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. 

A Day at Flat Lick Falls

Never the most flexible person, at least I had a great sense of balance, thanks to my low center of gravity.  I was sorely tested — tested and found wanting — last weekend when I found myself crammed in a car for a little jaunt up the road to hike to a waterfall tucked away somewhere out of Berea. 

Of course I was up for it, especially after my buddy assured us that the waterfall was really just a short walk from the road, really about “from here to about there.” he said, pointing out to the curb. It’s never just “from here to there,” is it?

After driving along winding roads for half an hour, and after a great lunch at Opal’s, off the square at McKee, we arrived at Flat Lick Falls, in Jackson County.  We parked in a small meadow with ten other cars. We followed the little path disappearing into the woods, and soon we encountered a rocky and root-infested obstacle course.

To give five you an idea, here is the description taken from the website, “American Byways”:

“Flat Lick Falls is quite scenic, nestled within a narrow valley and accessible by a wild trail that involves walking across streams and down steep embankments. At the base of the 30-foot Flat Lick Falls is a small swimming hole.”

Ah, yes, the wild trail.  He forgot to mention that.

flat lick fallsBut the trail was nothing compared to the boulders and rocks we scurried down to reach the stream and waterfall. We arrived to the sounds of rushing water, kids laughing and the image of young men and women taking flying leaps off the ledge of a 30 foot cliff and disappearing from sight. Each jumper made a splash, a big one or a little one, and a cheer went up from the swimmers in the pool below. 

The waterfall rushed and sent an imperceptible mist up to cool the hot day.  We weren’t jumping of course, but there was a rocky path leading down to the swimming hole, and we took off for that.

I went  about 10 feet until it narrowed to barely a foot-width, dropping off to a craggy and certain death.  I had stumbled already a few times just getting to the falls and I spooked myself looking at that tiny ledge, and was aware that I lack the agility to catch myself if I make a misstep and I didn’t fancy spending the rest the next two hours dangling from a basket dropped by a rescue helicopter while my friends photographed it and posted it on Facebook.

My pals picked their way down the rocky path and spent a delightful hour playing in the water, walking under the falls and exploring the creek bed.  I stayed topside and flat lick falls jumperschatted with some men who have been coming to the falls since they were kids.  Older now, they weren’t tempted to jump off the cliff, although they said they did that plenty as boys. 

One guy was solid and sure when his buddies asked him if he were going to jump.

“Of course not,” he said, folding his arms like Buddha.  This didn’t keep him from egging on the others, though, especially the one fellow who spent a half hour mustering the courage to go over the side.  He over-thought it, walking to the edge, shaking his arms, walking back.  He finally threw his t-shirt into the drink so now there was nothing to do but go after it.

Which he did.

When my pals returned they told me that, really, I would have been just fine had I joined them, that even if I had fallen off that little ledge, I would only have dropped about five feet, not all the way down.  They are reassuring that way.

I wanted to have joined them, but more than that I wanted to feel like I might have been able to join them, to feel steady on my feet, strong, agile enough for such an adventure.

Because, as adventures go, it was a small one. I was happy enough on my own, a stream to wade and birdsong, but for the first time I got a glimpse of not being able to do, and I didn’t like it.  Didn’t like it at all. Perhaps I’ll take up yoga, or tai chi.  Something.  I don’t want to be sitting on a safe rock or bench while my friends are about their adventures.

Why Am I Not in the British Isles?

It’s not that I don’t get to travel much but right now I just about can’t stand it, because every time I open up my Facebook page, there, gaping back at me are hundreds of images of the British Isles and Ireland.

OK, not hundreds, but tens of tens of images.

And it isn’t that I am jealous, it is just that these images make me sad that I am not there, too, and I can hardly stand it and then I get cranky.

This seems to be the Irish spring for many of my friends, and I only wish I had the forethought to plan something similar. I am terrible for sitting around and daydreaming adventures, but never getting off the couch to check airfares and hotel rooms. I never check my calendar to see when I might shoehorn in a trip.

Not like my pals, Silas and Jason, who think about it, then get busy planning it. They should be home now, and from their photos it looks like they enjoyed a trip of a lifetime. How these two cram so much into a two week journey is beyond me.

And they go as travelers, not tourists. They wander the woods that Bluebell woodsThomas Hardy wandered, and then they take superb photos of those woods, with their primordial looking beech trees. They photograph their food, because I believe this is required, and they have a gift for sussing out excellent fare, the best shepherd’s pie, iconic roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, and the 99.


A 99 is an ice cream cone with a Cadbury “flake” stuck in it—it looks like a tiny little yule log—and once they posted a picture of it, I saw them on every British TV show I watch. Sort of like test-driving a car, and then everywhere you go you see that same car.

And speaking of, apparently Jason is an expert at driving on the left, and he easily maneuvered them throughout southern England. I am not surprised, though. Our friend, Alice, had a gold land yacht of a car, ancient and recently deceased—the car, not Alice—and Jason was in charge of parking it, turning it around on narrow mountain Alice's Caddieledges, and edging it out of the shrubbery that Alice had driven it into.

Alice could drive it forward and backward, and blow the horn.
That is the extent of it. In fact, it was the death of that horn that she mourned the most. It was deep and loud, fog horn on steroids, and she gave unsuspecting passers-by heart attacks every chance she got.

I have never been brave enough to try my hand at driving in England and Ireland, but I am looking forward to a short tutorial when Jason gets home. My friend, Al, is heading to Ireland in a few weeks and he has driven in New Zealand. He said the trick is to remember,
“white on the right, white on the right.” which makes sense if you don’t think about it too hard.

My old mentor, Sally, is in Ireland right now, sending back black and white images of castle ruins and holy wells, interspersed with colorful images of Dublin doors. She surely must have Celtic roots, dublin doorsbecause with each new image she looks more at home and more like a native, with her broad smile and red hair backlit by a slanting sun.

Right now the only travel plan I have is a long weekend jaunt to Brown County with my high school girls. We had such fun in the Smokies last year we decided to do it again. It is my dream that no one brings a Jane Fonda tape this time. We will piddle around, do some shopping, hike a little, and by “hike a little” I hope that means we won’t hike at all but rather, walk on a manicured path, with you, know, some trees and stuff.

Even so, I am researching walking boots.  After seeing all the great places my pals have been, I keep fantasizing about spending a weekAltberg boot or so in England walking. But to do that, one must have the proper gear, which means walking boots, which are very specific to the Brits—brown and sturdy, but not so heavy. 

I’ve found several choices, one hand-made in England, which, as we know, is complete overkill, and why I love them. But Brown County beckons, and then, perhaps in the fall, the fells of England.

Christmas 2015

On this eve of Christmas Eve, time is running short to do the last of your calculations.  Did you get something for everyone, do each of your children—at least the ones who can count—have the same number of presents under the tree and are they equivalent in terms of value and enjoyment? 

If you are kitchen-oriented, you are conducting different calculations —figuring out when to put the turkey in the oven on Christmas morning, or the standing rib roast.  You are reckoning the arrival time of the little ones who will help you decorate cookies and at the same time turn your christmas cookieskitchen into a winter wonderland of flour and powdered sugar.

Perhaps you have family on the road, heading home for the holidays.  Perhaps you have family heading away from your house, heading to another home, the new in-laws, say, or to the distant cities where your middle-aged children will join their own children, now grown and on their own.

It doesn’t matter.  You will juggle all the time tables in your head, keeping an eye on the weather channel and your flight board apps.  You will do the math backward on their ETA’s, keeping them safe with your worry and care. 

Or maybe you’ve already had your Christmas.  Your family gathered last weekend, or the weekend before.  Then your calculations might be different.  Today you are estimating all the hours of the next few days in your head, thinking about how you will fill them, how to enjoy the quiet and solitude without feeling sad or tree and ornament

You may enlist the help of books, or TV schedules and movie showings, or you may just decide to sleep through it, arriving on the other side refreshed and well-rested. 

Perhaps the next few days will be a continuation of the past few weeks—parties, gatherings, family and friend reunions, a weekend so full you will need the precision of a Swiss railroad table to make it all work.

And if any of this describes your Christmas, even a little bit, then you are lucky and rich beyond measure.  You have people to love and do for.  People who love and do for you.

If you are worried about your turkey, you have no worries, for you have food.

If you are worried about the quality of your gifts, you have no worries.  There are gifts.Christmas family gathering

If you have love in your life, you have everything.  Just simply everything.

This year, more than others, is seems important to remember this.  As the light leaves us in the last days of December, it is also good to spend some time calculating the state of the world, our community, our neighborhoods, where there are those without enough to eat, without warmth, either in the form of a good coat or love. 

We live in a community known for its generosity and it isn’t too late, even now, to do some charitable math, and find someone to help, or include, or pray for.  Or send good energy, if that suits you better, for never is need more acutely felt than at the holidays.  Never is sorrow more difficult than at Christmas.

This is math I can do.  There is power in it, being grateful and helping others.  It reassures us, after all the hoopla, all the excess, that we can do this, this little thing in our small corner of the world, to help bring about the return of light.

It is the Christmas promise, the gift, given and received, and passed along to others.

snowy christmas trees for end

Run, Run, Rudolph…I Think Not

The holiday season is now in full swing, with Thanksgiving and Black Friday behind us.  Some of you, and I don’t know why, have had your Christmas trees since before Thanksgiving, and I applaud your organization but I don’t understand it. 

What must it be like to live such a well-ordered life?  I have no idea.  As late as Wednesday afternoon of last week I was still clearing off the dining room table, and it took a couple of hours.

But, we each have our holiday traditions and I am all about diversity, so I celebrate our differences.  And I might as well, because when one celebrates there is food and drink involved.

My friend, Margaret, always so engaged, always so active, spent October and  November sending out e-mails to our group, touting the Run, Runoverdecorated house Rudolph 5K, in Santa Clause, IN.  It is this Saturday, and, oh boy, we get to run around Christmas Lake Village or some such thing, looking at all the pretty lights.

My friends have been in training for weeks for the event.  Some are coming from out of town.  I can’t believe it.

When Margaret brought this up in October, my email response  went something like this:

“Honestly, what is wrong with you, Margaret?  Can’t we just sit in the car with cookies and hot chocolate while driving six miles an hour through lit-up neighborhoods?

Why must every pure pleasure be bought at such a price?

I can think of nothing worse than running through the park, tripping over electrical cords as I speed past Christmas lights.  Christmas lights are made to be looked at long and lovingly, as we, full of wonder, gaze upon them, all the while imbibing delightful beverages—egg nog, hot mulled wine, a plantation punch.

The idea of bundling up to sweat is anathema to me.  It reminds me of the  disco era.  All gussied up in slick and unbreathable polyester, while gyrating like one demented, in a frenzy on the dance floor, sweating like a pig.


Pig is a festive meat, holiday ham, ham and angel biscuits, bacon and sausage heaving on platters at a Christmas breakfast.  There would be Christmas hamwonderful cakes and a small piece of divinity to cleanse one’s palate, and maybe some potato dish, like hash brown casserole with cheese and sautéd onion. 

And coffee, rich special Christmas coffee served with cream and holiday flavors of cinnamon and peppermint. 

And that Couch to 5K business you suggested in your email.


Let me start now, this minute, TRAINING to see the Christmas lights.  I will make a wall chart, with big squares to to X out as I move closer and closer to my goal of running through the park, at night, in a blur. 

You all go right ahead, and I will join you.  I will be the one in the bed of a pickup truck; you can’t miss me.  I will have a little hibachi fire going, and rosy cheeks from my Christmas punch.  I will drape myself in blinkinghot mulled wine lights and I’ll be singing along to the Christmas carols blasting from my boom box.

I could share my Christmas cookies but I won’t tempt ya.  I know how you athletes take your performance seriously.”


Okay, I admit my reaction might have been  a bit extreme, but it is how it hit me at the time, plus it was just so much fun to write.

As it happens, my friends are more serious athletes than I would have given them credit for, and they have been training and are making plans for Saturday, even as I write this.

Out of graciousness or spite, I can’t tell, they still include me in the e-mails about the run.  I notice they plan to go out to eat right after.  I think I could just about muster enough energy to get off the couch and join them for dinner, maybe cheer them on from the comfort of my car.

I am a loyal that way.   

It is the holiday season after all.  And I bet there will be pie.

Šumava Mountains, Czech Republic 2015

DSCF5411I spent the weekend in Šumava, the mountains of southern Bohemia, with my friend, Kveta and her husband, Honza. They have talked of Šumava for as long as I have known them, and always that I should join them there, if ever there was time and good weather.

Finally it all came together and on Thursday I traveled by train and then by bus to meet Kveta and Honza in Stachy. They were waiting for me at the bus station and Honza shouldered my bag as we walked the lanes of his village to the home in which he was born.


Spring had come to Stachy, with early flowers blooming and the mornings rising soft and fine. The last of the snow had melted in Stachy only the day before, but on our afternoon walk up a gentle but insistent incline to the top of the ridge, we could see snow still blanketing the distant hills and mountains.

The Šumava mountains are ancient, similar to our Appalachians, and so they are small, made human-sized by the elements and worn down by time. They reminded me a bit of the hills of east Tennessee, and yet, they were nothing like them, either.

Standa’s kitchen

Three tribes of Celts spread throughout this area in 400 B.C., and Honza and his friends are proud of this heritage. I am a Celt, too, we determine. It has something to do with the way my index fingers look when placed side by side. I am more popular because of it.

We compare my fingers while sitting around the table of Honza’s childhood friend, Standa. He has telephoned for us to stop by on our way home from our walk. He serves us homemade steak tartare and mans the toaster,  handing  us hot slices of good Czech bread for the tartare, passed  around on the end of a long fork.

Mira, Kveta, and Honza

The region is rich with natural beauty— peat bogs protected and preserved, but kitted with walkways, the Black Vltava River making its way to Prague over rocks in a rushing stream.

On Saturday, Honza, Kveta, and their friends, Mira and Marie, take me on a tour of the region. We will be gone all day.

We climb a high lookout in what is said to be the coldest place in these parts. We walked a snowy path, slick with melting snowpack, and here and there gigantic paw prints in the snow.
Fresh ones, it seemed to me, crisp around the edges like the impressions made by our shoes. A big dog, perhaps?

No, Honza said.


And it is cold up there, looking out on the mountains as the wind whips our facesand does its best to hide the coming spring from us. I take a couple of photos but decide that Honza has the right idea, and I follow him down the wooden steps, down three levels of them, until we reach the ground.

These mountains and this area have a complicated history.  They lie in the Sudetenland, which Hitler exploited in the 1930’s.DSCF5376 Under communism, because this area was so close to West Germany it was almost completely inhabited by the Soviet military, a buffer zone of sorts, , and we walked up a small gap in the spruce forest to a stone commemorating the people shot there as they tried to escape into Germany through the woods.

On a high hill I was snapping away at what was once an old church. Only the foundation is left and an outdoor altar has been erected with an artistic piece of amber glasswork depicting St. Martin. I was happily snapping my camera and I turn to take a few photos of the field beyond, a nice scene with cows.

“Thirty years ago you would have been shot for that,” Mira says. I stop. It scares me a little, even on this bright spring day, with friends.

Thirty years ago I wouldn’t even have been allowed on the spot, nor would Kveta, or Honza, or any of us. The military kept complete control of the area and Honza talked about not being allowed to travel, in his own country, his own region, just a few kilometers from his own back garden.

Earlier that day Kveta and I compared our childhoods. I learned to duck and cover. She learned to look out for American spies. I knew about bomb shelters. She knew about gas masks.

In Klatovy we visited a glass exhibit—Marie is an artist and was an excellent guide. Šumava was once an important area for glass factories. There are two types of rare sand here, white and black, beautiful pieces were made from it.

But then the communists came and destroyed the factories. Destroyed the exquisite glass. Destroyed the exquisite glass in the private homes of private citizens, throwing it out the windows, smashing it to the ground.

Because, of course, there was no private property.

Only a bit of this glass remains, smuggled to safety in children’s rucksacks.

Everywhere, if you look closely, or if Honza and Mira are there to point it out, you can see the remnants of the Soviet army, the remnants of freedoms and liberties, lives destroyed. How to make sense of it on a fine spring day, in an ancient place, with the Vtlava rushing, rushing on to Prague, and to the Elbe beyond.

Marie and Mira
Mira, Mira, Greta and Honza


The Last Graduation, 2015

I often take those quizzes on Facebook—you know the ones—all the BuzzFeed quizzes about personality and one’s knowledge of art or history, or whether or not we are sociopaths—as if a sociopath couldn’t fool that feeble fifteen question quiz.

One quiz has labeled me an “optimistic pragmatist” and I would say that is about right, so imagine my surprise when, at the OHS graduation, I teared up before the first stirring bars of “Pomp and Circumstance” and I stayed misty throughout the whole program.

It is a wonderment to me. I am not the sentimental type, and certainly not emotional. Oh, I will go on a rant sometimes when I’ve had a vexing day with poor service and technical glitches, but the rant is short-lived and I try to keep it within the confines of my own home, and before dinner.

DSCF5955But this graduation was special, special in that it will be the last OHS graduation and the last high school graduation, period, in our family for a long time to come.

Because our baby was graduating—please don’t tell him I called him that.

My nephew, Paxton, strode into the Sportscenter looking manly and serious, as did some of the other boys. Other classmates walked down the red carpet as if they had been practicing for this all their lives—their heads high and looking around, big smiles on their faces.

The girls with precariously pinned mortarboards managed their heels better than my class did a lifetime ago. We were the bellbottom jeans and flipflop crowd and for many of us it was the first time we had worn heels in months, if not years, if ever.

I don’t know what it was that got me, but I think it was a combination of things. The ending of something, the beginning of something else, sitting with my mother, herself an OHS graduate, looking for myself in these fresh young faces and not finding it and thinking about that, too.

My brothers and sisters graduated in that very place, from the same school as did most of my nieces and nephews. Anita Burnette, the steadfast principal throughout the nieces’ and nephews’ high school years was retiring and that made me sad. She was in evidence at every event I attended, and I saw her again graduation night, realizing for the first time how petite she is, dwarfed by some of her graduates.

I was surprised because she was a powerful presence at OHS and she ran a tight ship. Even so, as she gave out diplomas she hugged almost every student—-a gentle arm around a shoulder, or a warm wide-open embraces, affectionate pats on the back, a smile for each one. No wonder that graduating members of the choir struggled through tears to sing “You Life Me Up,” a song they dedicated to her.

I wouldn’t have recognized most of Paxton’s friends when theirDSCF5985 names were called. Here was the little girl who ran around the bleachers with him and his posse when they were in grade school, bored with the football game going on at Rash Stadium.

She kept up with the boys and it tickled me—she might have been the ringleader, even. I wouldn’t have guessed her to be the beautiful young woman who accepted the diploma on behalf of that darlin’ little tomboy.

Joseph Hunt, the class president, gave one of the finest student speeches I have heard at a commencement—-and I have heard plenty. He said that this class was like no other. That it was an historic class, the 121st graduating class. Imagine it.

He mentioned the great year in sports that OHS enjoyed, and also the accomplishments in the arts, theatre, academics, and the jaw-dropping amount of scholarship money given to this class.
And that, after tonight, everything changed. Never would this group be exactly as it is in this last hour together. And that made me cry, too.

Because it is true. It is wise.

As much as I have loved being an aunt, with little kids running in and out, those days are over. Paxton was my best little buddy. Still is, but in a way transformed. He is a fine young man and now we talk about grown up things. I hope that doesn’t change.

But for now, his future—all of their futures—are out there, waiting.
And they are leaving us for them.
As they should.
And we must let them go.

so cool, waiting for the next chapter to commence
so cool, waiting for the next chapter to commence
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