Clay Pot: Not

by Katherine Reback
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clay-pot.jpgLet me be unequivocal here:  I hate my clay pot. 

I bring this up because of the front page article in the LA Times Food section on October 28, 2009 entitled “Clay Pot Alchemy” in which Paula Wolfert, the cookbook author, seen smiling broadly in front of her multitudinous collection, announces she’s ‘never met a clay pot she didn’t like.’

Allow me to introduce her to mine.  Such is my disdain for this thing that it lives in the very back of the very top shelf of our utility closet, reachable only by standing on the top rung of the step ladder, moving 8 bags of Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta, a dozen 28 oz. cans of San Marzano tomatoes, 4 giant bottles of Dijon and several extra large boxes of Q Tips which we bought at Costco more than 3 years ago and I am not even slightly exaggerating when I say we could have Q Tips for life.  Only then will you find my clay pot, wedged in the corner like some dunce who was sent there for getting the answer entirely wrong.

Because entirely wrong is what Clay Pot cooking is to me.  The roast chicken from the little recipe booklet included with purchase was not “moist and browned” as promised but wet and wan.  And the red peppers?  The Zucchini?  Those tomatoes?  Limp. Limper. Limpest.

I would have donated my clay pot to the National Jewish Women’s Council Thrift Shop where once a year I haul outsized, green lawn and leaf bags full of unworn clothes, or left it out in our alley where, no matter what you leave on top of those garbage bins magically disappears by the next morning, were it not for that one time. 

resident-flamingo.jpgAfter my mother died, my father took up with a woman whom we shall call…RB.  They moved from the East Coast to Palm Beach, Florida where they built a large house in one of those gated affairs with 3 pro golf courses and miles of winding paths full of Bobby Jones-clad retirees driving identical golf carts.  Long-legged birds (all protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty) roamed the property, and living in the Everglades behind their house were alligators, one of whom would occasionally venture out onto someone’s lawn and get hit in the head with a golf ball. 

After they had lived there for less than a year, my father and RB decided our family and hers would unite in Florida for a ‘family’ Thanksgiving.  We would number about 25.
And RB’s son, who, among his other talents, had once been a corporate chef, and I would cook.

I was happy.  Thanksgiving has always been my most favorite holiday.  And I was quite fond of RB’s son; he knew his way around a kitchen in the most easy-going and confident manner.  He was great fun.  Plus he was a Buddhist; serenity could come in handy when you’re cooking for 25.

By the time I wandered into the kitchen at 7:30 on Thanksgiving morning, the Son had already put up a pot of coffee and the giblets for the stock and the gravy.  We turned on the TV to the Macy’s Day Parade, and were just starting to brown the sausage and chop up the onions, celery, chestnuts and dried apricots for the stuffing when my father strode in. 

“Do not,” he said,  “stuff that turkey.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean,” he said, “I don’t want anyone getting Salmonella.”

This was, I want to say, around 1999, and I had yet to become a crusader in the Salmonella witch hunt.

“Dad,” I asked him, “in all the years we’ve been stuffing our turkeys has anyone ever gotten Salmonella?”

“That isn’t the point,” he said.

turkey.jpg“But it is,” I answered.  “You’ve been eating turkeys stuffed with stuffing for what - 81 years?  And in 81 years neither you nor anyone you even remotely know has ever gotten Salmonella.”

I thought this a completely cogent argument but clearly it had the same effect that telling someone who’s afraid of flying that more people are killed in car crashes every year than they are in plane crashes did.  Which is to say: none.

“I don’t want to take any chances,” said the former Navy Lieutenant adamantly.  “Don’t do it.”  And with that, he left the Theater of Operations.

I love my stuffing stuffed in the turkey.  I fantasize about it for about 363 days a year.  It’s one of the things I’m most thankful for on Thanksgiving. Personally, I was pissed.  But practically, there was another problem:  we were out of baking pans and casseroles.   Except for the inside of the turkey, we had absolutely nothing in which to bake the stuffing.

We went around the kitchen, peering in all the cabinets, pulling out all the pull-out shelves.  Just when it seemed we’d run out of places to look, The Son opened the cupboard high above the stove.  “Ha,” he said and took down a clay pot. 

He placed it on the counter and gave it a once-over.  “This could be really interesting,” he said thoughtfully.  “The way the air circulates, it’ll actually approximate the inside of the turkey.  And because the lid doesn’t fit too tightly, it will let a little bit of steam escape in the same way that a little bit of steam escapes from inside the turkey, which is why the stuffing won’t dry out.  What do you think?”

What did I think?  As ideas go, I thought it was right up there with parachute pants.  And moon boots.  “I’m wide open,” lied the President and CEO of the I Hate My Clay Pot Club.

We filled the sink with cold water and soaked the lid for 10 minutes.  We spooned our stuffing into the pot, added extra turkey stock, and dotted it all with butter.  We put the lid on, put it in a cold oven, turned the heat to 375 and baked it for an hour or so.
One taste and I knew The Son had been absolutely right:  it was moist but not soggy.  The vegetables still had texture.  And surprisingly, it was chock full of turkey flavor.

“You’re a genius,” I said to The Son who, at the time was getting his PHD in some esoterica or another and in fact sort of was.  And everyone at the table agreed.   Were it not for the fact that you actually saw the stuffing being taken out of the clay pot and not from inside the bird, you would hardly have known the difference.

clay-pot.jpgSo even if you feel about your clay pot as I feel about mine, take it down once a year and use it to bake your stuffing.  You’ll be so glad you did.   Plus let’s be honest:  that corner in the back of the top shelf of your closet could really use a good cleaning. 


Katherine Reback was born and raised in Connecticut.  She is a screenwriter, speechwriter and essayist.  She lives in Beverly Hills, California with her husband, the artist Sonny King and their cat, Harry.



#1 Jane Moritz 2009-11-20 22:28
Kathy, great idea. Now tell me this: how do you get one's mother, who is making the stuffing? Especially when the mother in question is the Queen Cook of Fairfield County? :-)

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