I’ve been remiss in updating this site. No more time now than at any recent time, but I’ll share this amazing video in the meantime.
There’s a certain type of story you’ll encounter a lot in DIY or crafting circles. I call it “The Find.” The story generally starts at a garage sale, in a grandparent’s attic or barn, by the side of the road, or at some other unlikely location for discovering anything of value. But there is is… the gorgeous piece of furniture in need of a lick of paint, the amazing antique vase, the long-lost Picasso, etc.
The sharp-eyed writer immediately spots the forgotten masterpiece, her heart beating faster. Later, after a laborious but exciting fix-up job, the true beauty of the piece emerges and it takes up a place of honor in the writer’s household. Readers everywhere quake with jealousy. Why couldn’t that Picasso have been at the yard sale I went to last week?
In my case, the story began on the porch of my father’s rural abode, and the object… it was filled with dog food.
Forgotten completely during the era of non-stick coatings, was an 8-inch diameter cast iron pan — rusted nearly beyond all recognition. When I picked it up, vowing to restore it to its former glory, my husband scoffed. He’d never eat anything made in a dog food bowl! It was just the challenge I needed.
So, I started researching online and found a few resources about restoring cast iron. Here’s the one that was the most useful — Black Iron Blog. This dude knows his stuff. Via his site and others, I discovered that my pan was a Wagner Ware pan, made in Sidney, Ohio in the 1960s. Not a Picasso by any stretch, but any well-made cast iron pan has the potential for long-lasting greatness.
Using everything from vinegar to oven cleaner (yes, disgusting, I know) to steel wool to elbow grease, I worked on it and worked on it. I put it in a super-hot oven for hours, I doused it with every type of oil and grease I had at hand. Still, when I put oil onto its surface with a paper towel, the paper came away with a disturbing brown stain. Did I want that on my food? For a while, I gave it up and put the pan away.
Recently, I began to feel confident again about conquering this challenge. I did a little more searching and became convinced that the brown residue was actually the beginnings of the seasoning I was going for. So, I was on the right track, I just needed to keep going — and keep frying. The cast-iron-pan project coincided nicely with my quest to make good falafel — I filled the pan up with plenty of oil and turned up the heat. The falafel came out really nicely. And I left the oil in the pan for several days afterward. When I finally cleaned it (no soap!) it was clear that the seasoning process was progressing. Yes!
This morning, I decided it to try the ultimate test — scrambled eggs. Actually, I made migas, a Mexican- and Texican-food staple that begins with the frying of corn tortilla strips — and enthusiastic frying is the secret to seasoning. Once I’d fried the tortillas and drained the extra oil, I felt confident enough to pour in the beaten eggs, followed by an even bigger challenge — grated cheese. The result? Total success.
Now I’m just waiting for my husband to come home and rave about the delicious breakfast made in the dog food bowl.
Remember way back at the beginning of this gardening season, before daily 100-degree heat advisories set in? I had finally filled up my raised beds with soil and, lacking any other planting opportunities, I plunked some sprouting store-bought sweet potatoes in the ground in my enthusiasm. Yeah, they didn’t look very promising.
They got even more sad looking after a freeze. Well, that freeze is well in the past now, as we’ve now hit the doldrums of Central Texas gardening, when tomatoes bloom but don’t set fruit because it’s too hot. Most everything is in my garden is hanging on for dear life.
But the Sweet Potatoes are thriving. Spilling out of the raised bed, even. Encroaching on the other plants.
And somehow, recently, I learned that these greens were edible — even tasty. They’re apparently used a lot in Filipino cooking, but I went for the default green treatment (as described here) — sauté them in fat with some onions and garlic, and season with salt and pepper.
Previously, I’ve incorporated them into falafel, since I didn’t have parsley. Anyway, these were delicious as they were, but they were destined to be folded into a quiche.
What an amazing discovery. A plant part I thought was useless turns into a big component of dinner. (They’re also very nutritious and contain tons of antioxidants, according to this study.)
All I had to do was take the scissors out to the garden and snip away until I had a big bunch — a lot of the volume was the stems, which I ended up not using (though they certainly could be used). I ripped the leaves off the stems with my hands, put them in a salad spinner to wash them, and then tore the cleaned leaves up into smaller pieces before I put them in the pan.
Before tossing them in, I’d recycled a little bacon grease for the job of softening the onions and toasting the garlic. It didn’t take very long — maybe a little longer than spinach — for the sweet potato greens to wilt and soften once I’d added them to the mix. A little salt and pepper later and sweet potato greens are officially in our summer greens rotation.
I’m a late convert to a pleasure that many people probably discover much earlier in their lives — the joy of a job well done. And by job, I don’t mean my day job, or any kind of pushing-paper (virtually) endeavor. I mean labor of the “chop wood, carry water” variety — useful physical labor.
There’s a Zen Buddhist saying: “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” Another bit of wisdom urges “when hungry eat, when tired sleep.”
I suppose there are myriad ways to interpret these sayings, but the benefit I’ve been getting is the pure Zen of being present in the moment — not living in the past, not worrying about the future, just focusing on doing the job at hand as well as possible.
Most of my life, I’ve been a fairly messy person. I am not sure exactly why, but I suppose it’s because I could get away with it as a kid. We had a live-in housekeeper through most of my young life and, if I didn’t clean up my room, eventually, someone else would do it for me. And, after I left home, those bad habits continued — until the job of cleaning up became so huge and seemingly insurmountable that I had to force myself to do it, and it was anything but pleasant.
Lately, though, partly because I’ve become a much busier person and because I’m responsible for the state of the household to a large extent, I’ve been building better habits — and loving it. Today, I’ve cleaned the kitchen (including the refrigerator) and pulled a metric ton of weeds from our backyard flowerbed. Meanwhile, my husband has been mowing the lawn and cleaning off the back porch.
This work has been surprisingly satisfying, and not just in a “cross that off the to-do list” way — it’s pleasurable to do the task itself, to involve my body in something purposeful that contributes to the well being of the household.
As I pulled the weeds, I enjoyed being outside, moving my body (as well as I can with leg injury), and using my muscles to yank the invasive grasses from the flowerbed. I feel the moisture of the soil, even through my gloves, and I revel in having the right tools (those gloves, plus a bucket that holds all my gardening tools) to accomplish the task. I enjoy seeing the “right” plants begin to dominate, to have room to prosper and beautify the view from the porch. I love the smell of the mint growing there, whose fragrance perfumes the air as we sit outside.
One of my daily tasks is preparing meals for the family, and I’ve found that this process — cleaning and chopping vegetables, stirring sauces, watching water closely for signs it’s beginning to boil — also provides me with this immersive physical experience. Even cleaning up after myself — putting away the spices and other ingredients, adding the dishes to the dishwasher, hand washing and putting away pots and pans — brings a certain satisfaction.
It’s crazy that it took me so long to realize that I can enjoy these tasks, and benefit from their being done, as well. I feel better about myself when things are in order, when I’ve spent part of the day getting things done. As I do with many discoveries these days, I wonder how to impart this wisdom to my children, so they don’t wake up in their forties and realize they could have been getting more joy out of life all along. It doesn’t seem like something you can convince someone of, or force them into understanding — like enlightenment itself. But can you guide them? Ideas welcome.