The Thing She Carried
January 14, 2018 3:24 PM   Subscribe

"The cast-iron skillet is 13 inches in diameter and so heavy I have to use both hands to pour anything out of it. And it tells a story of Florida endurance and female endurance that I wanted with me in that moment, a thing I never want to lose. It belonged to my great-great-grandmother, the cook on a wagon train from Georgia to Florida in the late 19th century...She had packed up everything she could, including the skillet, an even more massive Dutch oven and a one-gallon soup pot, all of them iron, all built to last. The kinds of things you take when you can take only important things." From the Bitter Southerner's Folklore Project: Susannah Nesmith's The Skillet, a personal reflection on what to save when you must leave it all behind.

"Owning an old skillet makes you responsible to protect something valuable and strong and vulnerable. This skillet is something women before me had carefully protected for themselves and for their progeny, for me. A lot of work had been invested into those layers of protection, that delicate but fierce inheritance, all with the assumption that I would continue to lay down more thin layers...There are things that other women fought for, women including my mother, women who laid down the oil, layer by layer, on the iron so I could live in that legacy of the protection of anti-discrimination laws, of hostile-workplace regulations, of a world that recognized that women have something to offer, a voice, a choice. I have been able to do things and go places that my grandmothers and their mothers and their grandmothers could never have imagined for women. I owe to them, and to the girls and women who come after me, a special responsibility to care for and protect those thin layers that stand between strength and vulnerability, between rights and restrictions."
posted by MonkeyToes (32 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
My Aunt Dee died more than a decade ago. Several people mentioned to me, "So, you got her skillet?" It is always on my stove. Her legacy was unfailing joy, interest, and kindness.
posted by Oyéah at 3:49 PM on January 14, 2018 [12 favorites]

I live in the south and have a dear friend here who’s a Canadian immigrant. During one of the rounds of debate over the confederate flag, she remarked, “If I want to wave a symbol of pride in the culture of my adopted home, I will pick up a cast iron skillet.”

Also no one ever believes me but I swear to god you can wash them with soap now, y’all, modern detergents are gentle enough, please wash with soap
posted by middleclasstool at 4:19 PM on January 14, 2018 [28 favorites]

Before I got married, the "something old" I requested was a cast-iron skillet from my great-grandmother, Granny Hall. My grandmother sent it to me along with one of Granny Hall's old bonnets. I still have it.
posted by Kitteh at 4:21 PM on January 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

My friend Nnn's family was displaced several times in Europe during the 20th century, his mother finally washing ashore, a single mom, in Indiana in the 1960s. She had a great careeer as a beloved highschool teacher of European languages and he followed her into teaching. He now alternately scares and amuses high schoolers into engaging with algebra at our old high school. He is a good man, a kind man, and an incorrigible hedgehog, someone who will always embrace the opposite view that you express, with sometimes tiresome combativeness. He is both, and simultaneously, beloved and aggravating. I am so grateful for our friendship.

He is a serious, like bar-the-door-sukey, collector, restorer, and enthusiast of cast iron. I can't help but see, in the wake of this story, his interest in collecting and continuously oiling hundreds of pounds of cast iron pans, some of which are well over a century old, as an expression of his intent, his need, to be anchored in our hometown. That place is the richer for it and I sincerely hope in our arguments and disputations over the years that he understands my engagement with him to be made of the same stuff, unbreakable, rooted, ours.
posted by mwhybark at 4:29 PM on January 14, 2018 [15 favorites]

One of the things that give me hope for the future is that new generations value those things we have inherited from our elders. My mother loved the new, the teflon, the serrated knives, the tupperware. If I hadn't loved my grandmothers and their cooking so much, their kitchenware would have been lost, and some was lost during those years when I was living in dormitories and shared apartments and my parents tired of storing things they couldn't see the reason for. I had to fight for every bit - not only of cast iron cookware, but also of invaluable Bauhaus containers and pre-foodprocessor grinders.
Just today, I gave my daughter a really wonderful French sauté pan which is maybe 60 years old. I am lucky enough to have several and it is such a joy that she appreciates that cookware is valuable regardless of its age.
posted by mumimor at 4:41 PM on January 14, 2018 [13 favorites]

I have my great grandmother's flat cast iron skillet. It is perfect for The Best Grilled Cheese and pancakes and crepes and hotting up tortillas and indian flatbreads. When I got it the surface on that thing would bead water like a duck and I have worked hard to keep it that way.
posted by which_chick at 4:43 PM on January 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

mwhybark - such a poignantly well-written reflection of your treasured friend. My heart did a thumpy floppy love beat just reading that.
posted by Lizard at 5:30 PM on January 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

please wash with soap

Spit and salt was good enough for the pans when they were Granny's, and it's good enough now!
None of that is true - I don't have any Granny's pans, they both wouldn't have done that, and I use a chainmail scrubby for dry stuff & soap for the rest on my Lodge stuff.
posted by sysinfo at 5:48 PM on January 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have two. One used to belong to my great grandmother. Mom has more of them along with other kitchen tools, all heavy with memories.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:50 PM on January 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Lovely writing.

Although I disagree that the patina on cast iron is fragile. Mine are old old old, and the interior surface is almost indestructible. My kids were horrible about doing dishes and really bad about caring for the pans. Over the years, I had to 'perk up' the seasoning on the skillets especially, but they are wonderful utensils. I've had a few chips dinged out of the enamel on the stove, and a cracked tile on the floor, but nothing has bothered the skillet or the flat pan. We even take ours camping.

One thing you do in a cow camp or on a pack trip is make sure your skillet is clean before you leave. None of this 'just wipe it out' stuff. Either you use dish soap, or you scrub it with sand (or salt) then bring water to a boil in it to sanitize. Next time you go to use it, you heat it hot hot hot with oil and then let it cool while you prep your meal. You don't want to attract mice in the cabin, because mouse pee means you start over from scratch on the pan by having to sandblast that mousey 'flavor' out before you re-season. On a pack trip, you don't want to sit in a tree watching a bear getting frustrated trying to lick the patina off the skillet.

One of the few things that most likely be there after a natural disaster is a cast iron skillet. Unless the house goes completely, it's not going to blow away, it won't float off, and you've got a good chance of it surviving a fire. Sand it and season, and Bob's your uncle.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:05 PM on January 14, 2018 [17 favorites]

I have often wondered why Bob was so friendly and always hanging around.
posted by mwhybark at 6:46 PM on January 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

I have a kitchen full of my grandmother's things. My grandfather died shortly after I moved across country, and as the cousins gathered to close up the house for sale and divide up the good china and so on, no one else wanted her daily use kitchen stuff. I have her pie plates and mixing bowls and corning ware and wooden spoons. I've gradually replaced the RevereWare pans with All Clad and bought some new Le Creuset pots, but I use something of hers every day. She died when I was pretty young but I have memories of sitting in her kitchen watching her cook so I'm glad that I can still put her things to use.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:07 PM on January 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

If we're sharing...

I have some of my grandmother's pots and pans. Other people got the "valuables," for the most part. I can lay claim to the pot she used to make chicken soup, and the saucepan without a lid, etc. And then there are two rolling pins, one of which belonged to her mother, so it's probably over 100 years old. Then there's the hodgepodge of measuring spoons my mother owned and used. The list goes on. These odds and ends don't have a dollar value, so when houses were being broken up these were not the first things to go.

Once I wanted everything new and my own, But with my hands on the cookware and tools used by three generations of women before me, I am never alone in the kitchen. Their memory and their hours spent in other kitchens surround me.

What I wouldn't do for the skillet my grandmother used. I understand the latkes were a-mazing.
posted by datawrangler at 7:09 PM on January 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Gingerbeer, I'm right there with you...
posted by datawrangler at 7:10 PM on January 14, 2018

I have one of my grandmother's skillets. I love it, but it does need work on the finish. There's a lot of touching emotion in these stories of family skillets, but it's still iron and oil and those things react to the world and time in predictable ways. Hers used to have a mirror-flat bottom, and I never remember seeing it on her stove without a quarter-inch of fish-frying oil in the bottom of it. The bottom isn't mirror flat anymore.

I wish I had a lot more of the cooking vessels I remember from my childhood: the big aluminum pans they made chicken and yellow rice in, the sausage grinder, their old waffle iron (still in use by my uncle, I believe).
posted by penduluum at 8:05 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh and my partner and I still use their china every day, their daily-use stuff. Gotta be 70-80 years old. Looks like I just bought it all yesterday.
posted by penduluum at 8:06 PM on January 14, 2018

When all of my now adult kids were born, I got a cast iron skillet for them. Over 25 years, I alternated cooking in all of them. When they moved out into their adult homes, they each got their skillet, seasoned with their childhoods.

I am not an especially clever person and I honestly cannot remember why I did this.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:39 AM on January 15, 2018 [22 favorites]

Oh, and my mom has a flat cast-iron skillet that she's been making homemade tortillas on since I was a child. When she passes, it is the only thing I want from her belongings. (We're not really an heirloom family because we moved around so much, so my lack of sentimentality towards heirlooms has been the cause of friction in my marriage, where heirlooms are A Thing.)
posted by Kitteh at 4:40 AM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a cast iron skillet that my Dad thought was his mothers, but not sure. She died before I was born, and they were poor, so the skillet and tea pot and two photos are all I have of Annie. I still use the skillet and think of her.

One of my friends married a Griswold (really, not a joke) and the Griswold family made all manner of cast iron cookware. I have a few of those too from garage sales. She has lots of them.
posted by mermayd at 6:37 AM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for these stories; I resonate with objects carrying history, and particularly like the idea of the others in the kitchen with us when we use their belongings. Not just for decoration, not just for sentiment, but for sustenance and the consequent attention that calls for, making and then repairing, setting things to rights, again and again.

Mermayd, my favorite cast-iron pan is a Griswold No. 7. It's the Magic Pan. Found it at a local rummage sale for $3...but I really bought it because of the instant crouton-petter connection I felt for this poor, abandoned pan, with so much life left in it. It spoke to me and asked to be brought back into service, and I use it with gratitude. Somebody loved it in its previous life, somebody took care of it, and I hope I do right by it in its current incarnation. And maybe all of that is because I have so few things from my grandmothers--none from one, and just a few kitchen things (a sifter, a cookie jar) from the grandmother I remember. The only bridge I have is the one I make with my own kids, making food with me, and I can only hope that they will value certain tools the way your stories do. Thanks.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:02 AM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have one from each side of my family. One shallow one that is about 12 inches and a deep sided one that is about 10 inches. The deep one holds a double corn bread recipe and browns so perfectly.
posted by bjgeiger at 8:39 AM on January 15, 2018

I've been struggling with the cast iron skillets in my gentleman caller's house for the last year, having to adapt both to cast iron (which takes forever to heat up and then, if overheated, is like a nuclear reactor with stuck control rods, taking forever to cool down) and a glass-top electric stove (which also takes forever to heat up and cool down, in a very weird and non-linear way), and there have been a lot of panicky calls to the alarm company to head off the arrival of a big red truck in the driveway. I'm getting the feel of it, but I still amuse my Georgia relatives by making my corn bread in a wok because it's what I'm used to.

That said, I have a French spring steel 10" crepe pan that I was given to me by my sister upon my departure, at 17, for my own place in the world and which sees soap about once a year, and a huge, black carbon steel wok that my back-to-the-land mother bought in 1969, which gets cleaned solely with a bundle of bamboo sticks and water if necessary, and about 80% of the cooking I do uses one or the other of these things (not counting little utility pots and my crockery cooker). In the event of a fire, I'd throw the dog out the (first floor) window, collect my family papers and irreplaceables go-box, retrieve my modest collection of depression-era gay pornographic snapshots, tuck my wok and crepe pan under my arm, and run for my life.
posted by sonascope at 9:32 AM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

When I was 21 I opened a vegetarian restaurant, (~1971.) I bought and cured cast iron omelet pans, just the right size for three egg omelets. When I sold out, I kept on of these and my youngest daughter ended up with it, because at the time, I didn't eat many eggs. So she has a 47 year old cast iron pan from her mother! She keeps it perfectly seasoned, you can flip eggs in it.

If you take your hot pan right to the sink, this is regular cooking hot, not over heated, you can watch the water boil on the surface while you use a scrubber to take off what little debris sticks to a well seasoned pan, and you don't need soap if it is hot enough to boil water. The residual oils keep the patina.
posted by Oyéah at 10:34 AM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also no one ever believes me but I swear to god you can wash them with soap now, y’all, modern detergents are gentle enough, please wash with soap.

I believe you. My skillet was from TJ Maxx, so not an heirloom, but I've had it for over ten years, and it's never rusted. I wash it with normal dish soap. I figure that modern cast iron is treated somehow to avoid rusting, but that's only a theory. It's certainly outlasted several $$$ Le Creuset pans, which are very easy to burn, scratch, and otherwise destroy. Much to my chagrin (and the sadness of my wallet.)

I do not have an antique cast iron piece, but I did inherit an antique Singer sewing machine, built in 1939, on which my grandmother sewed my father's school uniforms, and on which my mother sewed curtains for her first home, among other things. The sewing machine belonged to my grandmother, on another continent, for a number of years, before it was given to my mother in the States. It still works, and does indeed reek of history, as a modern machine would not. Now that I think of it, when my mother got the sewing machine, with it came a heavy, built-to-last, stock pot. I don't know if it was iron, but it was around for a very long time. The Things They Passed Down, might be a better title....
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 1:05 PM on January 15, 2018

May I tell you about the amazing beauty that is the cast iron cookie sheet? I found one at the Lodge store in South Pittsburgh, TN on my way home from a camping trip and said, “Huh? This might be cool.” The lady behind the counter said it’d change my life. And she wasn’t lying. Biscuits are perfect on both the top and bottom. Cookies are flawless. Roast potatoes and carrots are unstoppable.

I also have a cast iron Dutch oven my cousin got me for my wedding because the only other girl cousin got Granny’s although I did get Granny’s fried egg pan. We also have a small flat round griddle that my husband found covered in rust at a flea market for $1.25. It is now our breakfast pan every weekend. There is nothing like cast iron and I love this article so much.
posted by teleri025 at 1:58 PM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I love these stories... I didn't inherit anything from my grandmother because my parents are (or at least, were then) thoroughly modern and the throwing-stuff-out kind.

But I love the idea of the history behind these objects, and their sheer simplicity, utility and longevity when compared with modern equivalents.

That's what I love about my copper pans, ranging from the 4" butter pan to the 14" & 15lb monster saute pan... all picked up cheap because they're not modern, none less than 50 years old, dented and scratched... and just perfect.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 12:40 AM on January 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

> One of the few things that most likely be there after a natural disaster is a cast iron skillet.

IIRC, in The World Without Us the author states that two of the last remaining traces of our civilization will be cast iron and ceramics.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:25 AM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have my wife's great-grandmother's pan, which means it probably came over on a boat from Poland early last century. The seasoning on it is indestructible, and I use it every day. Although they reap its rewards, no one else is allowed to touch it.
posted by HumanComplex at 9:25 AM on January 16, 2018

please wash with soap

As Oyeah--and many many others--says, there's really no reason to do this, and there are plenty of reasons not to potentially add more detergents to your diet while un-seasoning your pan. If you cook on a seasoned pan at the right temps with the appropriate amount of oil/grease you can pretty much just pour a little water in that sucker while it's still hot and everything will scrub right out with a few sweeps of a brush.

Le Creuset pans, which are very easy to burn, scratch, and otherwise destroy
Are you talking about the stuff with enamel inside? Those definitely take a little more care; enamelware is prone to cracking, especially at quick temperature changes. The skillets with enamel outside but bare cast iron inside seem pretty indestructible. Even my modern Le Creuset skillet is four or five years old now, and I use it every day. The vintage stuff is 30-40 years old and going strong.
posted by aspersioncast at 2:09 PM on January 16, 2018

As Oyeah--and many many others--says, there's really no reason to do this, and there are plenty of reasons not to potentially add more detergents to your diet while un-seasoning your pan
posted by middleclasstool at 9:05 PM on January 16, 2018

Whoops, meant to do more than quote. Wrong button. My point was that dish soaps today won’t unseason your pan. I’ve been using soap for years and mine are tip top. I know you can clean without them, I did that for years too, but soap makes the job easier and more thorough.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:08 PM on January 16, 2018

Regarding the soap thing, I'm always not sure what the soap is actually for. My seasoned cookware is all super clean without soap, as I use a bamboo scraper for big stuff, a bundle of little bamboo sticks for the little stuff, and a plastic brush or a damp dishcloth for just dislodging bits of egg, but there's no need for sanitizing a pan that's going to be heated to an bacteriologically unsurvivable temperature before a touch of fat or food goes in. Am I missing something here?
posted by sonascope at 3:32 PM on January 18, 2018

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