Death of a Skillet

My skillet died last week while I was making pancakes. This was not just any skillet. It was a Sunbeam skillet that I received as a gift when I moved into my first apartment sans roommates in November of 1978. To be accurate, it’s not actually the skillet that died, but rather the temperature control mechanism that plugs into it. The dial is not supposed to twirl all the way around, but it does now. There was a telltale electrical smell involved as well. The skillet itself – well, that’s sturdy enough to be used as a shelter for cockroaches after a nuclear war.

It was the perfect gift at the time. I had just escaped a horrible situation with some idiotic roommates, one of whom had no compunction about stealing food when he was hungry. I looked out the window of my Seattle office one day and saw a for-rent sign on a small apartment building a block away.

The apartment was coyly termed a “junior one-bedroom.” This meant that instead of an actual wall separating the bedroom from the living room, a closet unit separated the two. Calling it a junior one-bedroom was classier than saying “studio with a closet in the middle.” It had a cozy bathroom and an even cozier kitchen. In fact, it had only an under-the-counter refrigerator, and barely enough counter space for a toaster oven and a dish drainer. No stove – hence the need for the skillet.

I loved that apartment. Being four minutes away from work by foot was a big help when another oil embargo hit the following year. At least four bus lines ran through the area, and it was less than a block from one of Seattle’s most beautiful urban waterways, Green Lake. During Seattle’s long summer days, I could leave work, rent a kayak, spend an hour paddling on the lake, and still be home in daylight. The rent when I moved in: $180 per month. (Current rent: $725 per month.)

I loved the skillet too. It was great for pancakes, hash browns, eggs, anything breakfasty. It lasted through three apartments, one townhouse, and a single-family home. The kitchens got bigger but the skillet stayed the same, except for getting dirtier on its exterior because that was the hardest part to clean. Do appliances still last that long? I doubt it. Our blender died last month and had to have a new motor installed, and I’m fairly sure I bought it in this century.

I don’t want to imbue too much significance to a mere appliance, but in a way, it was a lot like my first car. As a housewarming gift for my first apartment, it represented independence, a new phase in my life. As a kitchen tool, it represented nourishment, a way to stoke the fires for the next day and the day after that.

I don’t have many things left from 1978. I have books and perhaps a poster or two up in the attic, but the prosaic things, the work-a-day things, they’re all gone. Skillets aren’t even the kind of thing you find in an antique store. It’s one of those reliable things that’s there every time you need it, until one day when you least expect it, it’s gone, its long stretch of service admirably completed.

In 1978, an inoperable skillet probably would have ended up in the garbage. If there’s a happier ending today, it’s that I’ll carefully unscrew its plastic handles and legs, and carefully place the skillet and its lid in the dumpster at the local recycling center marked for scrap metal. If there is a special god for appliances, it will get melted down and come back again to serve someone else just starting out on their life.


About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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16 Responses to Death of a Skillet

  1. Janice Brown says:

    Bravo! A beautifully written piece that took me back in time to when I was just starting out in my first solo apartment – also in 1978, also tiny, also $180 a month, but in the Boston area. Coincidentally, my favorite skillet (which I have dragged around with me for years) also just died – the victim of too much cornstarch used to thicken the sauce in our favorite skillet chicken dish. We had a moment of silence before carting the skillet off to the dump. My replacement pan is shiny, tres chic and highly functional, but just not the same.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Janice. Is your old apartment still there? Mine is, and the property management folks have a web site with photos. The closet-in-the-middle is still there, but they’ve remodeled the kitchens, replacing the under-the-counter refrigerator with an honest-to-goodness stove. The refrigerators (not full-size) live outside the small kitchen area, in the area I used for my small table. I’m not sure where occupants eat now!

  2. Fred Sandsmark says:

    Or maybe you can just get a new temperature control thingy. (Is it one of the ones that plugs into the skillet?)

    Related, in that I’ve been thinking about the emotional weight of possessions: I’ve been cleaning out the attic over the last few weeks. (For strangers, which I assume is most of you, I live in the house I grew up in. Long story.) I’ve found a few treasures from childhood, and lots of junk. My siblings and I agreed that it was okay for me to photograph and toss most of the stuff, rather than keep it. A few things, such as a very cool Paul McCartney doll and a wooden boat I made in preschool have been liberated and given places of honor.

  3. Hey, you’ve got the start of your own blog post right there, Fred!

    It turns out I can get one of those temperature control thingies. Unfortunately, the skillet is already on its way to the recycling center.

  4. Virginia says:

    Oh no! Not the electric skillet that was the source of so many perfect pancakes! I am sad.

  5. Oh, no — the late, lamented skillet was far too small for that. The skillets I used for church brunches are waiting to take its place.

  6. SR Newman says:

    That’s a lucky skillet!
    My own, which predates your late one by several years, belonged to my mother. It’s been 3-legged for some time and I’ve devised a peg-leg prosthetic by wedging a Jello box under the appropriate corner. Such as it is, it’s still my 1st choice for Beef Stroganoff. If one can’t be loyal to one’s skillet, what hope is there?

  7. GingerR says:

    I never had a skillet like that, but my mother did.

    She used to make chow mein with canned Chinese food and crunchy noodles and she’d heat the chow mein stuff up in the skillet.

    I lived in a big co-op and we bought food together so we didn’t have the same battles over who was eating whose food. Instead the vegetarians battled the meat-eaters over the quality of the main dish for dinner. It left me with a lifelong impression that Vegans are hard to get along with.

  8. Cindy Costell says:

    Howard, what a flood of memories you have unleashed for a number of us ! It is sad that your skillet went to recycling heaven before it could be fitted with a new control. Let’s hope that its materials become integrated into numerous new products, to be used in health, hope and bliss by generations to come.
    My mom got a set of cookware when she married in 1930. Some 45 years later, she thought (irrationally, according to my father) that she “deserved” something new — so she sashayed out and got modern pots and pans, which of course soon deteriorated and were utterly no match to the 1930 items, which my father had insisted she save. And so, the new set was pitched and she went back to the originals. As a child in the 1940’s, every Sunday I looked forward to a pot roast in the biggest vessel. To this day, I use the big skillet and that roasting pot from Mother’s set. In 1963, as a wedding gift, I received a half-dozen flour sack dishtowels hand-embroidered by the church ladies in my parents’ small Kansas town. I’m still using those same towels to dry my dishes. Yes, dry dishes, as I choose to have no dishwasher in the middle of Silicon Valley. Maybe we Middle-Age Crankies are lurking behind every piece of moss, Howard.

    • I will not belittle your choice. Of all the appliances I could live without, I think dishwasher would be highest on the list. Definite must-haves: microwave and garbage disposal.

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