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Cast Iron

Cast Iron
From the PorchBy Amber Nagle
Cast Iron
From the PorchBy Amber Nagle

I took a break from the bustling Jarriel Family Reunion this past weekend and gazed down the dirt road at the small, yellow farmhouse where my grandparents — Hub and Ona Jarriel — raised their nine children during and after the Great Depression. My Aunt Gloria also made the house her home for many years until she passed away last September.

The house was once filled with the voices of great storytellers and the sounds of laughter — big belly laughs that I miss so much. There was a time when the smell of delicious foods cooking on the stovetop and in the oven wafted out of the kitchen and onto the porch with its terra cotta pots filled with African violets and Christmas cacti and its loud, slamming screen door. In addition to pecan trees, tobacco fields and rows and rows of Vidalia onions, the house was once surrounded by dozens of cousins chasing each other, biscuit-loving cats, stinky dogs, pastel petunias and the pinkest azaleas I’d ever seen in my life. The dirt road in front (named for my papa) was a playground for us children — where we patted out frog houses and crafted castles with our dirty little hands. We dug out deep trenches around the fortresses and filled the moats with water from the well, then stood back and admired our building skills.

But on Saturday, as I looked down the road at the empty farmhouse, it filled me with a heavy sadness.

“Do you want to walk down there and walk through it?” my husband, Gene, asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. All day, I watched my cousins from far away places march down Uncle Wallace’s driveway toward our family’s ancestral home place, then return a few minutes later with armfuls of keepsakes and mementos from the rooms of the house. Around 4 p.m., my sister approached me.

“Come on,” she commanded. “Let’s take a break from the reunion, go down there, and pick out something for ourselves.”

I followed her like a soldier. Audrey, Gene and I entered the combination to the lock on the door and entered the living room. A vision of my Aunt Gloria greeted me — her legs folded underneath her as she sat in her favorite spot. I had seen her the week before she died in that same chair, as my sister presented her with a handmade dog quilt. She was weak and frail that afternoon, but she smiled and scanned each square of the bed covering, eventually pointing to a color combination that she said was her favorite.

I opened the door to the front bedroom, walked in, and surveyed the bare walls.

“I haven’t been in this room since the week Uncle Robert [Louis Jarriel] died in 1993,” I said out loud. “He was lying here, and I stood next to him, and though he was in so much pain from the cancer, he took the time and energy to tell me the best way to get to Orlando.”

The three of us finally made our way to the kitchen — the heart of the house. In my mind’s eye, I could see my grandmother’s image shuffling around the space with a bib apron that protected her clothing from spills. I could hear her voice telling us to sit down and eat something. In that kitchen, feeding us was Ona’s way of showing kindness and love — so much love. There were always pots and pans on the stovetop filled with piping hot peas, beans, corn, okra, rice, potatoes, dumplings, and other freshly made Southern delicacies — most of which were seasoned with meat drippings.

And there was always a deep black cast iron skillet resting nearby — on standby to cook cornbread.

Like other Southern chefs, Grandmother often baked her cornbread in the oven in a large, deep skillet, but she also made a round, stovetop version of cornbread sometimes. The stovetop cornbread was thin, crispy and delicious. The edges looked like lace.

Of course, she used the skillets to continued from page

make other things, too.

And so on Saturday, without much thought at all, I opened my Grandmother’s cabinet (maybe for the last time), and I pulled out her cast iron skillets. My sister chose a flat one, and I retrieved two others. I also pulled a pink apron off of a wall peg and picked up an orchid on the verge of blooming that I plan to call “Glory Bell” for my Aunt Gloria.

“I’m good,” I said, touching the smooth iron of one of the skillets with my fingertips and wondering how many pounds of cornmeal it had cooked in its lifetime.

And then we left and locked the door behind us.

The walls, drawers, shelves, and cabinets in that old farmhouse are filled with hundreds of memories and dozens of inexpensive, but priceless, treasures that remind me of a time, long ago, when I was constantly reminded to behave, wash up for supper, bow my head for the blessing, and most of all, that I was loved — unconditionally.

As for the cast iron skillets, well, my sister tried her hand at lacy cornbread last night. She sent me photos that brought a smile to my face. I think I’ll cook buttermilk biscuits tonight in one of the skillets I salvaged. Cast iron makes everything taste better — and there is certainly magic in the cast iron skillets from my grandmother’s home. I hope my biscuits taste like hers.

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