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Confessions of a Scavenger

Anne Mendelson

At 9:00 yesterday morning, I carried the garbage down the hall to the trash room in my apartment building. At 9:01, I was the owner of a new carbon-steel wok — well, not new, but newly grabbed from the trash room floor where I’d found it wistfully gazing up at me. It was perfectly usable, though the wok was a trifle rusted and the lid had lost its wooden knob. A very little work with kosher salt and oil got rid of the first problem. The second was easily enough solved by threading a loop of butcher’s twine through the hole and tying a few knots to keep the string from sliding.

Déjà vu all over again — I’d already rescued two woks, thanks to other people’s cluelessness about real stir-frying. My favorite is the first one ever I bagged, a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok with one straight and one looped plastic-sheathed handle. When you’re doing five tasks in 90 seconds over a high flame, these sure beat grabbing superheated metal ears with clumsy padded gloves.

Woks are far from my only specialty as snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. If every pot, bowl and kitchen tool I’ve ever bought vanished into thin air, I could still pull off a pretty good dinner with ones acquired otherwise. At least a third of my batterie de cuisine consists of found objects from someone else’s kitchen.

A stray clay poêlon

My first gold strike occurred one day during the Nixon administration, when I opened the trash room door to find that someone had thrown away a large and beautiful clay poêlon.

For those who have never encountered poêlons, they’re a family of saucepans with long, straight handles made of various metals or heavy ceramics. My new best friend was a heavy, thick-walled earthenware baking dish about 11 inches across, unglazed on the outside but glazed a rich deep brown on the inside, with a shallow pouring lip and a thick hollow handle. It’s a cousin to the stubby, potato-surrounded brown vessel in one of Van Gogh’s most charming kitchen still lifes.

I pegged it as one of the great pots from Vallauris in Provence, until the maker’s mark leapt out at me: “Brown’s Pottery, Arden, N.C.” (A little digging revealed that the company once made excellent reproductions of Vallauris earthenware.) Whatever its origin, it was a gem. The lid was missing, but the lid of my biggest enameled cast-iron skillet fit perfectly. How, I wondered, could anyone have borne to dump such a good and beautiful thing?

Ever since, the Pride of Arden has been my favorite baking dish. I use it for cassoulet, ratatouille, oven-braised sauerkraut, even baked beans. It was my luckiest find in a long career of helping myself to other people’s discards.

Rehabbing a skillet

Almost as good is the teak-handled cast-aluminum skillet — one of Copco’s discontinued Michael Lax line manufactured in Japan — that surfaced in the same prospecting field a few years later. I’ve never seen a more intelligently designed sautéing tool. It’s big enough (about 10 inches across) to hold a generous mess of smothered onions, light enough to be maneuverable, but heavy enough to transmit heat evenly. The sides are flared at the perfect angle to speed evaporation.

Some barbarian had abused this excellent pan. The surface was defaced with gouge marks auguring the worst. But to my relief, the scars didn’t hurt the sautéing process one bit. This treasure, too, had been orphaned of the original lid, but again I happened to have a perfect match.

I’ve also made off with some splendid cast-iron ware — not the rough, pebbly current stuff, but relics of a nobler era when the surfaces were routinely finished on a lathe. I can only thank the nameless benefactors responsible for my elegant six-inch Piqua Ware skillet as well as the 12-inch and nine-inch Wagner counterparts.

Among the other chance retrievals that now grace my kitchen, thanks to someone else’s housecleaning: a ravishing marble rolling pin with its own wooden rest; a carbon steel butcher knife; a two-quart aluminum aspic mold; a V-shaped cast iron roasting rack; a little ovenproof glass loaf pan (exactly the right size for a small meatloaf); a large broiler pan; a pasta or steamer insert with its own lid that just fits my biggest Dutch oven; a small heatproof glass skillet with waffled bottom; two handy wooden chopping boards; and a simple little toaster, thrown out by the new owner of a four-slice model with formidable touchpad controls pictured on the empty carton it had come in.

Trash-room bonanza

My biggest single haul occurred one snowy January afternoon when I was, once again, emptying the garbage and found the trash room jammed with Farberware, a reliable if not glamorous brand that I’ve always liked. The spoils: two small saucepans, with lids; an eight-quart stockpot, with both a regular lid and a perforated one good for draining liquid; and eight stainless steel mixing bowls in various sizes, including one that doubles as a measuring pitcher, with pouring spout and sturdy handle. On top of all this, the abandoned treasure also included an immersion blender, in perfect working order; a four-quart heatproof glass mixing bowl with both wide and narrow pouring spouts; and four 7-ounce and two 16-ounce ovenproof ramekins.

This unforeseen and undeserved bonanza jolted me into some overdue thinking about what could make people abandon such possessions. Somehow, I’d failed to see that the most obvious reasons are deaths in a family, illness, or relocation to much smaller quarters. One of these years my own downsizing project will be staring me in the face. I can only hope that on that day someone will get as much pleasure out of my discards as I’ve had from other people’s.

Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was  a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.

Zester Daily contributor Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer and culinary historian who has written for various newspapers and magazines. She is the author of "Stand Facing the Stove" (a biography of the authors of "The Joy of Cooking"; Holt, 1996) and "Milk" (Knopf, 2008). The past recipient of honors including a fellowship at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library and the Oxford Symposium's Sophie Coe Prize in Food History, she is currently working on a book about Chinese food in America.