An Italian Shopkeeper Taught Me How to Clean a Copper Pot—and the Copper Pot Taught Me How to Take Care of Myself

published Sep 30, 2020
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Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Trigger warning: This piece shares details about a disordered relationship with food.

The copper pot was on sale: $250 down from $1,200, because the chic Italian couple who owned the store couldn’t afford Williamsburg rent anymore and were going back to Turin. It was heavy and gleaming, and I wanted it, but $250 for a cooking utensil? I told myself this copper pot was really an essential part of my journey. I’ve spent my adulthood working to unlearn all of the food associations from my childhood, when my weight-obsessed mother would send me to fat camp and enlist me in Weight Watchers. It took her death and 10 years of therapy to break me out of so many toxic food habits. This copper pot was going to help me live my best life, full of effortlessly cooked meals that would satiate me both spiritually and physically. 

A bargain at $250—$300 if I wanted the lid, too. I wanted the lid. 

You clean it with ketchup,” smiled the Italian shop owner as I paid. Impossibly thin, with shining long dark hair, I had a hard time imagining that she’d ever put ketchup on anything let alone cleaned with it. I thanked her and left. Every step home I told myself I was taking another stride into my new gourmet life.

It turns out that copper gets dirty fast—we’re talking caked-on layers, despite using it only to heat up frozen dumplings and make stir fry a few times. It also turns out that you need a half-gallon of ketchup to scrape off just the first layer of scum. In fact, the first time I used ketchup to clean the thing, I ended up rubbing my hands raw with effort. Still, the shine of the pot afterwards was satisfying in a way I hadn’t expected.

Credit: William Horn

I’m a writer, which means I have the least practical job imaginable. But beyond the practicality of a life dedicated to trying to put words on experiences that defy them, my job requires that I be judged by people I’ll never meet. If my ideas are not getting rejected two or three times a week, I’m not working. It’s hard to know what’s “good” or what has “merit” when you get form rejection after form rejection. So much of my life is spent trying to eyeball the literary taste of strangers and then attempting to satisfy them in my own style. 

I bought the pot to make me feel better about food, but it really makes me feel better about life. I gave up on the ketchup and bought some heavy-duty copper cleaner and now I polish the pot and the lid once a week. Sometimes more. 

You can’t debate with the gleam of a well-scrubbed copper pot. The alloy of the metal turns from a sickly deep rust to a bright almost pinkish hue that reminds me of sunrise, and in the reflection of its new sheen everything feels fresh again. Sometimes the words don’t come, sometimes the page sits empty. Sometimes I don’t want to think or try, or attempt to thrive in a world that feels like it feeds on misery. 

So, I clean my copper pot, and as I watch my face slowly swim into view as I strip back layer after layer of scum, I remember that I’m allowed to struggle, I’m just not allowed to give up.