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!)

What is a ‘hand’?

 

Cowboy terminology defies modern usage of the English language. We use words in ways that someone from the outside just cannot understand. Cowboys don’t like to be laughed at, but the fact is that to anyone who doesn’t know what our words mean, the way we use them is actually funny. But the concept of ‘making a hand’ I hope can translate. Let me give it try.

I have been told countless times in my life to ‘make a hand’. It’s something adults in the cowboy world tell youngsters as much and as often as most other kids are told to “Sit up straight.” When used to admonish, it means something like: “Do your part. Don’t be lazy. Hustle. Quit jackin’ around. Don’t think about how tired you feel, finish your job.” But we all live to hear this phrase applied as praise from the chapped lips of rough-handed man who has become, in our eyes, the definition of the term “hand”.

“Try to make a hand gal,” he might say as you ride by him, patting your knee. And you swell with euphoric triumph that he spoke to you, blended with the terror of failure; and you try to stay focused on your work.

When the word ‘hand’ is used to describe someone, say, if you ever hear a person described as ‘a real hand’, it’s the highest complement in the cowboy culture. And it is rarely given to a woman. Very rarely. Furthermore, the complement is meaningless when it comes from someone who hasn’t earned the right to be called a hand themselves. This is because of all that is implied by the word: authentic, supremely skillful, tough, faithful,ever-ready, always putting your whole self into your work; it’s an ethic, and it’s part of our code.

I admit it’s pretty funny, really, to use the word ‘hand’. There are some other really funny words we use, like “sticky”, “fresh”, and “punchy”…I won’t go into all that just now. If you think of it in light of the common term ‘handy’, the real meaning will start to dawn on you.

For me, I would hope someone could write this on my tombstone. But I know that won’t happen. There have been some real stand-out days that somebody might say I made a hand, but truly I have never been able to surpass average performance at any of the cowboy’s celebrated skills. These days, though, I am finding this ethic applies to a person even outside the cowboy skill set. That’s what I want to tell you about here. You see, I am trying to make a hand at being a cowboys wife and the mama of a couple of youngsters. You’ll find this amusing as we go along, seeing as how I am as familiar with domestic duties and culinary arts as a gopher would be with skydiving. I’m here to show you (and myself!) that all it takes to really make a hand is heart. The only one who is really qualified to give you that title is God.

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This is Cody, my husband, trying to make a hand on a green horse at the neighbor’s branding.

 

Were we to translate Jesus’ parable into ‘cowboy-ese’, where the Master says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into my rest,” it would be paraphrased, “Way to make a hand, kid.”

And I live to hear my Father say that to me one day.

And They Lived Happily Ever After

“Click!” The deafening whisper of the screen door latch.

The distant low purr of a diesel engine and the unmistakable rattle of a stock trailer arrested my ears moments later. A horse nickered. It faded into the early morning dark. Quiet again.

I lay in bed for as long as I could, giving it all I had to try to sleep. Nevermind, I thought. I rolled myself and the 60 odd pounds of baby weight out of bed, rubbing my happily rounded belly. I told the baby girl good morning.

Following the strong smell of coffee into the kitchen, I paused for a second, longing to taste some. But ‘the baby didn’t like it’. I could still hear that screen door latch ‘click’, it echoed like thunder in my mind. I went outside and stood in the cold of an October morning in New Mexico’s high desert mountains. Yes, there were stars. I smelled the dust that my cowboy’s rig had stirred up on our dirt road. Then, I heard it: a far away cry, a whistle. A wild, desperate song made by a voice I could pick out of thousands. It was my horse.

Alone, like me, on a morning we both knew we should have gone with the others. Oh how badly I wanted to answer him back with a cry of my own! But in a way, he was singing the song of my heart. Most people-and horses- spend a big chunk of their time on earth looking for that place they belong, but not me. No, not me. And it’s double hard to know your niche and have to stand behind a glass wall and do something else; just watching the weather change, unable to change with it like always.

Ranch life has a rythm that the cowboy and his family know well. I was raised in it and it’s ingrained so deep that it is hard to think of life in any other frame. I get a big kick out of the brave women who come out here from town because they fell in love. They bring much needed melody to that rythm we all pound out year after year.

As a young girl I dreamed of being in love and ‘happily ever after’, like all the others do. It just never included the details, like pregnancy. Or cooking. Or toddlers. Not once did it occur to me during the fun of falling in love that I would be standing on the porch, heavy with child, waving goodbye in the dark. The way I saw it, heck, we would just be riding colts side-by-side and I would be his right hand. We would come in at night and just have a ball talking about doing it all again the next day. Every day would start with coffee together, the chink of both our spurs making a theme song to ride to. And children would be great. I had already planned which horse I would turn into a kid mount when the time came. So, see? Kids wouldn’t slow us down at all.

I was pretty shocked that morning sickness could keep me from helping the neighbors brand. And just as surprised that after you have a baby, you’re ten times as tied down as you were when you weighed like a weaner calf. Ah, well, to quote a grand Texas lady I once knew: “Things happen just about the way they’s s’posed to.”

 

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Cody and me, Cheyenne, summer 2012

Welcome to my happily ever after. I’m just as in love as ever with my handsome cowboy. I love to watch him ride off on a colt and come back a couple hours later, grinning ear-to-ear, asking me and the two little Landry’s to come watch him show off the handle on his pony. Do I still wish I was beside him? Yep. Every darn day. But I’m finding that the more I pour myself into those little ones and the more heart I put into keeping our house a home, I’m still his right hand man. It’s like I was always told growing up: make a hand. Look around and see what needs to be done and do it. Don’t sit back and wait for quitting time. Don’t hesitate. Don’t ask ‘what’s in it for me?’ before you jump in to help. Hustle. Get in there and make a hand. I don’t always get things done right. You know that sense of belonging and niche I mentioned earlier? Well, I’ve come to accept that it’s not the all important thing it appears to be. Sometimes our weaknesses show our true colors better.

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ my rest upon me.” 

1 Corinthians 12:9

 

 

 

 

 

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