The Double Boiler Skirmish — An Improvisation Gone Wrong

My grandmother used to make this oyster stew that was like ambrosia, it was so delicious.

It was both light and rich at the same time.

The oysters came from a jar since we were in central Virginia and therefore nowhere near the coast. But no matter — the stew was buttery and brothy, and the oysters tasted great, from a pint jar we got at the IGA, or not.

There was simply nothing like my grandmother’s oyster stew.

In fact, there still isn’t.

Carrying the oyster stew tradition to my kids

We get a lot of fresh oysters on the NC coast, so one day I decided to make my grandmother’s oyster stew.

I got out my double boiler, added the oyster broth and the butter and whole milk and cream, and then I added the oysters.

As I was standing at the stove stirring, I could feel my grandmother’s presence around me. It was like a warm breeze.

I cooked the stew gently, until it was heated just right, and I served it to my two kids.

I carried the bowls to the table like an offering, set the oyster stew in front of them and said, “This is what God eats.”

We all three felt this.

Double boiler improv night

Fast forward a little while to December of 2012 when my sweetheart and I, and my two kids, carried a cooler full of fresh, beautiful, coastal NC oysters home to the piedmont of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

It was cold as scissors out, but we sat outside with the cooler to shuck some oysters to enjoy on the half-shell. They were freezing right on the platter!

Like I said, it was cold.

Nevertheless, we decided to go ahead and shuck some extras while we were cold anyway in order to elevate the occasion by making my grandmother’s oyster stew.

We asked for the double boiler, but since what my mom and stepdad could have sworn was the double boiler was actually a steamer, we had to improvise with the old pan-in-a-pan trick.

(I do wonder what ever happened to the actual double boiler!)

The improvised double boiler worked beautifully.

The oyster stew was everything we’d hoped it would be and made the meal transcendent.

When science steps in

Except that while we were at the table finishing up with dinner, we heard a metal pinging sound coming from the kitchen.

Then we heard it few more times — it was a little bit musical. We were amused.

We assumed this was just the sound of the pans cooling down.

And it was.

Except that the pan on the bottom — the one with the hot water in it, cooled down at a different rate than the top pan — the one that had been emptied of oyster stew.

The top pan expanded while the bottom pan shrunk.

The sound we were hearing was the top pan sinking into the bottom pan lower and lower and lower, till the improvised double boiler was a good inch and a half shorter than when we initially made the stew.

At first we simply tried to separate the pans with our bare hands and concerted effort.

But the pans held fast.

While the bottom pan still had hot water inside, the top was getting cooler and cooler. We pulled and tugged and heaved and ho-ed and huffed and puffed. We even bent one of the handles a little in the process.

We tried prying the pans apart with a flat-head screwdriver.

We googled our problem and found that we were certainly not the first to have this happen. Nice to know, I suppose?

It was suggested that we try to get the pans to be equal temperatures, so we set them into a sink full of snow… which promptly melted. You can see some of the snow still in the pan pictured above.

Then we tried a sink full of ice.

Then we tried to make the bottom pan expand again by setting it back on the burner with the top pan filled with ice water.

But I was afraid of an explosion, so our efforts at this technique were conservative.

Hours of hard labor went by, and the pans were no more removed from each other than when we started the separation process. In fact, I think the pans had become more enmeshed than before.

My stepfather was getting angry.

The magic of the oyster stew was beginning to wane.

My eternal optimism assured me that the pans would come apart, but eventually we admitted defeat and set the pans outside with the hope that the freezing temperature would somehow cause the pans to release each other.

Now that’s commitment

The next morning my stepfather was standing at the sink cursing as he tried to work these two pans apart.

Finally, he too conceded.

So he and my mom went shopping and came home with not only a double boiler, and not only two new pans to replace the formerly-two-but-now-one-pan, but a whole new set of pans.

It was a glorious day in the kitchen cabinets.

But my stepfather, being resourceful and certainly never wasteful, couldn’t part with the makeshift double boiler…

Because on our next visit to Virginia we found the pans outside on a workbench, still co-joined.

Those two pans were committed — they were clearly going the distance together.

I’m pretty sure we never stood a chance at separating them.

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