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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.


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


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


  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. Loved the story – what a magic pan you have there. I make German homefries in my trusty skillet, but it doesn’t have half the history as yours! Excellent!

  2. Apparently there’s some magic in your pan, it’s all made me very hungry. I have a well-loved pan like this one at home. I carried it, along with an enormous ‘Santa’ bag of gifts home through 3 bus transfers from the Sears store one Christmas when I was young and could only shop for gifts with my Sears credit card and then pay them off over the other months of the year. I must admit I was cursing the its weight by the time I gained my destination. The pan was for my roommate at the time, who swore such a pan was a miracle. Your phrase of ‘you take care of this one and she will perform magnificently for you’ sounds very familiar. We put a lovely glaze on the pan with many a delicious meal cooked together. And in fact I learned to truly cook from him – how to combine everything fresh and balance the flavors until the mouth watered just smelling the dish. He moved away and left me the pan. My husband and I still enjoy delicious meals from it, these 25 years later. Who knows, maybe it will pass through generations and be loved by someone who likes stories too.

    • Oh, how I hope your beloved pan does pass through the generations! And that someone in the future will be cooking on it and thinking of all the delicious stories it has lived through.

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