FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Today scores of Americans are straining to prepare Thanksgiving dinner exactly the way that their mother or their grandmother did. But as essayist S. Pearl Sharp discovered, you can't cook that good, old-fashioned meal unless you have those good, old-fashioned ingredients to work with.
S. PEARL SHARP: Tis the season of pots and skillets. I still have one of my grandmother's large cast-iron skillets. It's more than half-a-century old and it weighs 5 pounds without any food in it. It is more than a skillet. It's my mother trusting me with some of the cooking tasks, slowly allowing me to grow into her shoes.
My maternal grandmother Ethel - I called her Nana - taught me to cook by showing me, then refusing me to show a second time because you've see me do this enough times. You should have been paying attention. Then just before my tears of frustration would fall into the piecrust dough, she would with pretended annoyance show me again and again until I got it right. It is a memory of three women, three generations of women cooking together and often cooking while singing in three-part harmony.
Nana would season this cast-iron skillet, a procedure as old as iron pots. It's done to prevent the skillet from rusting and to keep any metallic taste from getting into the food. You season or re-season cast iron with an unsalted fat, rubbing it in well, then placing the iron into a warm oven for about an hour or so.
So when I take a shortcut and zap the skillet hurriedly with canola oil from the fridge and a paper towel, Nana is probably turning over in her grave. She used suet nothing else. Lamb suet. Suet is the snow white, very dry but rich fat that hugs the kidneys of a beef cow or lamb. Of course, I didn't remember all of that when I was suddenly struck with the inspiration to reclaim the family kitchen traditions. I just run out of the door in search of some lamb suets.
I'm looking for suets.
Unidentified Man: What are suets?
SHARP: Lamb suets.
Unidentified Man: No, I don't know.
SHARP: It's the fat. The richest part of the fat that's in the lamb, and some people use it for puddings but other people use it to season skillets.
Unidentified Man: You're asking me if do we have it?
SHARP: I'm looking for suets.
Unidentified Man #2: We don't have them.
SHARP: No. You know where I can get it?
Unidentified Man #2: No, I don't.
SHARP: OK. Thank you.
As I look down at all the meats tucked precisely into foam trays and wrapped tight in plastic, I realized that the butcher shop as I knew it is an endangered species. Perhaps my Mexican-Cuban-El Salvadorian neighbors are more into the real thing. I head for the bodega on the corner.
Unidentified Man #3: Ernie go to 7B -
SHARP: (Speaking foreign language)
The fat from the lamb.
Unidentified Man #3: I'm new here. So I don't know.
SHARP: OK. All right. Thank you.
Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language)
Unidentified Man #5: Suet?
Unidentified Man #4: No. I'm afraid.
Unidentified Man #5: (Speaking foreign language)
SHARP: Next, I tried the old Farmers Market, a Los Angeles landmark built more than 70 years ago. Maybe the old butcher shop is still there.
I am looking for suets.
Mr. LOU DAROSA(ph) (Butcher, Laconda(ph)): Suet, we generally have kidney suet, used around the holidays for Yorkshire pudding.
SHARP: Actually I need it for seasoning. My grandmother used to use it to season the skillets.
Unidentified Man #6: Yeah.
SHARP: I'm in luck, almost. Butcher Lou Darosa(ph) at Laconda Meats wants to help but -
Mr. DAROSA: You want lamb suet? Ah, we have beef suet. Can I get you lamb suet? I'm not sure if I can or not.
SHARP: There were only two real butcher markets here. So Huntington Meats is my last chance.
Unidentified Man #8: Ah, we get two shipments on our lamb, Wednesday and Thursday when we usually break our lamb. Would you like our card?
SHARP: The following week I returned to the market. I'm so excited I buy suet from both butchers.
Unidentified Man #8: Okay, let's just see how close we are. That's about two-thirds of a pound. Is that a good amount? That's 2.98 is $2.
SHARP: Thank you so much.
I now have enough lamb suet to season every pot on my block. Can you freeze this stuff? On the way home I fill with longing for the kitchen I grew up in. I long for the old kitchen smells; scents that signal care and patience. No beep of a microwave here.
I remember my grandmother standing on her feet for long hours kneading dough into homemade loaves of potato bread or dozens of hand-shaped traditional hot cross buns in the spring and in autumn tediously chopping the fruits and nuts that would go into brandy-drenched fruitcakes. No one ever used a mix in my house, so my thoughts danced around squeezing lots of lemons for Nana for the made-from-scratch lemon pie filling. Ah, the divine fresh citrus smell.
As I dip my fingers into the soft suet and works the fat into the curves of the old blackened skillet, I miss the season as it used to be. The traditions around cooking from scratch. The way the house filled up with the laughter of my uncles who swore we were trying to get them intoxicated because there was a little brandy in the yams and some wine in the oyster dressing and the rum in the eggnog. Of course, we women pleaded our innocence.
My family also had the tradition of having at least one person at the table during holiday meals who lived alone or had no family in town. This year I am that person. What I once took for granted, distance and depth and modernization have taken away. So maybe my search for suet is not so much for the skillet but really a homesickness for a busy kitchen where three generations of women sing in three-part harmony while they prepare for the season of food and company, life and beauty and sharing a little extra love.
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CHIDEYA: S. Pearl Sharp is an actor and documentary filmmaker living in Los Angeles.
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Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Grandma Louise, Uncle Joe…
CHIDEYA: Thanks so much for joining us. To listen to this show or other archived shows visit NPR.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
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