She of the charmed life, the one who’s had very nearly the best of everything, from handsome, loving husband and four devoted children, to satisfying career of her choosing, to comfortable retirement and incredible good looks that don’t seem to fade.
As I slid the frozen slab onto the round metal, no longer flat from years of heating and re-heating, but still just right for the job, I noted the details of what makes it work. Although of the same material and thinness as a cookie sheet, its rim is flared and sits slightly above its middle, making just the right size bowl for the pizza. In this way, the pizza stays put, rather than flying off onto counter or floor like it would on a flat, edgeless sheet. And being round, no part of the pizza is compromised or in need of trimming to fit the domain of an edged, rectangular cookie sheet.
The pizza pan is also uncommonly attractive for something so pedestrian. Its rim is adorned with fine dots that go all the way round, and its formerly flat center is etched with a simple floral pattern. So much glory under all that rust and brown residue from years of baking pizza, I thought with some longing.
Needless to say, I’ve been making do without a perfect pizza pan since I moved from my parents’ home. This is partly due to the fact that I’m really not that big a fan of frozen pizza and so haven’t endeavored to find one of my mother’s equal. But mostly I don’t have one because I’ve never come across one in all my wanderings through kitchen shops and catalogues. Had I ever encountered one, pizza aficionado or not, I would’ve purchased it without a second thought.
I know this because of the day I happened upon one of those rolling pizza cutters. I grabbed it up quick. This was half the pizza-baking equation at my mother’s house, and now I, too, would be able to slice up pizza easy and neat. No matter that this is a notably infrequent need in my hardly-ever-eat-frozen-or-any-other-kind-of-pizza house. It was enough that my kitchen drawer would now be home to another of the tools I took for granted as a child. Somehow, it would make me more complete.
My mother’s kitchen is full of mysterious implements with completely specialized functions. These I discovered over the years of learning to cook under her watchful eye. “No Becky, that’s dicing; in salads the tomatoes are sliced.” The difficulty in distinguishing between words so similar confounded me as a child, but when I met my husband, one of the first corrections I made of his cooking was “No honey, tomatoes are sliced in a salad, not diced.” Upbringing, I find, no matter how ludicrous, gets imbedded deep.
My family kitchen drawers contained a menagerie of devices:
- the melon-baller to make gorgeous summer salads of soft wet spheres (I manage with a teaspoon from a measuring set)
- the apple-slicer that slices and cores all in one deft push (the knife I wield takes five times as long)
- the garlic press – ah, the prized kitchen tool in our home when few white Americans even knew what fresh garlic was, let alone that you could press it instead of chopping (I do have several of these since we’ve hunted them high and low, always searching for just the right one, as if for the grail)
- the combo ice pick and hammer made of ornately decorated bronze, obviously a show piece for cocktail hour (I smash mine up with a hammer from the garage or slam it hard on the counter)
- corn picks for the delicate handling of fresh summer ears (hands and lots of paper towels)
- a metal jar opener with two different sizes that I’ve never seen anywhere but my mother’s kitchen drawer (whacking it around the rim with the butt of a knife works fine – haven’t cut myself yet)
- the hardboiled egg slicer with wire strung like a tennis racquet, but only in one direction (my same old knife cannot hope to produce such thin slices with anything like its precision or speed)
- ice tongs (used my fingers for ages until cocktail time made a comeback and Crate and Barrel sold them again)
- fondue forks (irrelevant in my home since I don’t own the thick enamel pot)
- olive picks (what?)
- tiny two-pronged cornichon forks (what’s a cornichon?)
- sterling silver candle snuffer (just blow it out)
Not to mention the strange gadgets – stainless steel espresso pot long before Starbucks appeared; china – round-bottomed demitasse cups with silver holders kind of like egg coddlers, which, for the uninitiated are the mini cups used for espresso or “European” coffee; containers – ramekins of all sizes and pre-Tupperware made of glass with matching lids; cookware – the amazing double-sided pot that enabled my mother to make two kinds of soup simultaneously so her children wouldn’t fight; and other miscellaneous mysteries – tiny carved glass bowls and miniature silver spoons for serving salt; a gargantuan punchbowl with 20 matching cups; and even a parfait set of 12 – just in case. All these are hidden in my mother’s cupboards, side boards and pantry, which, if not regularly, eventually find their way to service.
The point is, people invented these things to handle particular jobs in a gracious and efficient manner. Many of these devices have been lost as vestiges of a kinder, more gentile way of living. The round pizza pan, I assumed, was one such ephemera. As I placed the cherished pan atop the oven rack, I realized that this was yet another example of how my life would simply never measure up to my mother’s.
I cannot say why, but in that moment, rather than silently entertain these musings like I always do when preparing pizza at my mother’s, I decided to face the sad truth of my deficiency and find out more about the object in question. Where did she get it? I asked.
What she told me shocked me to my core.
She started by stating enigmatically that it had, at one time, been silver-plate. Silver? I turned on my heel to look at her – was she pulling my leg? A silver pizza pan – whoever would have thought? These kinder, gentler folks may have taken things a bit far, I thought. She had a wry smile on her face as she began to explain.
“Actually it belonged to one of your father’s colleagues from the history department at Park College. (The year would have been 1960.) After one of his faculty parties, I was doing the dishes and there it was. Somebody had brought it covered with hors d’oeuvres of some sort and then left it.”
Wait a minute…what did she say? She must be confused. Did she mean that its owner had not brought a pizza on it?? That this pan was in a former life a silver tray used for party hors d’oeuvres?? The realization was making me woozy.
My mother continued, “I called around to everyone I could think of and no one claimed it, so there it was. Given that it was so ugly…I mean, with all the beautiful sterling silver I had I certainly would never use it to serve anything on, so I decided it would make a good pizza pan!”
In the few moments it took her to relay this story that took place before I was born and thus set the world in motion as I would know it, the meaning of this pan – this prized object of grace and utility, this staple of my childhood kitchen and the great void of my own – was forever and completely changed. In the era of beautiful entertaining, when women did all the work and kitchens were stocked with the proper equipment, my mother transformed a forsaken hors d’oeuvre tray into the best damn pizza pan this world has ever seen.
She continues to amaze.