Sunday, May 16, 2010

Still Life with Dutch Oven

I have had a cast-iron dutch oven for years, and it seems to have gone off completely.  Something has happened to the seasoning, and no matter how long or how often I boil vinegar in it and try to season it anew, the rancid smell lingers, so now I am going to have to purchase a rather expensive piece of cookware.  I suppose it evens out in the end, though, as the now-rancid one was free to me.  It used to belong to A., a conceptual artist who was a lifelong friend of M., my first husband.

A. and M. had come of age together, smoking pot in the basement of Buddhist church when they were supposed to be attending Sunday school.  Both became conceptual artists and moved to New York City.  A., who was several years the older than M., hit some rough patches in his life there, and spent time living in a storefront in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, known as the Cave, whose only furniture was the backseat salvaged from a defunct car and a bunsen burner for cooking.  This all took place before I ever met him, but I suspect the dutch oven originally dated from the Cave era.  I first encountered it a good while later, when it had ended up in A.'s painting studio, a basement apartment he had rented in a tenement on an ungentrified block of the Upper West Side when he was somewhat more flush.

A.'s studio was like an oasis for me.  Going there was like entering into some kind of strange clubhouse where everyone understood one another without needing to speak.  I truly loved his work, which consisted of things like sand in buckets stenciled with the word "FIRE" and bricks painted to look like wood, and I can't quite explain why.  There was something very clean, and also very heartfelt, about it; its ethos encompassed both bemusement in the face of the created world and compassion for those who stood in its face, bemused.  When I walked around the little basement room, surveying A.'s oeuvre, it all made perfect sense to me.  I would talk about it for hours afterward, and M. couldn't fathom why I loved A.'s work so much when I didn't really get his own.

When A. entered his forties, however, his life changed once more.  He and his longtime girlfriend bought a spacious apartment in the neighborhood between Columbia University and Riverside Drive, and their large monthly payments made it necessary for him to get a "real" job.  He and M. had worked side by side on the night shift in the word processing center of a large multinational investment house, but now A. needed a high-paying full-time job with benefits.  He began customizing computer programs for financial firms, and took a permanent position as a programmer for another investment bank.  He would no longer have the time to make his art, but, as he told M., computers would be his art now.  This comment made M. so furious that he dropped A. completely.  M., a purist, felt as if A. had gone over to the dark side, and as far as I know they never spoke again.

When A. was cleaning out his basement studio in preparation for his move to the apartment off Riverside, he passed the dutch oven on to us, along with a high-legged butcher block table.  M. left both these things behind when he moved out, along with our stereo and the dining-room table that I still have, which he kindly let me keep in case I ever wanted to entertain, which I didn't.  The dining-room table and the dutch oven have moved with me four times since then, though I left the butcher block behind in Washington Heights when I realized that its joints had become nests for roaches.  A. came over once after M. left to pick up some drawings that M. had made for him many years earlier (M. also left many of his paintings behind, which I lent to a friend, no longer wanting to have them around but unsure what to do with them.  As far as I know, my friend still has them.  M. no longer wanted them, as he had moved on to different media, and he, like A., eventually abandoned art too.  He is now a lawyer in a different city).

I have made scores of stews in the dutch oven, including many iterations of my favorite lamb stew with cerignola olives, and it's also made many wonderful round loves of crusty bread.  But I had completely forgotten its provenance until today.  It's funny how the implements of quotidian life can seem to possess all the animation of being and memory when we want them to, as if they had their own souls, and shared in our experiences.  And when we no longer want them, we divest them of the life with which we have infused them, and put them out by the curb.


Rebekka said...

Maybe they need the nearness of regular contact to maintain their animation as well - how many times have I been unable to part with something I no longer use, and put it down in the basement instead? There its preciousness leaches away and when I find it later I wonder why I kept it, and chuck it.

Rodak said...

I had a similar experience with a cast iron skillet in which were prepared many a lovingly shared meal during my first, and now long-lamented, marriage. That skillet had a beautiful patina--better than any Teflon. She cooked, I cleaned up; so I cared for the skillet and knew how to clean it without damaging the cooking surface. I inherited the skillet in break-up. And the patina just went all to hell. For no reason. It disintegrated in the bad vibes, along with part of my heart. It's spooky.

Pentimento said...

Rodak, one night in the months after my first marriage ended, I was on what seemed like an endless crying jag in the bathroom. Suddenly I heard a crash in the next room, and found that my favorite one of his paintings from his representational days had fallen off its hook and onto a display of teacups given me by his mother, breaking them.

I remember reading that Jung had intended to become a surgeon, but one night while studying at home heard a loud sound like a shot, and found the family's bread knife broken into four pieces, and the four pieces distributed into each corner of the sideboard where it was kept. So he decided to become a psychiatrist instead.

Rodak said...

Yes! I think that's in Memories, Dreams, Reflections. A great book.

mrsdarwin said...

Rebekka, I think that's true. Most of our broken furniture goes out for a stint in the garage before it goes to the trash, because we have this illusion that one day we'll fix the item and bring it back to life. My bed frame is currently residing out there, and we've put off buying a new one for four years because we keep saying we'll fix the old one, which has great sentimental value (being our wedding bed and all). However, I've put a time limit on it. If it's not fixed by the time baby is born in July, we get a new one.

We inherited a number of kitchen items from Darwin's grandmother when she died, and most of them work far better than the more modern stuff we received as wedding presents. I only wish she'd had a dutch oven -- I've wanted one for ages.

Maclin said...

I have a really hard time putting things out by the curb when they have some kind of connection to the past. There is a platform rocker in my quasi-study which is the only object I have from the house of my maternal grandparents, both of whom have been dead for decades, and the house itself sold in the early '70s. Moreover, my wife nursed our babies in it. The chair is nothing special and its upholstery is disintegrating and would cost far more to replace than the chair could ever be worth. A few weeks ago we steeled ourselves to get rid of it and offered it, free, to a store that sells a lot of fixed-up secondhand stuff. They gave us a polite southern version of "we don't want that piece of crap." So I moved it to my quasi-study, where it does not fit, and that will probably be the last time I try to get rid of it.

Rodak said...

He is now a lawyer in a different city

That creates in me such a sense of alienation. Or, maybe the sense is already there, but that only activates it?

[word verification is "swami"]

Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin said...

I'm going to make a different suggestion for restoring your old cast iron.

Broil it for a few hours, with the oven closed. That ought to oxidize all the organic materials currently thereon, leaving only carbon, if even that. Allow it to cool, scrub thoroughly with steel wool, and see if you don't wind up with a completely unseasoned dutch oven as a result.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Arkanabar. I stashed it in the garage and am cooking with my new one right now, but perhaps I will give that a try. The only problem is that it smells foul when it cooks.

Pentimento said...

As to alienation, Rodak, as M. used to say, it is what it is.