Food memories: Cast iron guaranteed

All the best things in my kitchen, and the most indispensable, are the old things (no wisecracks, please). The big roasting pan that does the turkey or goose or salmon is a very old baked-enamel number, quite lightweight and efficient; the baking dishes and casseroles are glazed terracotta, mostly from street markets; the beat-up steamer baskets and wok came from a Chinese hardware store on Stockton Street in San Francisco a generation ago, before Teflon became
ubiquitous. Most important, there are four cast-iron skillets, which would be among the first things I’d drag out if the house were on fire.

This isn’t a matter of sentimentality, but efficiency: All this stuff works better than anything now available brand-new. And I’d probably never have known this if it weren’t for my granny. She was the serious cook in the family, endlessly amused when my mother brought home implements and products that she thought would make her a better cook (I especially remember a nightmare year of pressure-cooked—make that over-cooked—dinners; apparently we saved money by buying cheaper cuts of meat, but it was no fun). Gran, who made the kitchen the heart of the house, was hands-on in every sense, and had to be efficient: she had a full-time job too.

One way or another, she used at least one skillet every day, frying, roasting, even baking in them; we had half a dozen, nested in a stack, gone quite black over time as they seasoned and became more and more non-stick—pans for life, pans that wouldn’t scratch or dent or chip or wear out. The more they were used, the easier they were to maintain. She went into a nursing home while I was away in college, and my mother discarded them, along with the other old stuff, in favor of Teflon and plastic, lightweight, “non-stick” and dishwasher-safe.

When I finally settled down years later, I went with what she’d taught me, to the extent I could, assembling a collection of the sort of unglamorous gear that I knew would work. The skillets were the biggest challenge: The world had gone Teflon. I finally found the solution in antique shops, in the clutter at the back where odds and ends were kept in a jumble. In Jackson, up in California's High Sierras, I found a rusty, square 10-inch skillet; in Ashland, Oregon, a crusty round one the same size, made by York, in the same Pennsylvania foundry that manufactured bar bells for weightlifters (which made me wonder which was the by-product); in Atlanta, Georgia, in a charming tourist trap dedicated to southern cooking, I ordered a cheese-and-grits side dish because it came in a 6-1/2-inch skillet which you could take home after the meal (I bullied my editor into having the same dish, but his wife liked the pan so much she wouldn’t let him pass it on). The rusty ones were carefully, but easily, restored, scrubbed with fine steel wool till the rust was gone, then coated with oil and scrubbed again with kosher salt till the rust-residue was gone, then some bacon fried in them before wiping them clean with paper towels. Done.

I’ve used them now for more than 20 years. We take them with us wherever we go, even to fully furnished vacation houses, and camping. Every now and then, as I did once when I had to cook on an electric stove (GE’s revenge on cooks), I scorch one, and have to bring it back to life with some more corn oil and kosher salt; no big deal. The 12-inch one, I confess I did buy new a few years ago, to make larger-scale family meals in. It’s made by Lodge, which seems to be the last manufacturer left. The only model available came with a non-stick coating, which seems to me an unnecessary extra aspect, but I guess, to a generation raised on Teflon, it must be a selling point. I’ve been abusing it since I got it, scrubbing, scraping, and scouring, and just about have it worn off, to the point that it’s become a respectable tool. I think I heard my grandmother chuckling encouragingly somewhere over my shoulder while I was doing it.

Nothing makes a better omelet than a cast-iron skillet, or scrambled eggs, which can feel rubbery in non-stick. It’s by far the best for browning meat before de-glazing the pan and scraping up those bits that give the finished dish flavor. Stir-fried dishes get stir-fried, not steamed and sort-of fried. You can make bread in one, steam vegetables, roast a ham, pretty much anything.

And you can make wonderful cakes. Oh yes. That’s another delicious story, coming soon. . .

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