Cast in iron

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.
It is Friday evening.

I am nervous as mum begins to cook dinner for us.

Whatever will she think when she opens our kitchen cupboards and spots our new cast iron cookware?

Out of habit, I predict her words before she’s even uttered them. “Ho Yee ah, why did you waste money on such a heavy pan? Ho yee ah, why don’t you just stick to Teflon pans? They are so cheap and so good…”

However, my mother surprises me as only she can.

I find her in the kitchen, with the five-quart deep skillet on the stove top. There is no surprise or disapproval on her face. Instead, she looks poised and ready for action.

“What do you think of it?” I ask, hesitantly.

“It’s good ah. Your Por Por used to cook with something like this.”

“What? Really?” I am suitably impressed and somewhat euphoric.

If truth be known, when I ordered the skillets, I had rather romanticised the notion of using cast iron. I had even imagined a connection between the traditional cookware with my own past. And here was mum, telling me that my own grandmother cooked with cast iron.

“Yes, yes. Your Por Por had a cast iron wok. Very big. Very heavy. Good health benefits ah. Last long time. Very good to cook with.”

I am incredulous. Not only is mum repeating to me everything that I’d read online, but it is clear to me that she wholeheartedly approves of my decision. I feel jubilant. And vindicated.

Mum goes on to tell me about Por Por’s superhuman abilities.

“Your Por Por was amazing. She would cook for thirty person all by herself when it was Chinese New Year. Eight courses. Three tables. Two stove tops. One wok.”

I am not at all surprised to hear this about Por Por. I have always known her to be a remarkable woman. She was a mother of ten children, after all, and she lost two of them when they were little. I may not have known Por Por very well, but this I know for certain: she was a woman of strength and grace. In a way, I can’t imagine her cooking with anything but cast iron.

As I watch mum wield the iron skillet with deftness and ease, it is clear to me that Por Por has passed her culinary abilities onto her daughter, my mum.

The cast iron does not faze mum in the least. She instinctively knows how much oil to add and what heat to use. She wraps a cloth around the handle before I even have time to get the oven mitts out. She knows when to put the lid on and when to take it off. Without skipping a beat, she cooks the choi sum to perfection: it is juicy, tender, and full of flavour.

As we serve up dinner together, I ask her again whether she is happy to come and stay over once every few weeks. I long to spend more time with her and to learn more from her – something which I (sadly) never bothered to do when I was younger. I long to learn all her recipes, but more importantly, I long to learn all about her childhood and her family. I long to learn her story – to document it, to write it down, to tell it to the boys. Because it is my story too.

To my relief, she offers the same answer she did when I first suggested it. “Yes. Just give me a week’s notice ah.”

Before the evening is up, mum asks me an important question of her own: “Ho yee, how much did the pans cost?”

She guesses that they cost a few hundred dollars. I tell her that the skillets were about forty to fifty dollars each. It is her turn to be impressed.

“Oh, that is very good ah.”

And with that, I know that I have done her proud.

  • Diane said:

    Ronnie, this is a beautiful story of the generations of women in your family. I love the thought of your mum coming more often so the two of you can share more of your lives. Hugs to you!

  • Annabel said:

    Mothers will always, always surprise us!
    This is a lovely glimpse into your life and such a delicate relationship.
    It makes me feel very hopeful!
    Thank you!

    Abel x

  • nikki said:

    So so beautiful Ronnie, made me laugh, and smile, and almost teary at the same time. Love the way you've transcribed this for us. xx nik

  • Amber said:

    Such a lovely, special story! Cooking with mothers is such an underestimated pleasure, and how touching this one is. Sending much love xxx

  • Tori said:

    Oh Ronnie...I've returned to this multiple times, because the warmth of the words that you shared have each time enveloped me in a most wonderful hug...so soft and welcoming. I love this story - how your Mother surprised you (as they so often do) with her reaction, how you allowed her to share stories of cooking times her own Mother gifted...so much beauty, my friend. You're such a glorious storyteller.

  • Such a sweet funny story between you and your mom =) My mom's the same haha. Your references to how your mom calls on you reminds me of how my mother-in-law called on my hubby... "ah-jai ah, ah-jai ah"... I learned to be patient ;-)

  • Laurel said:

    This is a beautiful story. truly beautiful. and told with elegance.