The house is on fire. You grab the baby and chase the dogs and cats outside, but what in the kitchen do you dive back into the flames to rescue? Or you have to flee to a foreign country, like the mainland, and you grab the baby, put the cats and dogs into a crate or three, but what in the kitchen do you retrieve to take with you because it is unthinkable to cook without it?
Let’s all pray fervently that we never have to make this decision. A few years ago the quality of life around my house went south for a while when I lost my favorite tool, Little Brown Knife. L.B.K. showed up again one day, and I rejoiced. It is still sharp as a razor, the worn handle silky smooth in my hand. But the blade is getting thinner and thinner, and I know one day it is going to snap, and I will cry.
When I married in 1981, a charming black cast-iron saucepan belonging to my husband joined the household. It was perfect for rice, oatmeal and low, slow cooking of lentils, dried peas, and perfectly suited besides for the occasional clam or apple fritter.
Recently we ended the marriage, and sitting before the lawyer, I brought up custody of the saucepan, partly in jest. Of course, he got the saucepan, no question, even if some days I liked the saucepan better than the man. In all likelihood, there were days when he preferred the flat cast-iron fry pan that I brought to the union, over me. So the saucepan has gone off to its new home, and I am keeping my eyes peeled for a replacement. The fry pan stays, an acquisition dating to 1968 when I prepared myself for independent living.
Cast iron has ingratiated itself to other islanders. Gillian Thompson living on North Haven said her husband won’t cook with anything except her great-grandmother’s venerable cast iron pan. They never even bother hanging it up; it just sits on the stove waiting for the next go-round, which occurs two to three times a day. Eva Murray out on Matinicus has a pile of cast iron pans, too, and she said, “I always use a Dutch-oven-style kettle to fry doughnuts. Heavy and no handles sticking out makes it much safer than an ordinary pot.” Not to mention how well it conducts heat.
Bruce Fernald on Cranberry would snatch the cast iron pizza pan that he uses and Barbara Fernald would take her cast iron Dutch oven, the one she bakes her sour dough bread in. “I’d probably grab my sourdough starter out of the refrigerator,” she said, “since it’s one I started in my own kitchen, and it will be three years old this summer. It’s the only sourdough starter I’ve managed to keep alive.”
Well-seasoned cast iron has a non-stick surface which, should it chip a bit, adds something to your food that you wouldn’t mind ingesting, as opposed to those whatever-they-are-coated-with non-stick pans that gradually wear and end up with scratches and suspect bald spots. I subject my iron pan only to hot water, a quick swipe and it is done. Nothing better.
Cutting and chopping tools are often on favorite lists. I’d grab Little B. Knife, and also a big heavy chef’s knife that I use for everything from smacking open garlic to hacking up Hubbard squash. And I would seriously think about grabbing a curved chopping knife I’ve had for years and the wooden bowl I use it in.
Eva, Paul and their son use an Alaskan ulu knife that looks very like old-fashioned chopping knives, and works on a concave cutting board. After all, there might not be electricity after a disaster, so why drag the food processor along with you? Eva would leave behind the 31-year- old Panasonic processor she has, and Gillian would not risk her life to save the bread maker she loves using but which doesn’t evoke warm and sentimental attachment. Eva might grab her old stove-top percolator. I might take an ancient Revere Ware tea kettle. Barbara has a set of scrapers: a wooden handled dough scraper for bread making, a more flexible plastic scraper to clean bowls and by the sink a tiny plastic scraper to clear pans and plates. Actually, her scraper collection is the first thing she thought of.
As much as I love my knives, the cutting bowl, the fry pan, even the microplanes I use often, the crying necessity of my life, darn it, is a pair of kitchen scissors. With them, I cut up chickens, pizza, shred herbs and trim uneven edges off cakes prior to frosting them.
And most importantly, I open packages with them. Shrink-wrapped cheese, sealed vacuum bags of frozen meat, vegetables or fruit, bags of tortilla chips, sleeves of crackers. I remove the twist-off cap on bottled vanilla or pry up the lid on sour cream and there is a film of impenetrable plastic to puncture and tear away.
I can no longer claw or bite my way into a package of food. Is it my age? Have I lost strength? Or is plastic packaging getting tougher and more incalcitrant? I can’t ask L.B.K. to open a package of cheese; the poor dear would snap in half in a nanosecond. Where would I be without my scissors?
Sandy Oliver, noted Maine writer, essayist, food historian, columnist and speaker and author of a newly-released cookbook, Maine Home Cooking, lives and writes on Islesboro and can be reached at email@example.com.