Essay Non-Fiction posted December 5, 2018


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Grandma's little pan cooked up more than food

Grandma's Tin Pan

by Jason A. Kilgore

Non-Fiction Writing Contest Contest Winner 

When I think of my Grandma Kilgore, the first memories that come to mind aren't sights or sounds or events, but the warm and welcoming scent of home-cooked meals. Hot bread. Sizzling bacon. Blackberry cobbler.

The kitchen was important to Grandma. It was the place where she put her heart. The product of her labors there were sustenance for the ones she loved. Like her, the meals she made were never ostentatious. They were practical, undecorated, unmolested by exotic spices. Ham with black-eyed peas, dinner rolls to sop up the pea juice, hominy, sweet Southern watermelon for dessert.

Grandma lived in a little three-room shack that was falling apart, tucked away in a corner of her sister's property, which itself was tucked away in a corner of northern Louisiana. She rarely ventured out of that little house into the long, sweltering summers of the South, parasol in hand, preferring instead the comfort of her kitchen and her daytime soap operas. When special guests came, she would treat them with home-made tea cakes, an ancient recipe literally brought over by our forebears on the Mayflower, and bask in the glorious raves about how delicious they were. No one made tea cakes like Grandma.

She didn't have a lot of cooking utensils or special equipment. There weren't any saute' pans or food processors. Her spatulas and whisks probably dated back to the time when she raised my father. All of her pots were worn from long, expert use, but never admired.

There was one exception.

Hanging over Grandma's stove was a tiny tin pan. Only four and a half inches across in the bottom, it tapered out at the top to about six inches in diameter, with a slight lip at one side to pour out gravy. Even at a young age I could tell it was very old. It was blackened, scratched up in the bottom, slightly dented. The handle was made of two parts, forming a sort of gap to dissipate heat. On the handle was imprinted the words "National" and "Made in U.S.A.", along with the number 39, and then a hole at the end to hang it.

Grandma would occasionally bring down the tin pan in the mornings to scramble a couple of home-grown eggs for me, melting a pad of butter first and turning the eggs just long enough, not too sloppy and not too hard-cooked. For other meals she might use it to quickly toast a piece of bread or halves of rolls. I can remember the serene look on her face as she would do so.

Grandma loved to tell stories while she cooked -- about the old days when she was a young bride, or raising my father, or of all my great aunts and uncles and distant cousins, pulling these parables out of her memory like dog-eared files from a cabinet. Often the names were obscure to me, and being a boy, I didn't quite grasp the importance of remembering these tales. Oh, if only I could go back and hear them again now!

One morning I was at the kitchen table, a groggy ten-year-old waiting for breakfast and begging Grandma to scramble me up a couple of brown eggs I'd collected the previous afternoon from the henhouse. She went to the stove, and her eyes took on that familiar gleam that came with storytime. She reached for the little tin pan, but she didn't place it on the stove. Instead, she came over and showed it to me, a calm smile growing on her lips.

"Darlin'," she said, "this pan is the most important thing for me in this room."

"Why?" I asked. Such a beat-up old pan would have been thrown away in most homes.

"When your Papaw and I first got married," she said, referring in her old Southern way to my Grandpa, "we didn't have much money. It was just b'fore the Depression, back in 1926. This was the first thing we bought as husband and wife." She ran her knobby, arthritic hands over the handle. "How many meals have I cooked with it? Only the Lord above could tell me." She gave a quick smile, then turned back to the stove, heated the pan, and cracked a couple eggs into it.

Being young and naive of such things, it took a long time for the moment to sink in. Gradually I realized that this little pan meant so much more than a cooking tool. It was a symbol of her love for her husband and her ability to provide for her family. Every time she cooked with it, some little part of her remembered cooking for her only son, and now for his only son. It was an example of simplicity in a time of poverty. It was even an extension of her faith. This wasn't some gleaming treasure to be put away behind glass or a picture covered with dust on the wall. It was meant to be used, and through that use be an emblem for all that was dear to her.

A few years later, when I was sixteen, Grandma Kilgore passed away, only hours after I last visited her. Her last feeble words to me were, "I love you, Darlin'."

After the funeral, I asked for a few things that belonged to her. An antique clock, a few family photos, her wedding ring, and that little tin pan. They were treasures precious beyond any monetary value. I tucked them away at home in special places. There they waited as I finished growing, graduated high school and went on to two degrees, married, and entered a career.

About a decade later, as my wife and I moved into our first home, heads filled with thoughts of raising children of our own there, I deftly carried a cardboard box of family heirlooms out of the moving van, through the door and to the kitchen. I pulled out a tiny, paper-wrapped tin pan -- still blackened and dented from so many decades of use. I smiled, running my fingers over the handle, remembering my Grandma Kilgore, all those golden moments I spent with her in her tiny kitchen, and the smells of her simple meals made with love.

Then I hung Grandma's tin pan over my stove.


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