GRANDMA’S FRYING PAN
My cast iron skillet is new, not aged and worn like Grandma’s.
Grandma’s frying pan seemed as old as she was. She was particular about her black, iron cast frying pan, as I was to learn one day when I decided at the age of 10 to wash it. I put it in a hot sink of sudsy detergent, and with a metal scratching pad, started rubbing the “black” off of the skillet. She spoke up, loudly, and said, “Don’t touch that pan!” and took it out of my hand.
“Child, I have spent years ‘seasoning’ that pan, and you are about to ruin it.” She pointed at the small circle about the size of a quarter where I had scratched down to the shiny metal. "It will take a year of hard cooking to fix that spot!”
“But MaMah, it is all black and gooie,” I said.
Then she told me an old cooking secret.
“You know why my home-made gravy and fried chicken tastes so good? It is the secret of the pan. Remember the peach cobbler? The pan is the secret. Know how good those steaks taste? Yes, the pan.”
Then MaMah said, “I oil it with vegetable oil and ‘season’ it, cook it in the oven, and seal and harden that oil into a natural coating. Sometimes making a good frying pan is like making a good husband.” She winked at me. I didn’t get it for several years. Then her humor sunk in. I began to understand a double meaning about everything she said about that old black cast-iron frying pan.
She explained, “A pan has to be seasoned. The day your Grandfather gave me that pan, when we got married, we covered it with oil TOGETHER. Kind of like two people smoothing out the friction and differences in life. We put it in the oven and baked it for several hours, and it was like a message to give things time and patience in life. That sealed it with a coating of cooking oil (the oil became a coating, harder than any paint to preserve and protect). It is like firming up relationships and understanding. The oil actually changes and seals into the metal pores."
"But the pan is not done and neither is a relationship. These things take time. It takes about a year to get multiple layers of natural coatings ‘cooked in’ to get the pan really done. Just like it takes while to build an optimal relationship in marriage. The result for the pan is that the fried chicken and gravy I cook will not stick and will have the special flavor only a 'seasoned' iron skillet can produce."
Even as a child, I thought to myself, "Wow, she is talking about a recipe for a marriage.”
No doubt, her fried chicken was extraordinary. My mom had visited the exhibits hall at the Fort Worth Stock Show, and there was a booth that sold stainless steel cookware. It was clean, mirror clean. But when mom cooked with those expensive shiny, clean-looking pans, the food just didn’t taste the same as things cooked in Grandma’s old black cast-iron frying pan.
THE EXTRA THING
Oh, then there was the extra “thing.” MaMah said, “When you are done cooking, never put the pan in a sink of detergent water. Just let it cool until is just warm to the touch and wipe it out with a paper towel. It is already sanitary. It will come clean as a whistle.” She then mumbled with a smile, “It’s like a man. You can’t go and scrub and try to change all of his blemishes. He has built those over a lifetime. You learn to oil and bake him, and give him character, and taste.”
When you are done cooking with a cast iron skillet that has been properly seasoned, it is almost as smooth as Teflon, you don’t have to wash and scrub, that would change it. You just wipe it out and leave a thin coat of oil on it for next time.
I thought that particularly interesting because I had just bought an expensive skillet with a super type of no wash Teflon coating, and the instructions said, “Never wash or scrub. Just wipe it clean while it is still warm.”
So now I am the proud owner of a new 15-inch, cast-iron pan, with 2-inch-tall sides. I just cooked my first steaks in it. It seared them on the outside and locked all the flavor and juices inside, and they were the best steaks we have had in years.
Ah yes, the irony of tradition that we learn from the past.
The old-cast iron skillet served a number of purposes:
- It was a baking pan for homemade biscuits.
- It was a casserole dish used for peach cobbler and apple “bubble up.”
- It was a deep dish for donuts and apple fritters.
- It was a frying pan which often would have bacon, ham, eggs and potatoes all cooking at once.
- Never did a steak taste better than when “flavors and moisture” sealed in by a hot cast iron frying pan.
- When all other pans became bent or scratched, or broken, the cast-iron frying pan was always there, and we cooked everything from vegetable and beef stew to spaghetti sauce to slow-baked roast chicken and ham. Cover the meat up with foil and the pan became a “pot” for “pot roast.” Trust me, a house without a cast-iron frying pan is missing a historical and practical tool.
- My doctor would shudder if he heard about us frying sausage and then making "brown gravy" with the still-hot fat oil and eating it with home made biscuits also baked in the same frying pan. ("No need to put any oil in the pan, they will fry up," MaMah would say, as our cholesterol levels jumped. But the taste was so good.)
- On a healthier note, chop up fresh carrots, onions, fresh tomatoes, some corn (preferably still on the cob), a touch of salt and pepper and boil with a touch of garlic and butter, and have the best vegetable "stir." Add some chicken or beef tips and a jalapeno pepper finely chopped and you have "West Texas vegetable beef stew" to die for. Put in five or six jalapeno peppers and you WILL die.
BUT THERE IS MORE:
Grandma’s black iron frying pan was an heirloom. But it was also a symbol, a teaching tool, a metaphor for human relationships. How many layers have you “baked in” to smooth out the rough spots and improve your qualities? Grandma was like that, she took things of everyday life, and they became teaching tools.
Years later I married my first wife, an Arkansas gal from the Ozarks. Her most treasured wedding present was an iron frying pan as a wedding gift. She unwrapped it, hugged it, and then said, “We need to season it in the oven for a few hours.”
I knew then that we were in for some good cooking if she knew the iron-skillet rules. She was a terrific cook.
There were also the jokes: “Now you have something to knock some sense into your husband,” I'd say. She would laugh and say, "Oh, I have a wooden rolling pin for that," or, "His head is the only thing hard enough to bend a cast-iron pan."
But along the way but there were hints that this was more than a cooking utensil. It had lessons for life, work, working together, sealing up the rough spots, learning to prepare and treasure a lasting thing that could bless for a lifetime, “with proper seasoning.”
That old iron frying pan of Grandma's seems to have disappeared. They went out of fashion in the 1970's and 1980's in favor of stainless steel and Teflon. But, oh, I would love to have that old thing, covered in black with half a century of "seasoning." It always felt a bit heavy and “gooey,” but now looking back on things, I identify with that pan.
I was visiting recently with a good friend in his 70's. I mentioned how my grandmother protected that old frying pan, and he quipped, "How would you feel if someone wanted to clean you up, get rid of all of the flaws that you have spent the better part of a century covering up, and "seasoning" you so that nothing -- no mistake, no blame, no attack -- would stick to you." How would you feel if someone decided to scrub you clean and start all over?
I said, “Clean me up, shine and polish me, and I would rust in a week. I’d feel good for a day and then be terrible. I have spent years trying to build my character, or as the young people call it, my ‘branding’ -- who I am. No, I prefer just to be like that old black frying pan. Well-seasoned.”
He then elaborated. “Someone tries to clean my pan, they are setting me back. I’ve spent a lot of time developing the “me” of me, and I don’t want to be shiny, sparkling, sanitized and lacking flavor. I sure don’t want to look into a frying pan and see the reflection of my worn face,” he added with a chuckle.
“Besides, the flavor and aroma of my life is something people have learned to enjoy. I have learned to enjoy ‘me’ and whoever starts messing with me is meddling.”
Well, what could I say? The old cast-iron frying pan now had triple meanings. They aren’t as prevalent as they once were. In fact, only one company in the USA still makes them. So I ordered a new 15-inch cast-iron skillet. I could not wait to put two huge steaks in it and just see how quickly my family decides they like “Ben’s pan.”
That pan and I are too much alike. We are both getting further “seasoned” and learning the lessons of the pan. But the pan and I both enjoy the seasoning that life sends our way. Anyone who puts it (or me) in a dishwasher is in for trouble.
And ahh, the fringe benefit of the good, cast-iron, pan-cooked delicacies. All I need now is an original wooden rolling pin.