The South has a way of sneaking into your soul. Although I grew up in Texas and spent decades in New York, my fondest memories are rooted in Alabama, where I spent my childhood summers with my grandparents. Images of tall Southern cakes, straw baskets brimming with peaches, and my apron-clad grandmother waving from her back porch still transport me to a place where I feel safe and loved. So when my father asked my siblings and me to write down what we wanted after he was gone, my list was short—my grandmother’s cast-iron skillet.
That skillet had been part of a thousand meals: fried okra, creamed corn, salmon croquettes, buttermilk cornbread, and the crispiest bacon I’d ever eaten. Grandma grew up on a farm and had been manning the stove since she was tall enough to reach it. Her skillet was part of her DNA—and a testament to her strength. Although I could barely lift the thing, my 115-pound grandmother picked it up in a single hand, sliding it into the oven after coating it with Crisco to keep it properly seasoned. And when it came time to clean up, she never failed to warn us: No soap, no water. Ever. Coming from someone who scrubbed every surface she could get her hands on, including the five of us grandkids, this wisdom seemed a reckless bit of daring.
My mother’s skillet, by comparison, was constantly blanketed in bacon grease and only used to burn breakfast. I have no memory of the incident, but my brother insists he once saw her kick open the back door and throw the thing, aflame, into the backyard. We no longer knew where her skillet was, nor did we care.
But Grandma’s skillet was another thing. It was a coveted heirloom, right up there with the century-old butter churn and the crab spittoon my mom had once given her father as a joke. I saved all my chips for that skillet. It had fed me in so many ways.
As it turned out, Dad never made a record of our lists, so when he died in 2010, we were left to rely on the honor system. There were four of us now—my brother had died more than a decade before—and Dad always taught us to be fair. Among his possessions: a couple of samurai swords, my mother’s paintings, a dozen vintage fountain pens, and a collection of cowboy boots that would make Buffalo Bill proud.
My boot-clad brother drove off with the swords while my sisters and I diplomatically divided up Dad’s remaining possessions. Because I’d asked for so little, they parted with the skillet without debate. Gleefully, I packed it up and hauled it back to my New York City apartment.
At first the skillet acted as a talisman, which is code for the fact that I didn’t actually cook in it. In addition to having two teenaged daughters and a busy life, I lived in a city where you could pick up prepared food on every other block. The day would come soon enough when I’d have time and emotional space to fry up some memories, but in the meantime I shoved it in the drawer under the stove and forgot about it.
Three years later, when my youngest graduated from high school, I decided it was time to head South to reclaim the gentility of those childhood summers. Atlanta had both the cosmopolitan feel of the city I was leaving behind and the melodic accents, towering pine trees, and ubiquitous biscuits of my youth. That my daughter chose to go to college here sealed the deal. Time for the frying to begin.
I settled myself in a red-brick bungalow with a yard full of azaleas, camellias, and ferns. With my status as a Southerner officially cemented, I hauled out my cookbooks and prepared to create a feast. But where was the skillet? I’d unpacked a truck full of boxes, but it was nowhere to be found. I looked in the attic. I looked in the basement. I searched every kitchen cabinet and then searched again. And then I remembered: I’d stored it in the broiler drawer of the stove in my New York City apartment, the drawer I’d overlooked when I packed. No problem. I was still in touch with the new owners. They’d even sent me pictures of the renovation. Of the kitchen. They’d replaced my fire-engine red tiles with buttery yellow ones and my stove with . . . well . . . a stove without my grandmother’s skillet in it.
So what do you do when you realize you’ve inadvertently allowed a family heirloom to be tossed into the garbage? In my case, you tell no one. My siblings would bean me over the head, a fate I surely deserved. Instead, I decided to search thrift shops and antique stores for a replacement in hopes of amending my error. But I couldn’t bring myself to make a purchase. The used skillets were too scratched, too scoured, too dinged. Mostly they were just someone else’s. They held someone else’s memories. They’d fried someone else’s squash.
A brand-new skillet seemed less traitorous. While it wouldn’t hold my grandmother’s memories, it wouldn’t hold anyone else’s either. I visited store after store, gazing longingly at newly forged pans as if I were looking into a case full of Tiffany diamonds. But every time I left empty-handed.
It wasn’t the skillet I was after; it was those long, lazy summers sitting on a step stool in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her make magic as she stirred and breaded and fried. It was those black-eyed peas we’d shelled on the back porch that very afternoon and the “Toot Toot! Peanut Butter!” song she sang when she made cookies. It was simplicity and summer and childhood. It was the world as it should be. Every time I thought about that skillet lying somewhere in a landfill, I felt physically ill. Yet to replace it seemed blasphemous.
Then, just when I’d given up my quest completely, fate intervened. I befriended the representative from Lodge Cast Iron at Knoxville’s International Biscuit Festival and shared the story with him. If anyone could, he’d understand that a skillet is so much more than a skillet.
Not only did he understand, he offered to send a replacement as a gift. After mulling it over, I decided that this was an amenable solution. If a skillet magically appeared in my life, could I not assume that it was divine intervention from my grandmother? Miss someone enough and you can convince yourself of pretty much anything.
The package arrived on my birthday. I tore into the box, overjoyed that my mistake had at last been rectified. Preseasoned and wrought from material made more powerful by heat, the skillet is a thing of beauty. It now graces my stove, waiting for me to fire it up and create some memories of my own. But with each passing day, I still can’t bring myself to cook in it.
Jan Barker is an Atlanta-based writer and a repatriated Southerner.
This article originally appeared November 2016 issue.