The Unbearable Lightness Of Seasoning
I’d just whipped up a quinoa chicken ginger stir fry for two. My tiny Hollywood studio apartment was thick with the aroma of charbroiled bird and caramelized garlic and onions. The over-sensitive smoke slash steam detector was playing our favorite song. I plated then presented the food on 2 small square white plates, poured two mason jars (don’t call me a hipster foodie) of a cheap red from Trader Joe’s (not 2 buck chuck; I have standards), joined my lady friend at the table. Cheers.
I started to take a bite when I was interrupted by, “Do you have any salt?”
I did a double-take at her untouched plate.
“Um . . . yeah, but . . . are you going to taste it first?”
“I always salt it first. What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is I prepared this carefully and I know what I’m doing.”
For some people, meal time is just a chance to not be hungry anymore. And I might sound judgmental and a little douchey saying that. I accept that. I was at least smart enough to not say it out loud at the time. But I really do see it as so much more than that when I’m with another person. When you’re feeding someone especially, it’s an intimate act. I don’t cook for just anyone.
There’s an unspoken bond of trust, in feeding. . . being fed. The chef puts their all into a unique experience (if they love what they do), and the person being fed puts their gastrointestinal well-being and their taste buds (one might say their very life if we’re talking meat or seafood) in that chef’s hands for a few hours.
I seasoned it. Well. Fresh, organic ingredients. And I cooked it in cast iron. I cook everything in cast iron. Anything that’s not cooked in boiled water. I bake in them. Roast. Grill. Griddle. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, sauces, soups; you name it.
It’s how I learned. My parents were terrible at being people and even worse at being role models, so I was raised by my great aunt who was once-divorced, self-employed, single, born in the 1930s, and raised in Pasadena by way of Louisiana. Soul food? I was cooking it well by the time I was 13. Lawry’s (the salt, not the steak house) was a staple; one of a handful of spices that have since gone into almost every meal I prepare. Cast iron was the tool of choice since it was cheap, durable, and multi-purpose.
Growing up, I always had a love-hate relationship with food because of the effect it had on the one person I was closest to. The tall, loud, strong woman who taught me everything I knew about food was also a diabetic, one who didn’t manage it well, one who used food to cope with the stresses of raising more than one family members’ kids (many of them delinquents) while running a small business.
My great aunt’s comfort food was desserts: candy, cakes, anything chocolate. And old habits die hard. Her health and then her finances steadily declined once I left for college and couldn’t cook for her or go grocery shopping for her or make sure she got enough exercise and stayed on top of her supplements. She was always proud to a fault and refused to ask for help until it was too late. More than once I was left out of the loop about a past hospital stay or major surgery because she didn’t want to worry me, didn’t want me to end up dropping out and moving back to help out.
When Medicare wouldn’t cover the costs of 24-hour in-home care after another heart attack, another stroke, and the onset of Alzheimer’s, she was transferred to hospice care at the ripe young age of 70, right as I graduated college. I was living in Santa Monica at the time, walking distance to my retail job and making the drive to Long Beach as often as my gas money would allow. I’d sit with her and talk about how annoying her partially deaf roommate was, how there was an alleged dealer peddling pot room to room and how terrible the food was. For her first birthday there (which was the same as mine, January 19th) I threw us a pizza party with my last $20. Her 5 foot 11 frame had dwindled down to 125 pounds but she still finished two slices, minus the crust.
A month later, I sat spinning tales about the life we’d have together once I could afford to spring her out of that place — all while feeding her terribly under-seasoned and cold powdered mashed potatoes, wishing I could have cooked them myself from scratch, or that I had the foresight to bring an extra sugar-free chocolate pudding pack, the foresight to know that it would be our last dinner together.
A lot has changed in my life since that day, more than a decade ago, but the five cast iron skillets I own will always be there, literally. They’re indestructible and indistinguishable from the ones I used as a kid. Though they don’t cast a reflection I can still see myself in them. They’re tempered, they’ve been through fire. Plus, they’re compact and black (insert rimshot here).
When you want something deep fried and artery blasting, these skillets can definitely get the job done. But mostly it’s oven baked, roasted, sautéed, for me. Because I might want to pass them on to someone one day, and I don’t ever want that someone to have to hold back a year’s worth of tears while feeding me cold under-seasoned mashed potatoes.
P.S., If I make you dinner, and you salt your food without tasting it first, I will definitely break up with you.
Illustration by Ijeoma Oluo