Pop’s Pot

After loading up the SUV with nearly a dozen boxes of cloths, knick knacks and other household items and then traveling several miles, only then did I first hear it rattling behind me. When I asked, my friend informed me in a matter-of-fact tone of voice that it was just Pop’s Pot making all that racket back there. After promising her the rattle would drive me to distraction if it wasn’t silenced, she assured me she would properly secure it when we stopped at the next light, a promise that was quickly kept and the noise soon forgotten.

While driving the remaining half hour to our destination my friend delivered up a primer on the genealogy of Pop’s Pot, with all the really interesting details filled in the next day. ‘Pop’ was Grandpa on her father’s side, one of four Baden, Germany heritage boys (no girls). Born a US citizen in 1887 (because his parents emigrated to America several years earlier) Pop was a World War I veteran who served with honor as a quartermaster before returning home to the States to work as a carpenter, back when homes were hand built by skilled craftsmen who toiled all their lives to better their honorable tradecraft.

My friend told me of delicious childhood memories from more than 40 years ago of Pop spending countless hours in the kitchen cooking Sauerbraten, essentially beef marinated for days on end before the process of low heat slow cooking in Pop’s kettle could even begin. The finished product, the most tender and delectable beef she had ever eaten was then served up with potato dumplings (Kartoffelklösse) and other traditional German side dishes to the gathered friends and family. If Pop was cooking, most likely (extended) family was near. The only casualty when Pop cooked up a storm was the kitchen itself, which always took heavy collateral damage and was rarely cleaned up by Pop himself. Such is the privilege of age.

During Pop’s later retirement years (he lived a long and full life of 93 years) he rotated through three of his four children’s homes to live, stopping at one for three to five years before moving on to the next. This enabled him to spend many summers on the Jersey shore, a place he dearly loved to visit right up to his passing. While Pop always packed light and had only a few worldly possessions other than his clothes and personal property, his kettle always traveled with him from home to temporary home, ready to be pulled out and fired up in order to prepare any number of favorite dishes. The old quartermaster always made sure he came equipped to fend for himself as well as for those who crossed the threshold to visit.

When we reached our destination the big aluminum kettle was scooped up with the rest of the load and dumped on the living room floor for sorting and disposition as soon as everything else was in. There perched on top of three large boxes of clothes was Pop’s Pot, its lid askew and severely misshapen and several medium to large dents clearly visible in the side of the kettle itself. It was obvious that the old war horse had been damaged through the decades, though I had seen worse in my own kitchen a couple of times during my lifetime. But despite its battered appearance I did not look closely because I’d been assured that the pot was capable of cooking tomorrow’s meal, my friend’s special recipe chili.

However when examined more closely in the light of the day ten hours later, my friend was no longer certain that the pot was serviceable or even salvageable for that matter. The lid was distorted and would not sit flat on its perch, leaving a half inch opening on one side and a quarter inch gap on the other. Worse, something heavy had either been dropped on or smashed into the lid, with the impact deeply denting the soft aluminum in two spots opposite of each other. This rough handling left the impression that the lid was snarling at the world, angry at its poor treatment since Pop passed away more than 30 years ago.

The kettle itself was about 11 or 12 quarts in capacity and of substantial thickness, but still very light precisely because it was made of a high quality yet soft aluminum. The good news was that the kettle was in slightly better condition than the lid, but still pretty beaten up. Thankfully the thickest surface, the bottom of the pot itself, was not significantly damaged or dented. This turned out to be a blessing because if the base is not flat the pot won’t properly conduct heat on today’s modern ceramic flattop cook surfaces.

But the sides showed evidence of several hard knocks and years of rough handling. In fairness to the present caretaker, the aluminum is very soft and prone to dents and dings, especially in the hands of an athletic and active family. I imagine that at times the kettle stood in as a substitute play toy for the younger members of her now nearly grown family. We all know how pets and young children like to climb into boxes and small spaces, psychological protection from a sometimes cold and capricious world. My mother tells me that way back when, one of her big pots served as a winter sled for the youngest and smallest in my own family.

I asked if I could check out Pop’s Pot more closely after I was told it most certainly wasn’t going to be used to prepare the afternoon meal and was probably beyond repair as well. Examined more closely, I was immediately struck by how the pot and lid looked like an old craggy face, one we would immediately associate as filled with character; extremely weather beaten, deeply wrinkled and almost wise looking.

 

Old Face

Testing a small flat surface of the lid for flexibility I was immediately surprised how malleable the old aluminum was in my hands. With some effort I could bend it with my fingers. Instantly I thought to myself that they had better use a stronger aluminum alloy when they build those jet airplanes or I would never fly again.

My inspection of Pop’s Pot was interrupted when my friend showed me an old cake dish and matching interlocking cover, one of those quality pieces that’s heavy in hand and made to last, a favorite of hers that had also been rescued from storage the day before. Unfortunately the flange on the bottom of the cover only locked into two of the three raised lips on the base. Looking more closely I saw that one of the lid flanges had been bent out of position, probably when it was dropped while being cleaned or transported.

Realizing that this piece was constructed from far stronger material than Pop’s Pot, but that it was definitely fixable, I cast about in the tool bin in search of a hammer and something to pound on, finally fishing out a hefty flat crow bar and framing hammer. Enlisting my friend’s help to hold the cake pan cover steady on the kitchen table with the damaged section hanging off the edge (the table surface was carefully protected by a folded towel) I placed the flat bar under the bent flange to act as an anvil and then slowly pounded down the upturned edge.

In just a few minutes we had transported the damaged cake pan and cover back to near perfect condition. And best of all, my friend was immediately pleased and delighted by the repair and resurrection. What seemed so simple and obvious to me, the ability to use simple metal working tools, was magic to her.

Seeing her delight from witnessing a form of cold forging brought me new perspective on how my life experience and understanding colors my world view when compared to others of like mind but different experience. At times we think things are impossible simply because we have little experience with what is possible. Immediately my mind flashed back to Pop’s Pot. Maybe we could restore the old war horse as well?

I returned to the old kettle to finish my examination and to ponder restoration while my friend filled me in on the finer details of its long journey to her custody nearly eighteen years ago. While the modern on-the-run family is less prone to cook long and involved meals in a kettle these days (today the electric crock-pot reigns supreme as the new all purpose cook kettle) my friend has used Pop’s Pot to prepare many stews, soups, batches of chili and even the occasional pot roast for her family. So the kettle has suffered the normal, and not so normal, wear and tear of the modern kitchen used by several (not-so-careful) cooks during its stay in her home.

Seeing the concern on her face and the distress in her voice that she would be the one to retire such a wonderful family heirloom only served to double my determination to do what I could to breathe new life into Pop’s Pot. Once again working as a team, with her holding the lid while I reshaped the soft aluminum with both the hammer and my hands and fingers, we were quickly able to flatten the lid so that it would now properly seat. We were also able to greatly diminish the scars left behind by the heavy impacts previously described.

Setting aside the lid and taking up the kettle I could see that decades of heating and cooling had baked on a rough uneven patina of grease and grime that was deeply embedded under the rolled rim and into the creases created by the manufacturing process. Looking even closer I could see discoloration in the very pores of the aluminum itself which had become subtly pitted and scared over the years by God knows what chemical combinations, natural or otherwise.

I decided to tackle the biggest dents first and to the distress of my friend I placed the pot on the folded towel on the table and picked up the hammer to begin taping out the first dent. This approach was rapidly vetoed by my friend out of fear for the kitchen table underneath and rather than explain that the blows applied would be gentler than those applied to the cake pan, I immediately looked for another solution.

I quickly realized that the top of my thigh would serve the same purpose, with the softer muscle tissue acting to cushion the hammer impacts while affording some give to allow the metal to gently deform back into place with the underlying bone acting as ultimate support. My friend looked dubious but didn’t object, though I suspect she thought an emergency room visit was just around the corner. This method quickly proved effective and within 10 minutes the kettle was looking as good as I could get it considering the crude tools and working conditions.

The final act of restoration was a good hard scrub with pre-soaped steel wool pads and plenty of elbow grease, a task we shifted back and forth to each other as we tired and took a break. An old beat up kitchen knife, sharp edge pointed away to protect the foolish, was employed to dig out some of the more stubborn grime lodged under the rim and in the various cracks and crevasses. After thirty minutes of scrub-a-dub-dub we were both very surprised how nice both pot and lid looked. I couldn’t believe it was the same beat up old wreck we had started with just an hour earlier.

Best of all, while working together we were able to discuss what it was we were actually doing, which was far more than simple metal repair. Pop’s Pot represented so much more than just an object imbued with the family history. It carried within it a collage of memories that ran much deeper than just my friend’s. Her children and extended family have also seen, and used, the kettle during family gatherings. Everyone in the extended family knows about Pop’s Pot, if only by sight and/or legend.

Not only were we repairing the old damage inflicted over the decades, but we were beginning a new chapter in Pop’s Long Conversation with his extended family. By repairing the damage, then using the newly refurbished kettle to prepare yet another family meal, we were continuing the Long Conversation begun more than half a century ago, only this time with new commitment and resolve.

While Pop’s Pot had served her well over the last two decades, my friend was now giving back in order to continue carrying it all forward through her branch of the family tree. What had just an hour earlier been seen as a Broken Connection was now not only repaired, but renewed and reinvigorated with her mind and spirit. And soon enough with the minds of those who remember Pop and everything Pop and his generation represented.

Above all else, for my dear friend and me, this magical metamorphosis was a confirmation that Remembering to Remember involves more than just Remembering what has been and can still be, but that we must be proactive in creating our own reality. Life is meant to be created and then lived, not served up by others. If we don’t construct our own reality, a decidedly less appetizing and distorted reality will be served up for us. Thus the lesson delivered and received by Pop’s Pot that fine fall afternoon.

01-18-2014

Cognitive Dissonance

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