Sunday, February 17, 2019

Reminiscing: Spiders in the Pantry

I must have been ten or eleven years old when my grandmother, who was going to cook some kielbasa for me, asked me to grab a spider from the cellar stairwell. I had no idea what she meant, but I obediently went to the basement door, opened it, and began walking carefully down the stairs. I was afraid of those stairs since the bottom half were old, cracked wood, with no riser behind them. A young kid could fall right through them into the black hole under the stairs. Plus there were so many spider webs in the basement. Not knowing what grandma was asking for, I went straight for the webs.

I went up and down those stairs for probably five minutes trying to figure out what she was asking for. I was completely clueless. Finally, I gave up and went upstairs without the requested spider. My grandmother couldn’t believe that I had no idea what she was asking for, and proceeded to grab one of the black frying pans that were hanging along the wall down to the basement. There were several different sizes lining the wall, from ones that would cook single fried eggs to cooking steaks for a family of four.

Of course, my young mind couldn’t quite grasp why she called them spiders. Over time, I got used to the name, but I still never understood why they were called spiders. I did a little research and found that they really weren’t spiders. They were simple cast iron frying pans. Spiders were a different beast all together. Spiders had legs on them, but grandma still called her pans spiders.

One of the things that always intrigued me about the cast iron pans was that there was a number on the handle of the pan. The ones at grandma’s house ranged from #3 to #14. I had to look them up to see what they meant. Obviously, there were meant to determine the size of the pan. And, of course, none of the various manufacturers agreed on a standard that they could all follow. However, the bigger the number, the bigger the pan. There were other markings on the pans, but I haven’t quite figured them out.

So, how did these pans come to be called “spiders?” According to the Oxford Dictionary and the Dictionary of Americanisms, the term is definitely American in origin, with the earliest known use of the term coming in a 1790 advertisement. “William Robinson, Junr, Hath for sale...bake pans, spiders, skillets.” Obviously, at this point spiders had legs as they were differentiated from skillets.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, there seemed to be a change in the definition of a spider as new cooktops were introduced rather than open fireplaces for cooking. The legs were no longer needed, and disappeared from the pans. The new, flat pans retained the moniker of spiders, although they were commonly known as frying pans and skillets. While the term was not as widely used in the nineteenth century as we would assume, the early twentieth century saw a resurgence of the term. Poets and writers referred to spiders in their works.

My grandmother was born in 1920 and grew up in the early twentieth century, which is probably why she referred to the pans as such. She also called her couch a Davenport although it was a plain, old couch. Again, I had no idea to what she was referring when she said she was going to nap on the Davenport. I’m sure in the future, we will talk about certain things and our grandkids will wonder what we’re talking about, even if it’s something that is as simple as a spider hanging in the pantry.

I wish I had been able to grab those pans before they were sold at a garage sale. We could have definitely used them, hung them in the basement stairwell, and asked the kids to grab a spider from the pantry.

Craig Bacon thinks that spiders can also be used to squish spiders. Especially ones in the pantry.