Cast Iron for the Ages

There are many things that send the signal you are dealing with a real cook.  She, or he, is someone who knows the proper angle at which to sharpen knives, and who can, with those knives dice, julienne, and chiffonade.    

A real cook can spatchcock a chicken.

Real cooks are also about their pots and pans—the tin-lined copper sauciers, the fish poachers, black steel baking pans. But real country cooks, the best cooks of all, don’t need no stinkin’ copper, for they have something more precious than that, and more rare.

They have their grandmothers’ cast iron skillets.

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Apparently, this is now a thing, collecting rare old cast iron skillets.  And why ever not?  They are the most beautiful and, if you are lucky, seasoned with a patina that is  pretty and functional.  Skillets are going for large sums of money, some of them, the same skillets that used to be sold for “two for a quarter” at old barn sales, or so says Julia Moskin in a recent article for the “New York Times” entitled “Fashioning Cast Iron Pans for Today’s Cooks.”

A trend has new artisans crafting 21st  Century cast iron, using the old labor-intensive techniques that created the skillets our great-grandmothers set up housekeeping with. They produce authentic—and expensive—new skillets.

Ronni Lundy, food writer with Appalachian roots says in the article that “the first thing a cook will tell you is the history of her skillets.”    She says her family cooked everything in cast iron, from pork chops to cornbread to cobblers and “even biscuits.”

Even biscuits?  Especially biscuits, I think.

I still can’t replicate my mother’s cornbread, which she made in a cast iron skillet, but I surpassed her in the biscuit-making department once I started baking them in a skillet.  My mother, a precise cook, would pat the biscuit dough out and cut them exactly and then place them on a cookie sheet evenly spaced and lonely looking.

biscuits in skilletThat isn’t how you do it.  The biscuits have to touch, which gives them loft.  They must  bake hot and quick, and then sit a while in the skillet soaking in that little extra butter you added for love.

She gave me my first skillet years ago. 

“It’s Wagner Ware,” she said reverently. 

“And be careful with it, they don’t make them any more.”

As if you can tear up a cast iron skillet.

But you can neglect one. 

The seasoning of a cast iron skillet is a process of much debate, but even the saddest and rustiest skillet can be reclaimed if you are willing to take the time to do it.  I have finally figured out how to clean my skillets properly, steps that include kosher salt, hot water and a little bit of olive oil.

Ronni Lundy is right about knowing the heritage of your skillets.  It feels a bit shameful to

ronni lundy
Ronni Lundy

have to buy your old cast iron at an antique mall, as if your people were pitiful in some way, and now you have to skulk around to purchase culinary respectability.

Most of my cast iron was given me by my mother, cast iron that moved to town from farms in Buford and Bell’s Run. I have two skillets, a dutch oven, and somewhere in my parents’ basement is an old chicken fryer. Lucky for me my sister has no interest in cast iron cookware, what with her smooth surface stove.  She wouldn’t take care of it, anyway.  She puts wooden spoons in the dishwasher.

I think of my pal, Marianne, who called me all upset on day.  She had hidden her grandmother’s skillet in her car after clearing out her mother’s things, hoping her sister, Jane, hadn’t noticed.

“I want Grandmother’s skillet,” Jane hollered from the porch, just as Marianne was leaving.  Marianne gave it to her, but she grieved the loss, the old skillet as ordinary and constant, and therefore as precious, as her grandmother had been.

I also have a tiny skillet, maybe six inches in diameter. It was my father’s, something he used as a boy, after his father died and his mother had to work.  He could fry an egg in it, or bologna. He said it was just the right size and his alone.  It hangs with my other skillets, though I never use it. But every time I see it, I think of that boy, standing at a stove in a long ago kitchen, cooking for one.