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Ghosts of Potato Lyonnaise Past

I bought it years ago at a jumble sale in Lyon, France. I was crouched under a table hunting for cheap copies of Balzac. When I got up it knocked me on the head — not the best of introductions. My attacker had a ponderous handle, a pitted side, and slight dents along the rim. The interior, however, was a smooth whorled elegance. “What do you do with this?” I asked the seller in French.

He eyed me, offended. “Think you’re being funny? That’s my prized cookware.” I studied the sullen looking pan, amused. Rust had settled into a third of it. I noticed a few wisps of cobweb clinging tenaciously to the underside of the hilt.

“What did you cook with it?”

“Everything…omelet, potatoes, steak, rack of lamb…I had two kitchen utensils. This was one of them.”

“So what went wrong?”

“I tell you there is nothing the matter with it. It’s the best equipment you’ll ever own.”

I pointed to the corrosion. “Clearly you haven’t used it in awhile and now you’re getting rid of it. Why?”

He grimaced. “Pah! My daughter, she will not have it. A pot for every dish. Now there’s no space for my things! Then again, everything has to be pristine and ‘modern.’ I have to give up my prized books, my beloved implements, my collection of records all because they are ‘shabby.’”

I bent to sniff the skillet. A metallic tang assailed my nostrils. I pried at the inner surface with a fingernail. Bits of greasy oxidation peeled off. “It’s still useable then?”

A gleam rippled through his face. “But of course. You must scour it with a fine steel wool pad. Then wash thoroughly in warm, soapy water. Dry the cast-iron pan clean. Coat every surface with a thin veneer of cooking oil. Heat the container in an oven for an hour, let it cool, and it becomes as new.”

I glanced at the price. “I’ll take it,” I declared.

“Ah, voilà!” He kissed the scrunched fingertips of his right hand. “You will not regret your investment. You care for this one and she will perform magnificently for you. This beauty, she has served three generations of my family.”

“Three generations?”

“Yes, just so,” he replied, wrapping my purchase in newspaper, “my father, my grandmother, her mother who was a cook for a duke. Ah, the stories this fait-tout could tell you if she were able!”

“What sort of stories?”

He leaned towards me, replying hoarsely, “It was told to me that this,” tapping his knuckle upon the bundle, “this was once used as a weapon in the resistance.” I raised my eyebrows. He shrugged. “Also, there was a family rumor that it had made a famous visiting author’s favorite meal. I believe he came from your country.” He winked, but would divulge no more. Piqued by curiosity from his oblique anecdotes, I tucked the cast-iron under my arm and walked off.

Resuscitated, the skillet has provided me with many hearty fares. But, for some reason, whenever I prepare Potatoes Lyonnaise, the merchant’s implausible yarns swim in my brain. I brush dirt off the potatoes wondering about the celebrated writer. When I set the pan over the stovetop I imagine someone doing the same in a cavernous ducal kitchen. I position the sliced tubers into place, envisioning those before me who nourished, entertained, and sustained their communities using my apparatus. People I have never met, never will. Their pruned, calloused, hard-laboring hands lovingly varnished the cast-iron into a glazed glory. Their flushed faces tenderly watched over its various ingredients. Their hopes, ambitions, regrets are imprinted upon my receptacle through their acts of creation. If I am lucky — as the heat sizzles the butter under each potato round, fries the rough-skinned edges — I hear the voices of those seven generations whispering their tales, guiding me towards culinary perfection.


BT’s POTATO LYONNAISE RECIPE

Serves 6                Total Time: 40 minutes [10 minutes preparation; 30 minutes cooking]


WHAT YOU NEED

2 garlic cloves
1 shallot
½ pound (220 grams) Yukon gold potatoes
3 tbsp parsley, chopped*
2 tbsp (¼ stick) unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
salt to taste
black ground pepper to taste


WHAT TO DO

  1. Clean the potatoes. Slice each potato into ¼ inch thick disks.
  2. Lay potato slices in cast-iron pan in a circular formation. Salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Preheat oven to 400 °F (200 °C).
  4. In a separate, medium sauté pan, cook shallot and garlic in butter for 8-10 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Set aside.
  5. Place cast-iron pan with potato slices in oven for 20-30 minutes or until crisp and golden brown.
  6. Add sautéed shallot and garlic to potatoes, mixing well. Transfer to a serving bowl. Garnish with chopped parsley. Enjoy.

† at 177 degrees Celsius, 350 degrees Fahrenheit

* BT Tip: For a more delicate, sweet licorice flavor substitute chervil for the parsley..

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76 replies »

  1. First of all, I love cast iron skillets, I bought one recently and it’s the best thing ever! I wish my purchase of it was as interesting as yours though. As always, your stories are so beautifully written. Loved reading this! 🙂

    • I appreciate your saying so. I hope you’ll have a wonderful future with your own cast-iron pan, full of cooking stories the two of you will create. Do you have any favorite dishes you love to make with yours?

  2. Your story transported me to so many places and times. I love your writing style and would pay for a book of your stories. The Captain is the chef aboard Amandla I’ll share your recipe with him 😀

  3. What a heart warming post. I love the story behind the pan and the conversation back and forth with the vendor until finally you succumbed…. Your potato lyonnaise dish does the pan proud! it looks absolutely delicious.
    peta

  4. beautifully written. i immediately started reading it out to a friend. you had a very intimate conversation over an object that has seen so much of life. and the recipe, definitely something to cook up on a rainy day …

    • How delightful. I don’t think I’ve had anyone read my stories out loud to others. Now that the northern hemisphere days are getting shorter and colder, I’m definitely thinking of hearty, “cozy” things to cook.

  5. It’s a beautifully written and savoury story. The pan has an amazing history: a duke’s kitchen, a weapon during the resistance, and used for cooking for a famous writer. You are lucky to speak different languages and learn intruguing stories from locals. I wonder who this famous writer could be?

    • I wonder too. I wonder how much of the story the merchant told me was true, but it makes for a fun pastime when I’m using the skillet to imagine how things may have unfolded in his wild tales.

      I do enjoy exploring countries where I can speak the language, but even in places where this isn’t true I get a kick out of having conversations with locals with the use of smiles, hand gestures, and limited vocabulary. Makes for fun memories.

  6. I sort of smile, how time has changed everything, two generations ago, a cast iron pan was ‘De Rigueur’ on any kitchen. I still keep a couple, and use them often, but not as much as I did years ago. 🙂

  7. This is a wonderful post…I’ve always known everyone and everything has a story but never imagined a skillet before! What fantastic tale of it being used as a weapon in the resistance…and who was the author. Then so many more sagas it wants to relate! A great addition to your kitchen but I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for the gentleman having to sell it. Your recipe looks delicious and I’m printing this out to try over the weekend!!

    • Thank you so much for trying out the recipe! I hope it turns out well for you. I tend to view objects as merely functional, so it is wonderful when I come across something with a story attached to it whether it’s my own or someone else’s.

  8. I never thought that a rusty old pan could make for such interesting reading! 🙂 I have one such pan left behind by my previous tenants when they vacated my apartment. Despite its old and worn down condition, I didn’t have the heart to throw it away and decided to keep it. It’s handle has come off several times but I keep fixing it. It’s my favourite skillet and I use it for just about anything!

  9. Yummy comfort dish, for the tummy and for the history. 🙂 What an amazing pan story. A lot of houses we pet sit at have cast-iron pans. Heavy as they are, they work like a charm, and once you get used to the cleaning process – no soap allowed!! – it is all worth it. Bon appetit!

    • Thanks! Yes, the clean-up of a cast-iron isn’t as effortless as shoving it into the dishwasher. This used to bother me, but I’ve gotten used to salt scrubbing it and re-oiling it…rather soothing.

  10. An enduring memory of Lyon is the food, especially all the different and delicious ways offal can be served in small family-run restaurants. Initially skeptical, finally converted. 😅 And, oh yeah, the city’s architecture is superb, too!

  11. Love this story! This reminds me that the things we often overlook might have fascinating stories to tell, if we’re willing to pause a little bit and listen to them, instead of using them the way we want them to function. With all your very inquisitive questions, I wonder if the seller will remember you for the rest of his life and be forever grateful for convincing you to buy it.

  12. Now, that’s a treasure. I bet it took up a bit of space in your suitcase. But it was worth it. Merchants in France always have florid stories to tell. Even if it’s not true, it has left you with a vivid souvenir of the market, which could have been an unremarkable experience. But French markets have their own special magic. Je ne savais pas que tu parlais francais. 😉

  13. Wonderful story! I love potatoes, I eat them in all kinds of ways. Well, potatoes are actually my first bread because I eat potatoes with everything and often. Latvians love potatoes. I am originally from Latvia. Great recipe, too! I do cook potatoes in oven or make just on the stove top in a pan. I do not make French fries, though, I just boil them, peeled, in hot water with garlic and salt and eat with butter or as a side.
    I still loved the story most. You are a very good writer.

    • Very grateful for your encouragement. Though I am more of a pasta fan I am getting more into potatoes and different ways to cook them. Have not done French fries yet, but I like your method of boiling, peeling, adding garlic, salt, and butter. Sounds like a great meal!

  14. What lovely, lovingly described details about this cast iron cooking implement. I always wonder about the secret knowledge harbored by old buildings, but if this old pot could talk, would it tell us that Hemingway’s voracious appetite was stilled by one of its delicious dishes?

    • Perhaps! Every so often I wish the merchant who had sold the skillet to me hadn’t been so mysterious about the “famous writer,” but guessing is half the fun. It’s definitely special when antique objects and houses reveal their stories to us.

  15. Wonderful wonderful story! I own two cast iron skillet, one for fish and one for everything else and, although I also own every other pot and pan known to man, nothing conducts heat like that cast iron. You might want to recoat it every few years. And never ever wash it with soap.

  16. I love your story and felt like I was in the room with you eavesdropping on your conversation. I can’t believe he let the pan go, but it is obviously in good care in its new home cooking these marvelous dishes. Beautiful images, too.

    • Ha! If you’d seen it in its original rusty condition, you may have thought I was the one getting the short end of that stick. However, I’m having the last laugh now. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  17. “whenever I prepare Potatoes Lyonnaise, the merchant’s implausible yarns swim in my brain” LOL.
    Garlic, parsley and potatoes – you can’t go wrong. Even in a rusty pot!

  18. Such history in that pan and your potatoes look delicious. I remember seeing my Grandmother wielding a heavy cast-iron pan with one hand. I could barely lift it with two. I have no idea what happened to it…

    • You are so right, I’ll never part with it! The Yukon gold potatoes are relatively easy to find in Canadian and United States grocery stores. They’re fairly firm and have a medium starch content, so any similar potato will do. I’ve used red-skinned and fingerling potatoes as substitutes for this dish and they have worked just as well. Thanks so much for asking!

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