Cast iron pans season my cooking, and my life
I was not to the cast iron born. I had no granny in the holler scouring her kettle with sand, or mawmaw in the bayou greasing her griddle with drippings. My maternal grandmother was a 1960s gourmet. At a time when housewives served iceberg, she would ask, “Do you want a salad, or do you just want a chunk of lettuce?” As for my paternal grandmother, she made, as my dad said, reservations.
No, the pan of my childhood was Teflon. I grew up in a 1980s kitchen devoted to the Silver Palate cookbooks, Cooking Light magazine and the New York Times food section, where chef Pierre Franey extolled the new-and-improved nonstick pans. On our nonstick pans we sprayed nonstick spray, leaving a gummy residue we scrubbed fruitlessly with a non-damaging plastic scrubby. When I stocked my tiny college kitchen, it was with a nonstick pan.
But in early 2001, living in metro Boston, I fell in love with four things at once: bluegrass music, a man who lived so far north in New York you could see Canada from his house, community-supported agriculture and food writer John Thorne. All these together turned me toward cast iron.
Maybe Thorne most of all. “The first pan I acquired, a small cast-iron frying pan, was in appearance and temperament the very antithesis of house proud. It entered my apartment greasy inside and rust-stained without, looking as surly as a junkyard dog,” he wrote in Pot on the Fire.
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The poetry! It spoke to me not of a pan but an entire approach to cooking, and maybe even to life. There was no poetry to Teflon. I did not want to eat, or to be, slick, chemical or convenient. I wanted to be as gritty and earthy as cornbread baked in a cast-iron pan.
How I got a foot-wide frying pan
My first cast-iron pan took its own weird route to me, via a fiddle-playing scientist friend. (The bluegrass, Thorne and vegetable interests stuck; the northern New York dude did not.) My friend's girlfriend ordered a cast-iron pan from a camping supply company. She got two — apparently they stuck together in the packaging line — and gave him the extra. But it was too big, he said — a full foot across. Also they had broken up. I hefted the pan and vowed to take up weightlifting. At home I staggered it onto my stove, where it crowded out my nonstick pan.
Cast iron was not only poetic, it was practical, I learned. On nonstick, those local vegetables steamed into mush. Now they browned. Tofu crisped. Instead of using a plastic spatula that inevitably melted when left on the stove, I could wield a metal spatula with its satisfying clang. I was still sufficiently Cooking Light-ish to like that the pan was “naturally nonstick.” And I never had to clean it.
But it really was enormous, so I bought an 8” cast iron from Tags Hardware for $10. Once I got my own place, both cast-iron pans took up permanent residence on my stovetop. They looked sturdy and self-reliant. Like me, I hoped.
How cast-iron pans saved my finances
A few years later, in 2008, those pans saved my financial bacon. My building was for sale, and I had conveniently planned a reporting road trip that meant I didn’t have to endure the showings. At its end, I walked into my apartment at 5 a.m. to see evidence of showings everywhere: lights on, blinds up, closet doors open — and my two cast-iron pans in the draining rack. They had been washed. I felt invaded.
At noon, the landlord called me back. “Somebody washed my cast-iron pans,” I said.
“My wife did,” he said, and with disgust. “There was food on them!”
I am a freezer, not a fighter. But exhaustion had flipped my safety catch. Feeling my knees shake, I quickly stepped into the office bathroom.
“THAT IS SEASONING!” I screamed as I have never screamed before or since. “YOU DO NOT WASH CAST-IRON PANS! YOU HAD NO RIGHT TO WASH MY THINGS! IF YOU DIDN’T LIKE HOW THE PANS LOOKED YOU COULD HAVE PUT THEM IN THE DAMN OVEN!”
There was a very loud silence. The next day my landlord sent me a new lease locking in my very low rent for 18 months. That month I began dating a man who taught me to clean cast-iron pans with coarse salt and oil. You can also, honestly, scrape them with a metal spatula. They’re fine.
How a cast-iron pan changed my life
Fast-forward to another road trip, in August 2012. As soon as I entered West Virginia I realized I wanted to quit my digital journalism production job and go back to reporting. That would likely mean moving, and my boyfriend refused to move.
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Muddled in mind and toting pepperoni rolls fresh from the gas station, I saw a strip of tables at the side of the road. Of course, I stopped. Alongside the children’s toy truck and used plastic storage containers stood an old man with a tiny cast-iron pan, just big enough for one egg. I asked the price. “Five dollars,” he said, and picked it up.
“A woman who has one of these,” he said, and swung the pan back, crouching like a baseball player about to swing, “she’s in charge.”
I bought it.
When I got back (not at 5 a.m., fortunately), my boyfriend broke up with me and I got a reporting job in New Orleans. It was the cheapest take-charge purchase in the world.
To top it off, a griddle
I have since seen many, many cast-iron pans. They have become hip. The new ones all seem to have a weird fake-seasoned coating. The old ones are overpriced in antique malls. I have resisted them all, even the cornbread molds shaped like corn. Having a tiny, an 8-inch and a giant cast-iron pan is like having 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, N.C., when I saw a junk shop with a handwritten sign that said “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.” Rummaging, I found a cast-iron griddle, round, with a chip out of the base (how?), from a company that closed in 1957. The owner hesitated. Her brother-in-law didn’t want her to sell it, she said. But, she debated with herself, she had to get the store cleaned out. “Five dollars,” she said. I bought it.
I have now lived in the South for a decade. The medium pan lives on my stove. It’s rare that a day goes by when I don’t use it. Most weekdays I fry croutons on it for a lunch salad; today I added a block of tofu, sliced lengthwise and cooked until dry and crisped, as earthy-crunchy as you could want. Like Thorne wrote, a cast-iron pan grows with you, no longer young but never old, just continuing to cook.
And last Friday my boyfriend's roommate made chili, so I used my cast-iron pan for cornbread. After years of futzing, I have found the best base is the recipe in the 1975 "Joy of Cooking." It’s the same edition my mom had in her kitchen when I was growing up.
Cast-Iron Pan Cornbread
Adapted from "Joy of Cooking," 1975Serves: 8 slices
This makes a craggy, rather dry cornbread with a browned crust, perfect for sopping 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 powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place butter in pan, and leave pan in oven to heat up and melt butter. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat egg, then add milk (I do this all in the liquid measuring cup). Remove pan from oven, and carefully pour melted butter into wet mixture; don’t scrape — the leftover part greases the pan. Mix wet into dry with a few swift strokes. Pour batter into hot pan. Bake about half an hour, or until a tester comes out dry.
Danielle Dreilinger is an American South storytelling reporter. Her book "The Secret History of Home Economics," an NPR Favorite History Book of 2021, is now out in paperback. The internet indicates that her new griddle, a Griswold, dates back to 1920-1939 and might be worth a lot, but I don't know with that weird bite out of the base. Contact her at 919/236-3141 or firstname.lastname@example.org.