BECAUSE THERE’S ALWAYS BACON
Lately, I’ve joined groups on Facebook dedicated to cooking in cast iron. “Kentucky Cast Iron Cooking” is my favorite so far. Kentucky food looks familiar. The corn bread is properly yellow, the beans properly soft and creamy and mostly pale Great Northerns or navies. The gravy doesn’t look at all like gravy, but that’s the way it’s supposed to look in Kentucky.
Two skillets have come to live with us this month, bringing the total number of skillets to six, all #8s, I believe, or #10s. Add to that one plain dutch oven of the same gauge and one larger camp oven, a corn-stick pan, and that’s it. Still on the lookout for a griddle, round with a handle, and a spare lid so the dutch oven and the skillets don’t have to share just one amongst them. If I’m very lucky, maybe a hibachi will turn up. I do love a kebab.
Why so many? One was Gram’s granny’s and one was Papa’s mother’s. One, exceptional because of its smoothness, I acquired at the yard sale down the block about twelve years ago. One newer pre seasoned Lodge came with my sweetheart, and the two new-old ones came with ridiculously low price tags: three dollars each, on two different days at the flea market. Those are for camping, lacking provenance. They’ll gain status with time, I’m sure. The corn-stick pan replaces one I left with another house in another life, when I thought that baking cornbread was something that I wouldn’t do again. I was wrong.
Maybe I’m greedy. The foreverness of cast iron pans reassures me that no matter what, if I am careful and avoid soap and tomatoes in these vessels, my daughter’s daughters will bake a very nice cornbread in her great-great someone’s skillet as I have done too many times to count. I want my name to stay with them, or just my title. When I use either of the granny-skillets, black iron gleaming, I imagine those women, aproned, holding the pan handles with a dishrag. My hand becomes their hands, and I feel more real, connected to my past. The taproot effect: if I keep my roots deep enough, I’ll never know drought.
My small person is almost nine years old now. At nine-almost-ten, I learned how to measure out proper proportions of yellow meal, flour, oil, baking powder and salt-no-sugar, one egg only, to fill a hot skillet full enough but not too full of batter. The only utensils required were a teaspoon for the baking powder and the short-handled, worn-down wooden spoon known as “the wood spoon”. The ingredients went into a bowl, always the same bowl, and with luck, a nice, stiffly fluffy mass would develop while the skillet heated in the oven. Pouring semi-solid goo into a four hundred degree metal pan thrilled me at nine. My love of certain foods comes from the act of preparing them with my Gram. Maybe my own small person will come to love what we cook together, especially if an element of danger can be incorporated.
The family of pans and griddles should keep growing for a while, and will shrink again when our small people leave us. Four women-to-be wait to inherit the weight of someone’s grandma’s essential piece of cookware, but maybe they don’t know it yet. Future apartments will require at least one good skillet per daughter, and before they leave us, they’ll find a favorite something to cook. My responsibility is to maintain the seasoning and spurn the soap, and maybe write down a few recipes with real measurements before I forget. There’s time, but only a little.
I read group members’ posts on these cast iron cookware forums, and the most common question is always, “How do I get the rust out of this pan, and how do I make it cook right?” Kind strangers throw advice involving vinegar and oven cleaner and bonfires and bacon grease. All of them will set those pans straight with patience, but how did they come to such a sorry state in the first place? My heart breaks to see a skillet that’s been tortured into rusting. Modern convenience is to blame. Dishwashers, detergents, overzealous brillo-wielding well-meaning germophobes…all when nothing hot water and heat and oil will chase off every stray microbe better than anything that claims to be antibacterial. I love that dishwasher with all my lazy heart, but it’s death to beautifully seasoned cast iron. My favorite advice to save a skillet that seems unredeemable? Throw it in a fire all night, and fry onions in it the next day, but don’t eat them because they’ll be black. That skillet will gleam. I learned this the hard way, after a long-ago roommate stored a batch of tomatoey chili in my first good skillet. The chili tasted like metal and the deep black coating of the pan came off in great flakes. One back-yard bonfire finally undid the damage. I don’t know why the onions helped, but they did.
The Chinese grow a certain onion specifically for christening woks. Those woks need love, just like cast iron, and a panful of not-so-tasty green onions tossed with plenty of oil is the first dish to come out of a new wok or the best thing to revive the slickness of a neglected one. Knowing that on the other side of the world, hopeful cooks are crying oniony tears over their very important pans makes the world seem smaller.
In June, I’ll be squatting over a little stove full of kindling and frying whatever will stay fresh enough during a week of no-fridge camping. Onions shall certainly play a part, and so will potatoes and cornbread. While I’m down there, I’ll think of my grandmother’s grandmothers bending over a fire to flip hoecakes, of the luxury of standing to do the same work at a black iron stove, and my ridiculous repeat of the primitive ways that were shed in the name of safety and ease. My little portable bucket-sized stove matches ones now used all over the world to efficiently cook food with as little smoke and soot as possible, a huge advancement from open wood fires. What’s that stove made of? After hundreds of years of technology, the best material for the job turns out to be cast iron.
I think my small person will learn to bake a pan of something next week. Maybe not cornbread, but we have other options. Skillet cookies are pretty awesome, and there’s always bacon.