The cast iron miracle
July 18, 2011 1 Comment
I had no idea Walmart could change my life. I mean, all I did was buy a forty dollar, 5-quart, Lodge cast iron pot which I thought looked charmingly old school and reminded me of the tripod, round, iron pot my grandmother would have set upon her wood-burning cooking hearth or Adogan in Yoruba. The Adogan is still the quintessential symbol of the ever-popular owambe street parties where roads are blockaded, giant speakers are set up, tents, stages and chairs are wheeled in and a cow, goat, turkey, chicken or all of the above is slaughtered in real time. My fondest memories of growing up center around the sights, smells and general euphoric buzz of these street parties. The word owambe itself means “it is there”.”it” in this case meaning something different to everyone from catching money falling like rain on the heads of dancers to gorging on alcohol and meats till you’re dizzy and delirious. Suffice it to say Owambe’s have something for everyone.
The prelude to an owambe is entertainment in its own right. The day starts at cock’s crow. Breakfast will need to be served to those helping out with the cooking and setup – the bigger the party, the more the volunteers. Deliveries have to be offloaded from lorries. Soon, the stage technicians will be rapping into the microphone and saying “hello, one two… hello, one two” ad infinitum. There’s the slaughtering, scraping and butchering of animals by the men and the prepping of ingredients by the women. I still have never seen anyone else double the size of a slaughtered cow just by blowing into a tiny incision in the hoof; and then proceed to shave the entire cow with a single tiny razor blade. Children set up the chairs and tables and run endless minor errands. Random people walk back and forth; salivating in anticipation as they yell out greetings and congratulations to whoever is celebrating what. Others like me, just watch the drama unfold. And nothing ever goes according to plan so you’re bound to see one or two people charged with directing others, making sure orders have been delivered, drinks are cold, the seating plan hasn’t left out any important people (big big deal), the musicians are prepped with who to hail etcetera. This is all BEFORE the party…
Finally the sun goes down marking the beginning of a long long night. People are trickling in dressed in assorted finery, wads of crisp Naira notes in their pockets for spraying musicians, celebrants and good dancers; already the welcoming hypnotic beats of the talking drums can be heard. By that time, the smell of cooked food is in the air; especially the smell of charcoal mingling with simmering rice in tomato broth, that is to say, jollof rice. Of course you can make jollof rice satisfactorily at home but everyone reserves special status for jollof rice brought home from one of these owambes. For sure the charcoal plays a role. Perhaps also the sturdy iron of the cooking pot.
Either way, standing in Walmart the night my life changed, after over a decade living in America, the rush of sentiment and memories at seeing a cast-iron pot – even one only vaguely resembling those from my childhood – is indescribable. Perhaps it was fate but I bought it not expecting much beyond sentimental value. Now I wonder how I ever got through decades in the kitchen without it. The efficiency and versatility of the cast iron pot has truly caught me pants down. I used to have to transfer jollof into a pan midway and finish in the oven to avoid the “new wife” jollof: that clumpy, sticky, disaster only a new wife would serve - not anymore. The pot conducts heat uniformly and maintains steady temperatures which combined with the heavy, airtight lid seals in moisture and brings out evenly-cooked, fluffy, seperate grains of perfectly grill smoke-flavored jollof rice EVERYTIME. Not quite Owambe jollof but by far the closest you can get outside Nigeria. Of course there are other tricks I have discovered in my nostalgic quest for the jollof of my dreams – flame roasted tomatoes, smoked sea salt, just plain burning the rice while trapping the smoke with a foil wrapper, etc - but the cast iron pot stands out as the real mccoy.
What’s more because you never wash the pot with harsh soaps – just salt, warm water and a stiff brush - the more you use it and the older it gets, the better the jollof or whatever else you make in it turns out. I have even been convinced to toast bread and fry eggs in my pot and everytime, the end result is unlike anything I would get with a regular non-stick frying pan or pot. Non-stick pans by the way are usually coated with teflon which is a chemical known to poison birds. Oh and did I mention iron pots are relatively cheap and lasts forever – as in inscribe-your-name-and-pass-it-to-your-grandchildren forever? Are you still reading or are you ordering one?
ps: read more about cast iron pots and teflon here: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/07/dining/07mini.html, http://www.ecomall.com/greenshopping/teflon4.htm