf in my kitchen, not often used; but one of the things I would want to grab in the fire/flood/catastrophe evacuation scenarios I consider from time to time.
While I would like to go into a fond discourse about my mother using said Dutch oven to stir endless tantalizing dishes in the years of my growing up, that simply is not the truth of it; I only remember few and far between occasions when it made an appearance. She was, by her own admission, not much of a cook – she often remarked with a certain awe how it was that I had come to be so interested in food and cooking. “You didn’t get that from me,” she would say.
She was a crucifier of fresh vegetables. It was a long time before I could bring myself to encounter a fresh zucchini, what with the memory of those limp and mushy grey-green circles on my plate growing up.
But I fondly remember my mother for the exception-to-the-rule culinary events: When dad had to work into the evening and not come home until late, mom and I would have “breakfast for dinner,” which meant fried eggs and bacon or sausage, oftentimes pancakes or waffles. It felt deliciously conspiratorial, like we were breaking the rules or playing hooky from day-to-day life, she and I together. The maple syrup never tasted so sweet.
Then there was the year when I said I wanted an apple pie for my birthday instead of a cake. She didn’t bake often, but she didn’t flinch from the challenge. And it was wonderful. I thought so then and even though memory can be a little made-to-order, mine is nevertheless that of a tender crust and an abundance of sugar and cinnamon-laced apple filling. And not canned: this one she did from scratch. I felt well-loved and special that day.
I remember her cooking meals on a Coleman two-burner camping stove that sat on the kitchen table during a severe wind storm when the electricity was out for days; the kitchen dark at night but for the coldly blue-white, hissing glow from the kerosene lantern at the other end of the table, and a nearby flashlight when she needed to see the details inside the pot she was stirring. The windows rattled and wind gusts slapped the house, bending the trees throughout the streets around us. But we were safe and warm and together and nourished by the simple food she cooked.
Car camping. We did a fair amount of it when I was young: The secret thrill of getting up in the cool summertime pre-dawn darkness and carrying repeated armfuls of supplies to our rotund, turquoise ’53 Ford (careful to not let the screen door slam because everyone else on the block was sleeping and it would be rude to wake them), like we were sneak thieves escaping into the night, loading the car with all our camping paraphernalia. I loved our camping trips. Once we arrived at our destination, still in the early morning, the ritual of unpacking: Setting up the table with the camp stove, the dish tub nearby, the box of supplies and the cooler. Setting up the large, canvas tent that was tall enough for all of us to stand in. Putting down the sheets of newspaper in a layer and then smoothing over the top a thin plastic sheet, a ritual to keep out the damp from the ground; blowing up the air mattresses and rolling out the sleeping bags and blankets on top. The campsite would be bedecked with clotheslines and folding chairs, an assortment of important necessities for the comfortable camping life.
Which brings me, finally, back to the Dutch oven.
I have a strong and enduring memory – not recorded on film, so it is now, after all these years, mine alone: It was raining on this particular camping trip, and we were sequestered in the tent. There were books and cards and board games to keep us occupied and it was all part of the Grand Adventure. For some reason, however, mom was cooking chicken and dumplings on a grate above the campfire in the Dutch oven. I have a memory of her, sharp, though oddly in black and white like the photographs of the time, standing over the campfire, in the rain, in the woods, stirring and checking on the pot of chicken and dumplings. Maybe holding an umbrella over her head, I’m not sure.
She was Adventurous. Undaunted. Willing. Game.
Okay. It was car camping. But still. Dinner hung in the balance. She stood in the rain and stirred. The dinner was all the more delicious for the effort it took to make it happen.
* * *
My mother has been dead now for nearly two years. A cancerous brain tumor took her away in a swift momentum that I could barely comprehend at the time. Months before the tumor was discovered, mom and dad were in their apartment, scaling down their belongings to try to de-clutter, simplify, put everything they owned within their own reach, and in the process trying to foist off onto me any and everything they could. I was saying mostly no, occasionally yes. Then the Dutch oven appeared.
“Do you want this?”
Long dormant, that cast iron vessel was somehow the symbol of the most elemental part of my mother’s tending to her family’s nourishment. And that wonderful, adventurous image of her poised over the campfire, in an unlikely attitude of cooking. Yes, I wanted the symbol of that.
That Dutch oven is now mine. I love pulling it out of its place on the shelf and filling it with the ingredients for a hearty meal. The heft and weight of it is comfortable and substantial and definitive. Somehow, in a whisper of memory, it reminds me to be definite. To be certain. To be undaunted. My mother, that part of her anyway, revisits me. Every time.
Originally posted at hollypruettcelebrant.com on 11/4/2013