The Magic Fryin’ Pan

One of our wedding gifts was a treasured antique cast iron frying pan. It’s a big one, a full 11 inches, perfectly ‘seasoned’ as the cast iron gurus call it, and over 100 years old. It came with lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ and some bragging about it’s value. I loved it instantly and regard it to this day as one of my few most treasured possessions.

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Shiny enough to see my reflection!

As of almost five years ago, I had probably cooked a total of 20 meals in my entire life. I mean, meals that weren’t canned soup or frozen pizza. Don’t get me wrong, I loved to eat healthy food, I just didn’t ever learn how to cook it. Learning to start colts seemed so much more important of a skill. Once, in Junior high, my mama determined to teach me to cook by putting me in a cooking school. If only I had paid attention! The only reason I made it through the class was because my little sister did it with me. Once again I repeat the adage, “Mama tried.”

When I met Cody I owned a set of dishes (I used the cereal bowls), a muffin tin (go figure!), waaay too many coffee mugs, one never-been-used cast iron skillet that I ended up with somehow in my wanderings, and a brand-new Pioneer Woman cook book (my Dad’s gift when my husband and I got engaged. It was a silent but very strong hint that I didn’t get until after the vows were said! It’s falling apart now due to over-use…).

When I started using that ol’ frying pan, I would wonder at the stories it could tell. A hundred years’ worth of food. Perhaps that old skillet was used by a ranch wife whose culinary skills were just as seasoned. Or,maybe it was only a tool used by some bitter old camp cook somewhere out there under the open sky. It might even have been a weapon of self-defense a time or two! You never know. As a bride trying her hand at cooking for her new hubby, these thoughts rushed in to give me a sense of gravitas about my new role.

I falsely believed the skillet would somehow magically make me a good cook.

Nope.

I’ve burned more stuff in that skillet than you can imagine. Stuff the dogs wouldn’t even lick off. Despite my failures in that realm, the skillet is still as magnificent as it ever was. Magnificent, but not magic.

I wondered after a while why anyone would even use cast iron anymore, unless they just like old things. I mean, if it wasn’t the secret to making every meal the best anyone has ever tasted, why put up with having to ‘season’ it every time you use it? I can just throw the non-stick specials in the dishwasher, for crying out loud! All this effort and no instant results seemed a burden. But over time, the ol’ frying pan began to teach me the lessons it had learned.

The cast iron frying pan that sits on my stove is older, probably, than my great-grandparents would be today, and unless I mess up royally somehow, it could outlive us and possibly even our great-grandchildren. The lesson is that quick fixes and convenience cannot deliver what time-tested patience and diligence can. I’m the mama of two kiddos under three, and I’m always rushing around. Slowing down to maintain that ol’ frying pan has forced me to care about my task, even though it is often a dull one. That’s a good clue about how to make a hand in the kitchen, folks. And in marriage, too. There’s no instant, easy way to fix the issues in a marriage. It’s that daily maintenance again that will help it stand the test of time.

Thankfully, my cooking failures have never diminished the value of that ol’ frying pan. It’s still the treasure that it always was and still as useful as the day it was poured, if not more. So if marriage and skillets have anything in common, it’s the fact that they will always work once you’ve learned how to use them. As long as you care about it, it will serve you well.

Here’s hoping your marriage legacy outlives your cast iron skillet!

 

In my almost-five-years of cooking, I have learned how not to care for cast iron, so I’ll pass on what I know.

1.) Never leave water sitting in your cast iron skillet. Rust is unappealing.

2.) Soap is counterproductive. If you thought you needed it to help dissolve stuck-on scrambled eggs, just wait until the next time you use your skillet. Then you’ll know what ‘stuck-on’ really means.

3.) Being in too big of a hurry to season the skillet before you put it away means you better have plenty of extra time when you want to use it again. It’s a tortoise vs. hare kind of a deal.

This is how I learned to take care of my wonderful ol’ skillet:

(The same way my mama does it. Funny thing, this turns out to be something else she was right about.)

  • When it’s full of sticky, burnt-on gravy or something, I fill it with water and put it on the stove and let the water boil. Then I loosen all the burnt on stuff with a spoon and I dump it out.
  • Next, I wash the ol’ girl with … hot water. Just don’t use soap at all. It will un-season your skillet! (And that kinda tells you why your hands feel the way they do after you wash anything with dish soap…but that’s another topic altogether.)
  • When it is rinsed clean, I will return it to the stove and dry it on the burner.
    Then, while she’s still hot, I take a paper towel dipped in good old fashioned Crisco and I rub it all over. Once the skillet is cooled off, its back to her place to wait for next time.

 

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These three cast iron skillets are different ‘ages’. Left to right: One year of use, five years of use, and approximately 100 years of use. Notice the difference in ‘season’ of each one.

Maybe you’re wondering what the term ‘seasoned’ means. Well, next time you’re in Wal-Mart and you walk by the cooking section, have a look at a plain cast iron skillet. The tag will likely say, “pre-seasoned” but I would ask, ‘compared to what?’ The surface of it will look like asphalt. A well-seasoned cast iron cooking tool will appear mirror-shiny and feel smooth as glass. Factories can’t season skillets anymore than dishwashers can wash dishes (let’s be real about this y’all!).

Antique skillets are usually found wherever people aren’t looking for them. And if you find one that no one was looking for and it has the name ‘Griswold’ or ‘Wagner’ on it, you should probably buy it. In doing a little research trying to find out where mine came from, I found out anything that says ‘made in the USA’ is not an antique because it would have been cast after 1960. But I say if it’s not cracked and its seasoned well, there’s nothing wrong with it!

The difference between the antiques and the modern ones is easily felt. The old ones are lighter, thinner, and stronger. They were hand-poured into a sand mold and polished smooth so they would season and cook better.

For those of you who are interested, keep an eye out for future posts about some chuck wagon cooking tips from my mama and a dutch oven recipe or two from my grandmother. It’s a fact of life that a cowgirl must cook, regardless of how much better a hand she is with rope and horse. The women who have gone before me have learned a thing or two more than I have about this; they’re worth sitting up and paying attention to when it comes to cooking. (I know, I grew up on their food!)

One thought on “The Magic Fryin’ Pan

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  1. Your Ranch Wife Life stories bring misty eyes of joy as I read from one post to the next, and a big smile at your understanding of life in the kitchen, nursery and all aspects of year-long life on a Western Cattle Ranch. Your sense of humor, and compassion for the serious happenings is so compelling to me! You are a wonderful blessing to us!

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