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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..

103 replies »

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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. 🙂

  4. 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.

    • Yes, I so understand. There’s a story about that too which someday I’ll share. Cooking tends to be such a chore for so many of us, it is invigorating when the process can be fun and easier.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

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