to be be be an be be be...

It All Started With A Pot

The background for why I love to cook and serve others

They say a great novel or story begins with a single word. Well the story I will tell today begins with a pot. Not just any pot, but my pot. Now there are all types of pots made from all types of materials, but my pot is what we might call old school. It is not one of those fancy Le Creuset French pots. It is not made by Magnalite, or coated in any special Teflon material. My pot was forged from a raw material called iron and cast to be a simple vessel to prepare food. That is my pot.

I can’t help but think of a line from a movie when a soldier is handed his newly assigned weapon. This is your weapon soldier, hold it tightly, clean it, and care for it because it will save your life. My pot is almost like that.  It is a 20 gallon cast iron pot that ignited my passion to cook. That pot became my instrument of choice and I knew if used and cared for properly it would last a lifetime. Yes my pot was created like all other cast iron pots, strong, durable and ready to stand the test of time. I want to share the wonderful and exciting story of my pot and where it has been since it was created.

My pot has its beginning in Louisiana, my home state. It was forged and made by people who have a passion for cooking. Cast iron pot cooking in southeast Louisiana has its roots going back hundreds of years. I would guess if we really trace back the roots of cooking and kitchens, we would find cooking an entire meal in one cast iron pot is not new to southeast Louisiana.

As our ancestors settled in what we call home, southeast Louisiana, they brought with them a recipe that would easily be adapted through generations to become what we call Jambalaya. There are many recipes for this meal. There is creole style or Cajun style, everyone who lives in this area has their favorite style. Some call it red or tomato jambalaya and some call it brown jambalaya, it’s a personal thing I guess.

Well, back to the pot and how we became acquainted. About twenty years ago I was working for an automotive dealership. A friend of mine had gotten out of an automotive career and decided to pursue his passion for cooking. He opened a catering company and one of his first purchases was a twenty gallon cast iron pot, my future pot.

As his business grew he purchased larger pots. You know the old adage, the larger the pot the more food you can fix and who doesn’t like to fix and serve large amounts of food!

Shortly after his business started growing I would help him cook as my schedule allowed. I felt right at home cooking and serving people. Maybe some of it was because of the smiles on the faces of people as they experienced their first taste of some of the best jambalaya in the world….just saying. 

But I think in reality was what was going on, at first and I did not realize, was the pot was a focal point or maybe better said a gathering place for people to share stories and find comfort.

You see most people who love to cook use typical household pots. You probably own a normal set of pots yourself. Maybe your largest pot is a one gallon pot or maybe a little bigger. But this pot, which is not really a large pot, was twenty gallons. So the average person sees this black cast iron pot on a stand and smells the aroma of the jambalaya base cooking and it is like termites flocking to a streetlight on a hot summer evening in south Louisiana. What I was learning was that people are drawn to the pot.

Yes, people are drawn to a pot that has the aroma of butter and chicken cooking. The smell of our trinity [onions, bell peppers and celery] rising out of that pot draws them in, man, woman and child alike. It is a glowing neon leg wrapped in a black garter on a darkened street that everyone wants to see just like in A Christmas Story!

That is what I learned. The pot by itself sitting in the garage or trailer is not a big draw. But add a fire and food and you are instantly making friends. Everyone wants to be around the pot and even if allowed, stir the pot in a good way.

Ok, back to the story. So I fell in love with cooking jambalaya. About this time I was leaving my automotive career and beginning a new chapter in my life. I had quit my job, sold my house and some possessions. My wife and I were moving to St. Louis where I would be a student at Concordia Seminary.

Not sure if I would ever return to Louisiana, I wanted to purchase a cast iron pot for the next adventure of my life. My friend offered to get a pot for me, actually the whole rig as we say; a pot, lid, base, burner, hose and last but not least a large paddle/ ladle to stir with. He showed up one day to deliver my new pot but in reality it wasn’t a new pot. It was his old pot that had been used for years now. It was well seasoned as we say. Cooked in, cleaned, and oiled down after every use. This pot was ready to go on our adventure.

Some of possessions got sold, some given to friends and family and some were stored at my parents. But the pot, the cast iron pot made the moving van and the trip to St. Louis to our apartment on the seminary campus. There the pot was carefully carried down the flight of steps into our basement [what the heck is a basement]. It stayed down there for the first six or so months of my seminary education. Unused, sitting there in a basement, the famous pot stayed.

The first six months of seminary education is likened to trying to drink water from a fire hose that has been opened. It is so much information to try to absorb in such a short period of time. There are languages to learn, Greek and Hebrew, all in ten week cycles. Learn one, move to the next one and while you are learning a new language you begin using the newly acquired language at the same time. But that is only the start of the educational journey. Ten weeks at a time, with a break of two weeks in between. There is nothing quite like a seminary educational journey. I could not wait for those two weeks in between classes. It was a welcome break to reset and relax for a few moments.

It was in one of those breaks the pot came out of the basement. I broke out the recipe and started rounding up the ingredients to make enough for a hundred or so people. You should have seen that fiasco, cutting up the trinity and sausage in our small apartment kitchen. It was a sight to see and a smell to behold.

When I started cooking the pot did what it was supposed to do. It drew people in. It drew people whose noses smelled something different in the crisp air of St. Louis. The smell of simmering chicken and onions drew them like it had always done. In typical fashion when someone stares and smiles long enough at the pot I will always ask if they want to stir the pot. Most people are like giddy school children when given the opportunity to stir the pot. They are a little tense at first but that is soon replaced by getting a feel for the ingredients and the pot. The anxious smile is replaced by a peaceful smile that only one who has stirred a large pot of jambalaya understands.
Well as jambalaya goes, it wasn’t my best but the people on campus thought it was. Once the pot was emptied and cleaned it went back down into the basement awaiting its next adventure. But that adventure would take a year to happen.

The following school year I was asked by one of the pastors on campus to cook a pot of jambalaya for students who were headed out for their field work and for those graduating. It was billed as an event that would be social in nature and the pot would be the draw.

The pot never disappoints. That first event by the office of admissions at the seminary was successful because the pot drew them in like it was designed to do. The look and size of the pot, coupled with the aroma drew them for the event and it was hailed as a successful outing. Thus it began…

This event would be the premier event for that twenty gallon pot. Year after year that pot would be used to bring smiles and comforting delicious food to all who gathered around it, but like all things do that eventually changed.

Then the twenty gallon pot became too small for the event. The event on campus grew from the students of those two classes, to the students, their families and the faculty and staff. Basically the entire campus and anyone we meet in St. Louis are invited to join us. So this event that once was around a hundred and fifty turned into an event that was close to five hundred people. It was a blast! We got to bring delicious Louisiana style cooking and food to this small parcel of land in Missouri.

But the pot, or should I say pots were still the center of attention. The twenty gallon pot was replaced on these trips by thirty gallon, forty gallon and even a ninety gallon pot. No matter what the size of the pot, the desired effect is still the same.  Cast iron jambalaya pots have a draw to them like no other.

For the most part the pots and the group of Louisiana cooks that came together every year to make the trek to St. Louis confined their talents for large scale cooking to this sole event. But then one day that changed.

I guess I have skipped the fact that along the way of adding cast iron pots we added a bit more equipment than just those pots. Along the way trailers to haul the equipment were purchased. Fryers, barbecue pits, boiling pots, and all of the support equipment were secured and added to this growing collection of cooking equipment. Thus it began…

I am not even sure how it started. I try to think back but I can’t remember the actual event when the pots were used for something other than the annual trip to St. Louis to cook at the seminary, but it happened.

Katrina might have been the start as I think harder. Katrina is such a beautiful name but one nasty hurricane. That hurricane ravaged the Gulf Coast area and our former community in August of 2005. We were on our internship in the Chicago area when the hurricane hit. For a brief time our eyes were focused on the television waiting and hoping for the best. It seemed like an eternity before we finally heard from our parents, children and extended family that they were physically safe. Some had lost their homes other had minor damage but we knew we could just not sit and wait for relief to come to them.

Organizing a group from our internship church family, we filled a 24’ rental truck with food and hygiene supplies and made the trek to Louisiana. We set up our base camp in the parking lot of Bethany Lutheran our home church in Slidell Louisiana. With their facility turned into a relief camp, our supplies restocked their tables and our tent was set up outside to start cooking. Our guess is that we served close to a thousand people that day.

Since that Katrina moment, the cast iron pots have become something of beacon that draws people in and provides delicious food whenever and wherever the trailer stops and the cast iron pots roll out.

The destinations and reasons have changed from those humble beginnings on the patio of my apartment on campus. The trailers have been to St. Louis Missouri, Selma Alabama, to Moore Oklahoma, to Baton Rouge and New Orleans Louisiana, to Houston and Austin Texas, to Biloxi Mississippi and so many other local places that I have a hard time remembering all of them.

Whenever and wherever the trailer goes and the pots get unloaded the same thing happens. It’s like watching a movie that is adapted from a book written a hundred years ago. It first appears on the silver screen in the twenties, remade in the forties and redone one last time in the eighties. It is a Déjà vu experience every time the back door of the trailer opens and the pots roll down the ramp. I wouldn’t trade that feeling and that experience for anything in the world.So what is that feeling? What is that experience? It’s hard to describe. It only comes to you when you step out and help someone.

A simple twenty gallon cast iron pot, a love and a passion to cook, along with a desire to help, started it all. This is the story of my pot.