Why a worn piece of cookware stirs my heart.
My love of cooking and entertaining started with an aluminum pan. But before the aluminum pan—and everything it would come to symbolize—there was my grandmother. Hortense Pandres Landauer Sanger was the matriarch of the family, and we gathered every Sunday in her cramped kitchen inside the Preston Hollow house she’d lived in since it was built in 1933. She was a wonderful cook, manning an old-fashioned gas double oven with right-handed dials so worn that only she knew how to regulate the temperature. The left side always contained a napkin-lined basket brimming with a supply of day-old toast, crisping into homemade Melba toast from the heat of the adjacent oven.
Everything that came out of that rickety oven was superb to my nascent palate. Be it a standing rib roast or a simple broiled chicken, my grandmother cooked and served it in the same old aluminum pan. The pan, made of Magnalite, a cast aluminum produced by Wagner Ware more than 60 years ago, is heavy, sturdy, and homely—but the memories it holds for me are priceless. Meals bustled, with grandchildren doing this or that chore, fetching water for the table, learning to set it with the endless variety of strange, pierced or pronged pieces of silver. I remember my mother dredging gravy or pan grease from the bottom of that aluminum pan, the ladle making scraping noises that crescendoed with my family’s voices, raised over the political affairs of the day.
Winter months were especially cozy in my grandmother’s kitchen, and this may be why I prefer to entertain in my own home during the bleakest months. Big stock pots bubbling on my hefty Viking stove are comforting when it’s freezing or raining out. I have a tiny dining room, and maybe it’s the cramped quarters that give my parties the kind of intimacy I loved about those Sunday brunches at Grandmother’s. Sometimes I have seated dinners for eight, and the room practically bursts for lack of space. Other times, I open up my address book and invite everyone in it. On these occasions, I turn my dining room into a buffet, and people eat in every room of the house, including, yes, my bedroom.
Like my grandmother, I have always been a voracious reader of cookbooks, and Elizabeth David, James Beard, Helen Corbitt, M.F.K. Fisher, and other food writers occupy three shelves in my den. I have pretty much cooked my way through their assorted works and, over the years, have developed a handful of tried-and-true menus to roll out when the fancy strikes.
For dinner parties, I usually do something really extravagant, featuring black truffles and foie gras. My grandparents loved truffles as much as foie gras, and introduced me to both when they took me on my first trip to Europe. For black truffles, which cost about as much per pound as diamonds, I think there is nothing better than risotto. Risotto, of course, requires constant stirring. Plying them with very good champagne, I ask my dinner guests to join me in the kitchen and put them to work; while some people are stirring (stirring, stirring) the risotto, others are busy making toast, onto which we load slabs of foie gras. Add a salad, more wine, and a simple fruit compote, and it makes for a sumptuous winter meal.
For my “address book” affairs, which can number 200 or more, I usually grill several whole beef tenderloins with a variety of sauces: horseradish, barbeque, and homemade mayonnaise (with a lot of hot mustard); about 20 pounds of boiled shrimp (with two sauces, red cocktail and remoulade); biscuits; and a few varieties of crackers, which keeps everyone happy and lasts over the course of a long evening. I also scatter bowls of different olives and mixed nuts and, if I’m feeling especially ambitious, my homemade cheese biscuits around the house.
When entertaining, I tend to go overboard, especially in the candle-and-flower department. Candles and flowers make for great theater. I have more than 100 votive holders in amber, cobalt, and lilac that I spread throughout the house, up the path to the front door, and through the garden. Flowers overflow every vase, pitcher, and decanter I own. I sometimes wonder where my flower fixation comes from. I definitely inherited my passion for cooking and entertaining from my grandmother, but she wasn’t into such atmospherics. A single potted cyclamen or simple geranium was always enough for her.
My grandmother died late last fall, and the week before her death my parents and I had Sunday brunch at her house. I don’t remember what we ate, but I know exactly how it was served. My grandmother made it clear to the family that I was to have her old pan, a worn piece of cookware, heavy and sturdy, but otherwise unremarkable. To me, though, it might as well be made of gold.