In a photo Keith remembers from Christmas day 1960, the gifts are stacked neatly around the tree. Except for one, all of them are wrapped in shiny foil. From subsequent photos, I know these will be the chemistry set, the car model kits, and the basketball that Keith got for Christmas that year. But front and center is an unwrapped box that he remembers had not been there the night before. The words on it are not familiar to him, but he chalks this up to the fact that he is nine and doesn’t know everything…yet. When his father kneels down to hoist the box up, Keith can tell that it is heavy. And when he sets it carefully in Keith’s mother’s lap, he can see her expression change from surprise to amazement to delight. Christmas is not for parents, after all, yet this year, his father has given his wife something they believe is very special:
A big orange pot.
A big orange pot?
It was a Le Creuset, in the color the company calls “flame,” and it certainly would have stood out among the bland cast iron and aluminum cookware that graced the Perry kitchen. We’re talking about farm folks, remember, not well-to-do housewives or university post-docs who decided to buy an expensive “French” oven because they were working their way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Most likely, Keith’s father had seen it on display at the Roots Department Store in Terre Haute. It was well made and durable, which would have appealed to someone who’d survived tuberculosis and the Depression and knew how fragile most things in life were. But it would have been an awfully expensive investment for a farmer whose income came from just fifty-five tillable acres and a few cattle and hogs.
How expensive? I don’t know yet. I do know that a good-sized cast iron or aluminum “Dutch” oven cost less than $5 in 1960, which would suggest that, as is the case now, one could purchase an entire set of cookware for the price of a single piece of Le Creuset.
Perhaps because of its extravagance, I’d always assumed Keith’s father’s investment in this five-quart casserole was a declaration of love. After all, Le Creusets are the culinary equivalent of good marriages: With the right care, they nourish and sustain us. They also last forever.
Keith has no doubts about the solidity of his parents’ marriage. Yet he insists I should set the record straight. The pot, he says, was indeed a declaration of love–
Love of a good roast.
At the Perry farm, this was the Sunday routine: Keith and his mother went to church; his father stayed home to read the paper and tend to the farm. He also was responsible for checking on whatever Mildred had put in the oven for dinner. Sometimes, of course, his chores would keep him out longer than he intended. On those days, by the time he got back to the house, his dinner—cooked in an ordinary aluminum roaster–looked like last year’s cow pies.
Herbert needed a foolproof method to ensure that his Sunday meal would be fit to eat. So he invested in the Le Creuset. In it, food could be cooked at a lower temperature and yet still would cook fairly quickly, staying juicy underneath its flame-orange lid. And if he needed to remove the pot from the oven between chores, it could be re-heated easily on top of the stove.
Thanks to the Le Creuset, life was idyllic at the Perry Farm. For as we all know, a good meal can salvage even the worst day. But a bad meal ruins everything.
A few years ago, Keith and I inherited the Perry pot. The enamel had worn away, and the bottom was pitted in places, but we used it faithfully, coaxing it through its share of Sunday roasts but also Farid Zadi’s chicken tagine and Julia Child’s beef bourgignon (which we had to strain through an old diaper – but this is another story). This Christmas, however, Keith bought me a Le Creuset of my very own. It is cherry red, not flame orange, and it’s larger than the original Perry pot. But in it, ordinary food becomes extraordinary, which means that even Keith—who used to be best known for his microwaved frozen peas and grilled chicken breasts à la Mrs. Dash—has become Thomas Keller in the kitchen.
And that, in turn, is his declaration of love: