A brief history of me and cookware

By Mir
February 21, 2011

Let me preface this by saying that the following can obviously be filed under “first world problems;” the fact that I have more than a battered tin pot in which to boil gruel means that none of this actually matters, but that’s not going to stop me from rambling on about it, anyway. You’ve been warned.

I am probably better at recalling the various cooking implements from my past than I am at conjuring memories of past boyfriends. This may be because cooking is more meaningful to me, or it may be because I have a weird memory. Hard to tell. I’m guessing it’s okay with Otto, though, as being regaled with tales of “that old frying pan I should’ve kept” may be kind of boring, but at least he never has to wonder if I’m mentally comparing our life together to amazing pie I once baked, or whatever. (Please note my restraint! I first had something here about comparing handles and then I thought better of it! Except… oh. Whoops.)

The thing is, we recently bought some new pots and it made me realized that I think I might be having a midlife cooking crisis. Does that even exist? I think it might.

It all started when I worked a crappy department store job between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I’d hoped to be planted in the designer clothing, but found myself stuck in housewares with a bunch of women three times my age. No matter; I would work hard for that $3.35/hour, because this was before I’d realized that I’m basically a lazy person.

I set about learning about everything we sold, and at the tender age of 18 I was able in very short order to explain why a burr coffee grinder was supposedly preferable to one with blades, which ice cream maker was most highly rated by consumer reports, and which cookware was best for what needs. We didn’t work on commission, but the manager looked over our sales reports and I understood that if cuts were needed, I was not only last hired but also the only person who couldn’t plead mouths to feed at home. (The only mouth I fed with my earnings was my own. Once I got back to college that TCBY wasn’t going to buy itself, y’know.)

Circulon cookware was relatively new, back then, and we touted it as the latest innovation in stovetop wonderment, roughly on par with the moon landing in terms of societal advancement. Because it had GROOVES, you see, and that meant the non-stick coating would never, ever come off!

[Aside: Know what else was new, back then? Vornado fans. We used to set one up facing the ceiling and then leave a beach ball twisting in its stream, right in the middle of the department. People used to come stand there and watch it for, okay, not hours, but certainly tens of minutes on end. Sure, it cost $50—approximately five times the cost of a “regular” fan—but you could suspend a beach ball above it! It was like a fan and a disco ball all in one!]

I loved the Circulon. I loved everything about it. I don’t know why; at that time, my culinary prowess was limited to Kraft macaroni and cheese and scrambled eggs. But it just seemed to me like the sort of thing Real Cooks™ would use. We received some sample pieces that the manager was allowed to dole out to the staff. I got my very own 1-quart pot to take home.

As a family of four, a 1-quart pot is pretty much useless. Heck, even for two people it’s kind of ridiculous, because it only holds one quart when filled to the very brim. For actual usage, it holds about a pint worth. For a single college kid, it was just the right size to heat up a can of soup. Woo! I treasured that pot and hand-washed it and dreamed of the day I could own an entire set of Circulon. (Yes, I know, it brings a little tear to the eye. I had BIG DREAMS, even then.)

Before I left the department store job to head back to school, I used my employee discount to spring for a 3-quart Circulon pot. It was of suitable girth to prepare a box of mac-n-cheese.

When I moved into an apartment my junior year, I brought my two pots and hit the thrift store. There I found a funny-looking little frying pan, extremely heavy, and enamel-coated inside and out. I bought it because the outer enamel was flame orange and I thought it was pretty. I paid $2.99 for the pan, and often joked that I was afraid I might drop it on my foot and break a toe. I also picked up some baking sheets and a casserole pan, plus some additional stuff along the way, and now my rag-tag kitchen was fully stocked to where I could cook pretty much anything my limited repertoire could want.

When it came time to pack up and move across the country to grad school, I donated the little orange frying pan back to the thrift store, opting instead to buy a couple of non-stick skillets once I settled in. It would be years later that I would realize that stupid little pan that used to hurt my wrists was a Le Creuset and I probably would be delighted to have it now (particularly at that price), had I kept it.

A year into grad school I was engaged, and I was like a kid in a candy shop as we spent a day at Macy’s registering for all of the Circulon we could ever possibly want. Our wedding guests were generous, and by the time we wed, I finally had an entire kitchen’s worth of the stuff, plus the items I’d accumulated beforehand. Over the years we then added a few more specialty pieces, like a giant stock pot and an oversized sauteuse, which sounds much fancier than it actually is.

When I got divorced, it became an awful ongoing joke with my friends that my ex kept asking for items to “make things more fair,” even if they were things that were clearly mine or, even if joint property, things that he’d clearly never use. My ex doesn’t cook, but we argued over the Circulon more than once. “I cook. You don’t cook,” I would say to him. “Besides, I have to have cookware here to COOK FOR THE KIDS. Take my grad school stuff to get you started.” No, he wanted the Circulon. I refused to budge, and kept it.

When Otto and I got married, we began the mingling and purging of items, and ended up with… mostly my Circulon. By this time, the 3-quart pot had been dropped and dented and the lid no longer fit. The first generation of frying pans had long since bit the dust and been replaced with new ones. And the 1-quart pot was still pristine, as it hardly ever gets used. The two greatest accomplishments of the marriage of our kitchens: 1) What we now refer to as the crock pot farm (no, you can never have too many crock pots) and 2) the discovery that southerners were absolutely correct that a cast-iron fry pan smooths over a multitude of kitchen shortcomings (mmmmm, cornbread).

Today my original two pots are over twenty years old, because I am a fossil. Even the first-wedding acquisitions are nearly old enough to vote, and while some cookware is designed to last forever, anything with a non-stick coating is… not. My original attachment to the wonder of having fried eggs with an embedded circular pattern on the underside has given way to fears that I’m giving us all brain cancer via tasty bits of flaking Teflon.

So Otto and I started talking about replacing our cookware, and we talked about it the way we do most things, which is to say we talk about it and conclude that Yes! We should absolutely Do Something! And then there’s something in television I feel it’s imperative that we watch—preferably with popcorn—and I forget all about it. Or, I decide to absolutely Do Something and I start looking at prices online and I pass out.

I’m not looking to outfit the entire kitchen in All-Clad or anything, either. But good cookware is pricy.

Finally, in a stroke of decisiveness coupled with a gift card and a sale, we are the proud owners of new 2-quart and 3-quart pots. (These ones, if you’re curious.) With glass lids! And no coating! And a weird notched thingie which allows you to hang the lids on the pot edge, upright, so that you can… ummm… I’m not sure. Celebrate having weird notched lids that can be hung on the sides of your pots? Maybe.

I ceremoniously dropped my old 3-quart and 2-quart pots into the garbage, after a brief discussion of the merits of donation vs. possibly poisoning someone too poor to afford new cookware.

It’s a start. Of course, not until purchasing those pots did we discover that the coordinating 6-quart pot is only available as part of the entire set, which we don’t need. My existing Circulon 5-quart is, of course, the next-most-battered piece. At some point I have to decide if I’m crazy dedicated enough to buy the set for the stock pot, then sell the rest of the pieces on eBay or whatever. I doubt I’ll do that. Maybe eventually they’ll sell it separately?

Now our cookware cabinet has old, scuffed Circulon mingling with the shiny new stainless pieces. Part of me would like an entire set of perfectly matched cookware, from tiny saucepans all the way up to a massive dutch oven, and part of me knows that the cost involved would give me hives. That’s aside from the fact that we are really just not picture-perfect kitchen kind of people. Both Otto and I love to cook, and we are both decent at it, but messy. Whether or not all the pots coordinate is generally the least of our problems. I realize this.

(My father asked me this weekend what I’m going to “do for aggravation” now that Monkey is doing so much better. I didn’t have an answer for him then, but now I’m thinking—shop for cookware! Thank goodness!)


  1. Otto

    One of the most important lessons you have taught me was the value of good cookware. In case you’ve forgotten, I was with you in that thrift store 20-something years ago. And you bought an excellent heavy-duty wood spoon.

    Speaking of which, we need new wood spoons …


  2. Varda (SquashedMom)

    I have one of those ancient Le Creuset flame red/orange frying pans from my childhood in the 60’s (yes, I’m that old, too) and I so love it, even though I need two hands to hold it when it’s full (one heavy sucker, it is!). My other favorite pan? A cast iron griddle / low skillet that makes PERFECT pancakes (on a gas stove) purchased already well used/loved at a tag sale on Mt. Desert island Maine in 1978. And I have a kitchen worth of All Clad & other fancy stuff (hubs and I have 5 marriages between us, that’s a LOT of wedding gifts), but these are my faves. Old school, baby.

  3. sassymonkey

    I love cookware. And dinnerware. And cutlery. Oh and good knives. And um you get the picture. My biggest disappointment about our new house is that the stove top is ceramic and you aren’t supposed to use cast iron pans on ceramic. It’s ok though, I can use them on the grill. ;)

  4. diane

    LOL. I used hand-me-down cookware when I first moved into my flat – typical mix of old college stuff and relatives’ castoffs. I felt like a grown up when I bought a set of Pampered Chef cookware the first year they offered it.

    It didn’t last. After about seven years it was tired, I was tired of it, and I decided to revisit the whole cooking process. I only cook for me, unless I entertain (not frequent, but more than most). I already had a well-seasoned 8″ cast iron fry pan.

    So I bit the bullet and bought a (small) set of Le Creuset. One quart saucepan, three quart french oven and six quart stock pot. Since then I’ve added a five quart (low and wide; I’m height challenged and have to stand on tiptoe much to close to the (gas) stove to see into the stock pot) and a larger traditional cast iron pan. Not much I can’t handle with just those pieces.

    Best move I’ve ever made. And bonus – an upper body workout every time you cook!

  5. Nelson's Mama

    This southern girl treats her vintage cast iron skillets better than her children ;-)

    Recently splurged on a 7-quart Le Creuset – it was worth every red cent!

  6. Jamie

    I LOVE my All-Clad, just sayin’! We replace our non-stick frypans yearly with new Costco ones, but the All-Clad will last forever. Hope you enjoy the new cookware. And for “wooden” spoons, I love my bamboo ones. I have some from Pampered Chef and Core Bamboo.

  7. Karen

    Well – my two cents. I purchased an 8 piece Tramontina tri-ply set of cookware ($149!!) from WalMart that was highly recommended by Cook’s Illustrated as the next best thing to All-Clad. Seriously…its been “life changing” in the kitchen. Don’t know how I lived without good cookware.


  8. MomQueenBee

    I spent the first two DECADES of my marriage and raised four boys using my mother’s hand-me-down Revereware. I then bought new cookware a couple of years ago, and I don’t go a single day without thinking “I love this stuff!” It certainly makes the transition to empty nest painless; you coo over the saute pan so much you don’t even notice the kids are gone.

  9. dad

    Reading your post I realized that I too own a single piece of Circulon. A 9 inch fry pan. Since I am not, and have never been, a cooking maven and would never have sprung for such a pricey luxury, I can only assume that this cookware was a gift from you while you were laboring as a department store schill.
    If this is true, thank you. It has served me well without killing me, yet. The tops of the the famed ridges have long since surrendered their coating and the valleys are partially caked with petrified grease which I have been loathe to scrub away for fear of damaging the finish.

    Are you suggesting it is time to retire this relic? I won’t throw it away, just put it with my collection of treasured memoribilia and use it only if someone requests that I cook them some scrambled eggs in the 1980’s.

  10. Frank

    Is it SO bad that I was one of the people who was fascinated by the Vornado display? I have vivid memories of both foil confetti and baby powder making such pretty things…. Now, if it happened to be your store, then I have NO IDEA how they got there…..

  11. Headless Mom

    We got ‘lovely’ nonstick cookware for our wedding, too. Do you know which pieces I like best? The cheap Revereware that I got for my first apartment, aluminum with copper bottoms. Seriously. I have a small sauce pan and a… 5 qt? I’m not sure, but those pans are way better than the ones that cost 5 times as much, and they are still in PERFECT condition, while I need to start replacing the others.

  12. The Mommy Therapy

    You might have just inspired me to start looking for new pots and pans. Maybe.

    We have a decent amount of stainless, which I don’t like to cook with but I feel are most likely not poisoning us. Unfortunately in order to easily make pancakes I feel like I have to have non stick and those are basically poison pots now that the nonstick surface is coming off.

    I should start looking now, but I’m probably just going to keep complaining about it only during pancake making.

  13. elz

    As much as I love your writing, I think I love Otto and your dad’s comments more!? Maybe.
    I worked at JC Penney one holiday season while I was home from school. In the lingerie department. Yeah, baby. I was 18 and all of 100 pounds soaking wet. I remember all these men frantically shopping Christmas Eve, one came up to me and said, “Here, what do you think? My wife is your size.” Um, I’m pretty sure she’s not. Also, I’d be pissed if my husband ran into JCP all crazed the night before Christmas and bought me some horrible excuse for negligee.

  14. Tenessa

    I, too, love kitchenware. Pots, pans, plates, flatware, gadgets, small appliances. I’ve been needing to replace my cookware, too, but mostly because it’s non-stick and I wanna move away from teflon.

  15. Megan

    Mir’s Dad – I would totally be there for breakfast in the 80’s, so long as no one mentions my highlighter-yellow cropped trousers. Date?

    My mum, to this day, cooks with three cast-iron pans inherited from her father (a genuine Southern Boy whom, unfortunately, I never met). It’s the perfect set – a tiny one for one or two eggs, or sauteeing a few mushrooms, a shallow, large one, and a gorgeous demi-deep one with a lid that can slide right in the oven after a good stove-top sear. I know I’m going to have to arm-wrestle my sister for those. I’d debate her for them but she’s a lawyer and even with my argument that I was the one who lovingly cleaned them, wiped them with a film of oil and heated them on the stove after EVERY USE, I thinks she’d still win.

    BTW, personally I would sob in my pillow at LEAST once a month over the loss of the Le Creuset frying pan. I even feel vicarious pain for you.

  16. Tracy B

    I have laughed at this because I’m going threw the same ordeal only with dinnerware. I just love Amazon because of free shipping but sometimes there are just too many choices. Go figure that! And I’m glad Monkeypants is doing better!

  17. Half Hearted Hippie

    When my ex and I broke up years ago, she got our complete set of Kitchen Aid pots and pans. I was slightly bitter (because I was the only one who ever cooked) but happy to give her whatever was necessary to make her go away. Later, I fell in love with someone wonderful who happened to have a kitchen stuffed to the gills with All Clad. I will never go back. (To the ex or the Kitchen Aid pots and pans!)

    FYI — Most of our All Clad comes from the Williams Sonoma outlet that is just up the road from our lake house and not very far at all from your home. I highly recommend watching them for sales. You will be amazed at the prices you can find there for All Clad.

  18. gaylin

    I moved out on my own in 1980 and bought crappy pots & pans, when I scorched the big pot, I splurged on a box set of Lagustina, I am still using them today, all of them have survived and I love them. I have 2 cast iron fry pans that do everything the Lagustina doesn’t (yum cornbread).

  19. hollygee

    I’ve found that the IKEA 365 stainless has the good qualities of All-Clad on the bottom of the pan (where the heat source is touching). The sides are single thickness, but still stainless. And all are well constructed and extremely reasonably priced.

  20. ellbee

    When my husband and I registered for our wedding, lo these 5 years ago (which, yes, I get is NO time at all :) I fell in love with a set of Faberware pots and pans because–RED! Red that matched the Kitchen Aid stand mixer and assorted other appliances I had my heart set on! Of course, now that I’m much more into cooking I realize that I use the old aluminum pots and saute pan from my college days WAY more than I use the Faberware non-stick malarkey. I could kick myself for not agreeing with my then-fiance when he suggested we register for the All-Clad set since it was shiny and looked well-constructed. (Bonks head on desk)
    I did, however, abscond from my parent’s house with an 8″ cast iron frying pan that’s got to be about 40 years old and I love that pan more than I love cake.

  21. Becca

    I have no idea if those pots are oven safe, or if you are likely to put them in an oven, but here’s a fun fact about pyrex. A few years back, they changed their glass formula, something to to do with EPA regulations. Now, at high heat, it shatters! There are gory pictures in a Consumer Reports from a few months ago.

  22. Half Hearted Hippie

    Becca — Interesting! A friend of mine posted a photo on facebook recently of a pyrex dish that had shattered while baking. It was a huge mess and I was pretty shocked. I hadn’t heard about this issue and just assumed she got a faulty dish. That’s really good to know!

  23. ste

    We’re in the market for new pots and pans and I’ve been watching amazon, hoping that the Rachel Ray Hard Anodized will go a little cheaper. We are replacing a piece of crap set, Generation 1 or 2 of Pampered Chef. I can’t afford anything too expensive but now I’m scared that perhaps I don’t know enough about this ‘poisoning’ thing! It was fun to read all of the comments as I usually don’t.

  24. JennyM

    Why don’t I ever find a Le Creuset frying pan languishing in a thrift store for $2.99?

    Half Hearted Hippie has the right idea — I’ve found many an excellent fancy-pants kitchen item deal at the Williams-Sonoma outlet. They send you email coupons and then you go in the outlet and stumble on one of those “everything in the store is an extra 30% off” sales and the salesperson barely has time to answer your high-pitched, slightly hysterical, “REALLY?” before you’re running amok.

  25. Little Bird

    For Christmas two years ago, my folks gave me a six-piece set of Le Crueset. Orange. Six pieces includes three pots/pans and their accompanying lids. I also have one of their stoneware bakers. I LOVE IT. I refuse to use metal utensils in them as that will leave streaks on the enamel finish. I hand wash it, and treat it better than I do any other item I own (with the possible exception of my laptop). I lust after one of their frying pans/skillets.
    For years I used some cheap Calphalon knock off, and all the teflon coating is gone from them. I threw it away when I got “grown up” stuff. I recommend e-bay for high end stuff. People get it as gifts, and it’s the wrong color or brand for them. Look into it!

  26. Flea

    Chica! Send the old cookware to your ex! He deserves it!

    I adore cast iron. My twenty dollar set for camping has been GREAT! The Dutch oven! Best thing in the world for baking southern biscuits in!

  27. Karate Mom

    When I was a kid, Visions cookware was introduced. I remember watching the commercials with the water merrily bubbling in the pot and you could SEE IT from the side of the pot! Oh, it was fascinating to me! So I decided that’s what I told my Dad that I wanted to get my mom for Christmas. I should ask her if she was as thrilled to get it as I was to give it…
    And now? I could spend HOURS AND HOURS in William’s Sonoma or Bed, Bath, & Beyond, looking at kitchen stuff!

  28. Anna

    Funny, I just acquired a 6qt pot this weekend, and you might have heard me cursing the cookware cabinet this evening. I don’t think I have room for it.

  29. Rachael

    You know, I think the only useful thing I really have in my kitchen is my cast iron skillet that I hit my husband with over the head every now and then… :)

    But really, we have so much cookware it’s insane. I need more crock pots because I rather like throwing stuff in and having dinner ready and then I don’t have to slave over a hot stove to cook for my army of nine.

  30. nil zed

    I don’t buy sets of anything. There is always something in the set which is useless and makes the rest of it seem overpriced. I buy pieces, a big cheap pasta boiler at walmart, Bed Bath and Beyond often has nifty pieces of fancy brand stuff featured.

    I have a cast iron skillet, cause I’m southern. I have a stainless skillet handed down from my mum in law, I wasn’t sure what to do with it, having only used cast iron or teflon coated before. Turns out it’s ok for the slightest of frying tasks, like sauted vegetables. Anything more involve becomes a date with the soapy steel wool scrubby, which I will go have to buy specially for this job. So, I don’t use it much.

    As for teflon skillets, I replace them after 18-24 months and get the heaviest I can for the least money at the moment.

    I wish I could find some skillets of the original type of Calphalon, when it was just cast aluminum and no non-stick coating. I won a two-burner griddle in a drawing for a wedding show I attended with my girlfriend. It was terrible at first, until it acquired a patina like cast iron does, now I love it very much, 20 years on. All the benefit of cast iron without the wrist damaging weight.

  31. Peggy Fry

    If you REALLY want to provoke a discussion here, ask this: What is the best/only way to season a cast iron pan? And the best/only way to maintain it? Soap and water ever? People get unreasonable passionate about it.

    tee hee!

  32. Sara

    Hi There – I applaud the idea of creating a safer home, and because there’s so much misinformation out there about Teflon, I’m not surprised that you are concerned. I’m a representative of DuPont though, and hope you’ll let me share some information with you and your readers, so that everyone can make truly informed decisions.

    In regards to PFOA and cancer – The weight of evidence gathered from a number of significant health studies continues to indicate to us that there is no health risk to the general public from exposure to PFOA. Additionally, no authoritative body has designated PFOA as a human carcinogen. The U.S. EPA stated that it is premature to conclude that PFOA causes cancer. For more information, please visit http://www.epa.gov/oppt/pfoa/pubs/pfoarisk.html. http://www.teflon.com/Teflon/teflonissafe and http://www.pfoa.dupont.com can provide you with additional information.

  33. mamalang

    The lid on the side of the pan is for when you are cooking, need to take the lid off to stir or whatever, and then place it back on. What do you do with it now? I usually end up setting mine on the counter or non-used burner on the stove…making a mess. :)

    My husband loves copper bottom revere wear. I hate it. But I suck it up and deal :)

  34. 12tequilas

    Wait! How many crock pots make a farm?

  35. Katie in MA

    Excellent! Not that we could EVER replace your shoe obsession, but now you can find us tasty cookware deals at Want Not that we just can’t refuse. :)

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