I wasn’t born to cast iron. I haven’t had Grandma in the Howlerery scrubbing her cauldron with sand or Mawmaw in the Bayou smearing her griddle with pan juices. My maternal grandmother was a foodie of the 1960s. At a time when housewives were serving iceberg, she asked, “Would you like a salad or just a piece of salad?” As for my paternal grandmother, as my father said, she had reservations.
No, my childhood pan was Teflon. I grew up in a 1980s kitchen dedicated to the Silver Palate cookbooks, Cooking Light magazine, and The New York Times’ food section, where chef Pierre Franey praised the new and improved nonstick pans. We sprayed nonstick spray on our nonstick pans, leaving a gummy residue that we unsuccessfully scrubbed with a non-marring plastic scourer. When I stocked my tiny college kitchen, it came with a non-stick skillet.
But in early 2001, while living in the greater Boston area, I fell in love with four things at once: bluegrass music, a man who lived far enough north in New York that you could see Canada from his house, the church supported agriculture and food writer John Thorne. All of this together led me to cast iron.
Maybe especially Thorne. “The first pan I bought, a small cast-iron skillet, was the complete opposite of House Pride in looks and temperament. It came into my apartment greasy on the inside and rust-stained on the outside looking as grumpy as a junkyard dog,” he wrote pot on the fire.
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The poetry! It spoke to me not of a pan but of a whole approach to cooking and maybe even life. Teflon had no poetry. I didn’t want to eat or be smooth, chemical, or comfortable. I wanted it to be as gritty and earthy as cornbread baked in a cast iron skillet.
How I got a foot wide frying pan
My first cast-iron skillet took its own odd path to me, via a violin-playing scientist friend. (Interests in bluegrass, thorne, and veggies lingered; the guy from upstate New York didn’t.) My boyfriend’s girlfriend ordered a cast-iron skillet from a camping supply company. She bought two – apparently they stuck together on the packaging line – and gave him the extra. But it was too big, he said – a full foot wide. Also, they had split up. I picked up the pan and vowed to start lifting weights. At home I staggered it onto my stove where it has supplanted my nonstick skillet.
Cast iron wasn’t just poetic, it was practical, I learned. On Nonstick, these local veggies were steamed to a pulp. Now they are brown. Tofu crispy. Instead of using a plastic spatula that will inevitably melt if left on the stove, I could swing a metal spatula with its satisfying sound. I still cooked easily enough to like that the pan was “inherently non-stick.” And I never had to clean it.
But it was really huge, so I bought an 8″ cast iron from Tags Hardware for $10. When I got my own spot, both cast-iron pans took their permanent place on my stovetop. They looked sturdy and confident. Like me, I hoped.
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A few years later, in 2008, these pans saved my financial bacon. My building was up for sale and I had conveniently planned a reporting road trip which meant I didn’t have to endure the showings. I ended up going to my apartment at 5 a.m. to find evidence of demonstrations everywhere: lights on, blinds up, cupboard doors open — and my two cast-iron pans in the drainer. They had been washed. I felt attacked.
The landlord called me back at noon. “Someone washed my cast-iron pans,” I said.
“My wife,” he said in disgust. “There was food on!”
I’m a freezer, not a fighter. But exhaustion had thrown my safety locks. Feeling my knees shaking, I quickly stepped into the office bathroom.
“THIS IS SPICE!” I screamed like I’ve never screamed before or since. “You don’t wash cast iron pans! YOU HAD NO RIGHT TO WASH MY THINGS! IF YOU DID NOT LIKE THE LOOK OF THE PANS YOU COULD PUT THEM IN THE FUCKING OVEN!”
There was a very loud silence. The next day, my landlord sent me a new lease that fixed my very low rent for 18 months. That month I started dating a man who taught me how to clean cast-iron pans with coarse salt and oil. You can also honestly scrape them off with a metal spatula. You’re okay.
How a cast iron skillet changed my life
Fast forward to another road trip in August 2012. When I arrived in West Virginia, I realized I wanted to quit my job in digital journalism production and return to reporting. That would probably mean moving, and my friend refused to move.
Confused in my head and pepperoni buns fresh from the gas station, I saw a row of roadside tables. Of course I stopped. Next to the children’s toy truck and used plastic containers stood an old man with a tiny cast-iron skillet just big enough for an egg. I asked about the price. “Five dollars,” he said, picking it up.
“A woman who has that,” he said, swinging the pan back, crouching like a baseball player about to bat, “she’s in charge.”
I bought it.
When I got back (fortunately not at 5am), my boyfriend broke up with me and I got a job as a reporter in New Orleans. It was the cheapest take charge purchase in the world.
To top it all off, a grill plate
Since then I’ve seen many, many cast iron pans. They’ve gotten hip. The new ones all seem to have a weird fake coating on them. The old ones are overpriced in antique malls. I resisted them all, even the cornbread molds. Having a tiny, an 8-inch, and a giant cast-iron skillet is like a paring knife, a chef’s knife, and a bread knife: all you need.
But in May, I was on the Virginia side of the line near Winston-Salem, NC, when I saw a junk shop with a handwritten sign that said OUT OF STORE. While browsing, I found a cast iron griddle, round, with a chip sticking out of the base (how?), from a company that shut down in 1957. The owner hesitated. Her brother-in-law didn’t want her to sell it, she said. But, she reasoned to herself, she had to clear out the place. “Five dollars,” she said. I bought it.
I’ve lived in the south for a decade now. The middle pan lives on my stove. It’s rare that a day goes by that I don’t use it. Most weekdays I fry croutons on it for a lunchtime salad; Today I added a block of tofu, sliced lengthwise and cooked dry and crispy, as earthy-crunchy as you like. As Thorne wrote, a cast iron skillet grows with you, no longer young but never old, it just keeps cooking.
And last Friday my friend’s roommate made chili so I used my cast iron skillet for cornbread. After years of fiddling, I’ve found that the best base is the recipe in 1975’s Joy of Cooking. It’s the same edition my mom had in her kitchen growing up.
Cornbread from the cast iron skillet
Adapted from “Joy of Cooking”, 1975Servings: 8 slices
That makes a crisp, fairly dry cornbread with a browned crust, perfect for soaking up chili or red beans, or soaking up cane or sorghum syrup.
3/4 cup whole wheat flour 1-1/4 cup cornmeal, preferably stone ground 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda 1 tablespoon sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1 egg 3 tablespoons butter 1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Add butter to the pan and leave the pan in the oven to heat and melt the butter. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat egg, then add milk (I do all of this in the liquid measuring cup). Remove pan from oven and carefully pour melted butter into wet mixture; don’t scratch – the leftover part greases the pan. Mix wet into dry with a few quick movements. Pour the batter into the hot pan. Bake about half an hour or until a tester comes out dry.
Danielle Dreilinger is a reporter from the American Southern States. Her book, The Secret History of Home Economics, a popular 2021 NPR history book, is now available in paperback. The internet suggests their new griddle, a Griswold, dates from 1920-1939 and could be worth a lot, but I don’t know with that odd bite out of the base. Contact her at 919/236-3141 or firstname.lastname@example.org.