The pan costs me less than lunch.

“You can’t go and buy one at WalMart,” Andreah insists for the third time, adding one of her characteristic “Ewwww!”s to further convince me that this is not the best idea I’ve ever had. We are eating at Los Aztecas, a local Mexican restaurant, and as usual, the food is delicious.

Yesterday, I explained my rationale for shopping at WalMart to Elvira, an exchange student from the Ukraine, as we were driving to the local organic food store. “I don’t advocate shopping there by any means because I’ve heard they mistreat their employees.” Andreah had worked there for three weeks as a cart pusher and was forced to work through her breaks. The company got caught a few years later, and she got a reimbursement check for about eighty dollars. “But,” I added, “I’m a broke college student. If and when I ever get a decent paying job one day, I’ll shop at better stores.” She tells me the bread is better in the Ukraine because they don’t process the flour so much. Later, at the coffee shop, she tells me about her Russian friends who bought a bread maker. A single bagel costs them about fifty cents to make. Someday, I will make my own bread. For the moment, I consider it an achievement that I’ve boycotted canned soup (but not canned stock, which just needs a little help. The overcooked starches and vegetables and the bits of unidentified meat the size of a pea and the texture of dog food are beyond the aid of every culinary wizard I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. This includes my father, who I have dubbed Iron Chef Michigan).

As the enchiladas verde begin to digest, I am hit with my mid-afternoon, overly full fatigue. I watch the thick layer of Michigan snow melt. “Just buy it at Target,” Andreah insists. I remind her that Starbucks is a bit of a corporate bastard, too. She tried it for the first time yesterday and agrees that Kaya, the local place, is better.  I’m not sure if my dad would agree with our opinions. He has been roasting his own coffee beans for almost three years now. I’m sure he thinks all coffee, excluding his own, tastes like motor oil.

When I leave the restaurant, I steer towards WalMart. Their parking lot looks like ten quarts of soup in a four-quart pot. It’s one in the afternoon on a Saturday, so I’m not shocked. I hastily navigate across the slush-covered asphalt and enter the doors. I nearly bump into a middle-aged woman with a full cart, weaving around and performing her own shopping tasks with little regard to the rest of us. I’m tempted to say, “So you’re the chicken in chicken noodle soup? Big deal. You’re not the only one in this pot, so move over and give the rest of us some room.” Instead, I weave between the aisles unhindered by a cart, and by the time she has arrived at the main aisle, I’ve already planted myself firmly in cookware.

I take one look at a two-quart sauce pan.

I’m definitely going to need something a little bigger. I inwardly chuckle at the strange reversal of circumstances, knowing that I usually fill my bowl a little to high at meal times. I don’t want to do the same with a pot. No… it needs to have a little extra room. Otherwise, it will be crowded like the aisles, and I won’t be able to move anything around without creating a fire hazard or crushing something. A three-quart pan would give me room to stir, so I peruse WalMart’s selection.

Double boiler and convertible sauce pan. Both would serve my purpose since both include a three-quart pan and lid as two of the pieces. Both are about twenty-five dollars out of my price range.

“Maybe there is something more,” I tell myself, navigating the aisles. I see Paula Deen cookware, which is even farther out of my price range. Small appliances, coffee and tea makers, and then the main aisle. As I walk, my thoughts are stewing. I could afford a thirty-dollar pan, right? But it seems foolish to spend that much when I bought my eight-quart stainless steel pot for six dollars. I go back to the aisle and stare at my options for a moment longer, then get stepped on by a polite gentleman whose wife attempted to warn him. He apologizes jovially. I smile. “It’s alright. I wasn’t paying attention, either.” And I wasn’t. I was thinking about how I should have just gone to Target in the first place.

The aisles were more placid. I only passed a young couple with an infant girl.

Target apparently divides its cookware by affordability. One aisle is devoted to pans within the budget of a graduate assistant. The other is for people who do not have degrees in English. I look through both and am drawn to a gem of a pot, a 3.2-quart aluminum pan whose cost deters me. “You are not the one,” I say. Neither are any of the ones in aisle two of cookware, whose prices mock my scant budget. I return to the cost-effective pan aisle, studying my possibilities thoroughly. After all, this pan is going to be my sous chef for the next fourteen weeks. I need it to be qualified for the job. I line them up for a group interview.

“How do you handle yourself when someone lights a fire under your ass?”

“I’m… sorry?” one of the candidates stammer.

“I mean how hot does it make you? Does the oil start to smoke within two minutes, or do you take longer to warm up to the idea of being under pressure?”

They’re made of metal, but they can’t even handle the heat.

“What is your philosophy on spices? Should they be measured before being added?” I demand next.

“Never! Just dump them right in from the canister!”

“Always! With Paula Deen brand measuring spoons for added class! Only $9.99!”

There are only two ways I measure spices: by sight and by taste. Palm and eye, then stir and try. If it tastes like enough, then it’s enough. I’m not a cooking chemist; I’m more like an alchemist, transforming canned broth into a pot of gold.

Things finally begin to pan out when I remove a three-quart sauce pan by Faberware from its place on the wall. The nonstick grip feels sturdy and reliable. The weight is just right. The glass lid is topped by a knob that seems to be made for my short fingers and broad palms. I take the lucky pan to the book section under pretense of thinking about it, but I’ve already made up my mind. It is the only one of its brethren left in the store, one of a batch of countless identical twins. Much like me, this pan is a loner.

I have little choice over the gas stove in my one-bedroom apartment, but as for my crucible… this is it. Lunch fed me for an hour. This pan will feed me for a long time.

My lunch costs nine dollars with tip. My new sous chef only costs me six dollars and thirty-one cents after tax.

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