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A Cast Iron Skillet

January 31, 2011

I occasionally have breakfast at the Skillet, a popular hometown restaurant. Narrow tables are bunched down one side of the tight aisle. Down the other side is an oxen-yoke shaped counter with swiveling stools. Skillet customers include a cross-section of the community. Regulars exchange morning greetings and their morning newspapers. Conversation often turns to news and sports, sprinkled with rumor and humor. Waitresses maneuver around the narrow passages serving good food and steaming coffee. The Skillet is a good place to start the day.

The place is humming. The cooks are busy with their work. When things slow down, they may join the conversation. One morning last week, at a pause in the action, the lady who had scrambled my eggs, fried my bacon, and stirred my grits spoke to me. Wiping her hands on her apron she asked if I enjoyed my breakfast. We talked for a few more minutes, then, teasing her, I asked, “Here at the Skillet, do you cook with a skillet?”

“Not here. But I do at home. Cooking in a skillet is the best way and it’s better for you, too. It puts iron in your blood.”

A well-seasoned cast iron skillet will have dozens of very thin, hard layers of oil, so many that the pan will appear to be black instead of the silvery gray of raw cast iron. Maintaining a skillet is an art. The best way to season a skillet is to use it.

Cast iron lasts for years when cared for properly. It never warps or dents and cooks well at a wide range of temperatures. It can be used to fry chicken, catfish, hush puppies, okra, green tomatoes, or onion rings on top of the stove. It can be used to bake corn bread, apple Betty, or peach cobbler in the oven. Its uniform conductivity makes cast iron ideal for Southern cooking.

Cooking with cast iron is art from a simpler time. Miss Maude, my step-grandmother lived in an old farm house in Barnwell County, South Carolina. She cooked on a wood stove with a cast iron skillet. I remember waking up to the aroma of sizzling bacon. Miss Maude put the bacon aside to drain and used the grease to cook chopped onions. Then, she would scramble eggs with the onions and bacon drippings. The eggs she had gathered from her yard hens. Her grits were steaming in a big enamel pot and stirred with a long handle wooden spoon. After the eggs and onions were ready, she put them on a plate and covered them with a pie pan to keep them hot while she added flour, salt, and pepper to the remaining bacon squeezing and make sawmill gravy.  And she had made biscuits much earlier in that same old frying pan.

I learned the hard way that pot holders are necessary.

That cast iron handle gets hot!


Kirk H. Neely
© January 2011



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