Cowboys cook in cast iron. (image courtesy of getty images)
My dad only cooked with cast iron.
Skillets big enough to bake all the cornbread you would need for the huge batch of red chile stew bubbling away in the dutch oven. Cast iron is a wonderful cooking tool. Long lasting, even heating and temperature holding. They also require great care. You can't just throw a cast iron skillet into the dishwasher. It needs to be softly and lightly soaped by hand. And then after all the caramelized bits of your meal have been sloughed away, you need to put the cast iron back on the fire and let it heat while you rub oil onto its surface as a means to season and soften it for the next use.
When we cleaned up after dinner, my dad always took the cast irons as his chore. As a child and then as an adult, I loved to watch him ready them for the next meal. It was a ritual that seemed to me nearly as sacred as anything else I had seen on this earth. When he rubbed the oil across the inside of each pan, I felt that they were being consecrated and prepared for the next time they would fill the measure of their creation. Some of the pieces of cast iron were new and some had traveled with his dad in the forties as he prospected and lived in the deserts of the American South West. All were precious.
We've been cooking in the skillets and dutch ovens in the weeks since Dad's death. A couple of days ago, I noticed that one hadn't been oiled and fired. On my way out of the kitchen, I thought it could be done later. A few steps out of the door and I turned back around. With tears on my cheeks and an ache that threatened to pierce, I dipped a cloth in oil and turned up the fire. Consecration, it seems, must be picked up and carried along.
That night on the way home, Zuzu cleared her throat in the backseat.
"Mom, where is heaven?"
"That is a good question, sweetheart. You know, Heaven is very close. We just can't see it. You know how at night we can't see the sun, but we know it is there? It just isn't time for us to see it? That is like heaven. It is there as surely as the sun, it just isn't time for us to see it."
"Does that make it more clear, Zuzupie?"
"Not as clear as I hoped."
And then she looked out the window and I looked in my heart and couldn't find anything else to give her.