The French Collection
How—and more importantly, why—one man accumulated hundreds of pounds of Le Creuset's sturdy cast-iron cookware.
Of all the things in the universe to collect, I had to pick the heaviest.
It began innocently, at that wondrous time in every young cook's life when he or she decides that, as charming and gleaming as Revere Ware may be, it's time to live a little in the cookware department. That was when I bought my first piece of Le Creuset, a 3 1/2-quart white enameled oval cocotte (that's Pretentious for casserole). Even when I had barely unwrapped it, I knew that I had seen my future: It was cast iron and glazed in a white so squeaky-clean you could operate off it. And within a year and a half, I owned 31 pieces, including the trivet and the steamer inserts—nearly the full collection that Le Creuset makes right now and some that they don't.
Why? you might ask. Why not copper, or aluminum? Or, as we enter the twenty-first century, why not some miracle alloy that's lightweight, heat conductive and chic?
For one thing, cast iron cooks faster than other materials do—a claim I was skeptical of, but then learned was true the hard (i.e., scorched) way. The enamel is basically nonstick yet doesn't require kid-glove treatment. What's more, some of the world's most legendary chefs—and an amateur cook named Marilyn Monroe—have collected Le Creuset. And the pots appreciate in value: Monroe's 12-piece set (in a blah shade of yellow, no less) sold at Christie's in 1999 for $23,500, so just think what a smart investment I made, provided I become a sex symbol worshiped by millions.
A less well-known, but still comely, siren—the food writer Elizabeth David—also had an affair with Le Creuset. The pots caught her fancy when she saw them in a shop window in Marseilles just before World War II. "At that time," she wrote in her 1969 booklet Cooking with Le Creuset, "I was only beginning to learn to cook, and in the passage-kitchen of a basement flat, those little French casseroles did much to help me. Everything I cooked seemed to turn out right. They were cheerful and clean-looking, and never played me an unwelcome trick."
Surely these two great ladies could not be wrong. So I started buying more Le Creuset. The first piece was a clever thing—with its molded cast-iron handles and nineteenth-century-ish construction, it was a little bit of Escoffier right in my kitchen. But let me tell you something about a 3 1/2-quart oval casserole: It's pretty useless. The first time I used it, I made a moussaka for four. The dish cooked beautifully, looked delicious coming out of the oven, with little dribbles of cheese bubbling over the sides, and I felt like a true host putting it on the sideboard to serve. But it was a labor of design love: The ingredients barely fit.
That only convinced me I needed more Le Creuset. Smart shopper that I aspire to be, I bought a purportedly extra-useful, 2 1/2-quart saucepan and eight-inch skillet combo, the latter acting either as the pot's lid or as a skillet, depending on whether you're feeling more omelette or soupe. But I rarely used it. Certainly it was functional (though if you ask me, the skillet made a somewhat unwieldy lid). But the design was—how do I put it gently?—hideous. And for me, hideousness is a clear obstacle to use.
Nor was this pot ugly in the jolie-laide way that is Le Creuset's stockpot in trade. After all, this is a company whose most memorable vogue in America was during the late '60s and early '70s, when its marigold-colored enamel ("Flame" in the company vernacular) was as much a part of the back-to-le-hearth haute culinary landscape as Julia Child, French onion soup, the Magic Pan and ferns.
That was a formative time in my life, and Le Creuset was a cultural touchstone for me. Consider this endorsement of Le Creuset's perfection: In the 1974 howler The Stepford Wives, when we get our first glimpse of one of the title creatures, a member of the Welcome Wagon, she is bearing a great big casserole in cobalt blue. Actually, anyone familiar with Le Creuset could have figured out then that something was wrong. No mortal woman—or man—could carry a full 5 1/2-quart Le Creuset pot, No. 26, through a long field with a smile on her face.
And I should know. The No. 26 (for the 26-centimeter diameter—the number is stamped on the underside, adding to the quaint French arcaneness) was my next purchase. It's big, beautiful and useful for everything from braised red cabbage to a roast chicken. But when it is filled with five quarts of said red cabbage, it weighs 20 pounds.
Still, I liked the weight. It made cooking seem manly and primal, while I was spared the trouble of actually stalking game with a spear. And it was while I was on a little Le Creusethunting sortie at Bloomingdale's that I discovered the beauty of a house charge. Soon, my little three-piece collection of Le Creuset started multiplying: a 10-inch skillet, a two-quart saucepan, an eight-quart stockpot. A 12-quart stockpot, a 4 1/2-quart French oven (a style that everyone except Le Creuset attributes to the Dutch), a trivet, a 2.2-quart tea kettle, a rectangular baker, a 12-inch skillet. Yes, all in white, please, and do you deliver? I mean, hunting is one thing, hauling is another.
The pile grew gradually for a while—a saucepan here, a skillet there—into a respectable coterie of pots and pans. With my small collection, I might have been content to think of myself as a young person struggling to make a lovely supper in my flat during the blitz, a kind of Elizabeth David Colman, if you will. But I didn't want respect. I wanted the 12-inch bistro pan. I wanted a steamer insert. I wanted envy.
Then I discovered the Internet, which let me go from covet to own with the click of a mouse and at cheaper prices—crucial, given that the No. 34 pot retails for $360 and even a plain old No. 26 goes for $220. Between eBay and the Le Creuset Web site, which provides contacts for all the Le Creuset factory stores in the country, I started racking up discontinued pieces. Two steamer inserts (the smaller one requiring, alas, the purchase of a 2 1/2-quart French oven, with which it came as a set), a medium-size double-boiler insert (which came with a new 3 1/2-quart French oven, so one of those too, please). Everything, in short, but the kitchen sink, since the one I have—a deep, white, porcelain-coated cast-iron number—already matches.
The good news (and the bad) in this disturbed and cheery tale is that Le Creuset comes out with a new pot every few months or so, just in time to feed my craving. Right now, for instance, I need a fish poacher, a square-lidded baker and a 13-quart French oven. The company has also begun making a line of kitchen utensils (in stainless steel, for some strange reason), but I am not really interested. The only thing I want from Le Creuset other than cookware, the company doesn't make. But I hope that before I go to my larder in the sky, I can convince Le Creuset to create just one: a special 900-quart version of its covered, oblong, pâté terrine pan. In angelic white, of course. So I can go to my great reward in style.
David Colman writes for Vogue and House & Garden.