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Monday, November 16, 2009

The Century Skillet

Eggs, new potatoes, onions, garlic, fresh tomatoes,
cream, and kale
for our recovering flu patient


One of the things my maternal grandmother got for her wedding day, in the late nineteenth century, was a high-sided cast-iron skillet with a lid and two pouring lips. She made six decades' worth of cornbread, butterbeans, chicken-and-dumplings, bacon, ham, and I don't know what all in it.

At the time of her passing, the skillet disappeared. Several more decades passed, and a century came to an end, and my mother's best friend spotted the skillet, minus lid, hanging on a hook in a relative's kitchen, and asked about its provenance. The answer hemmed, hawed and stammered enough to speak for its being the skillet in question and not a similar one, and its having mislaid itself at the time it was supposed to have passed down to my mom.

My "auntie" is not one to beat about the bush, and in essence said "hand it over" and got the skillet. Time passed, and my mom, eighty-one with heart trouble, has had difficulties making it to Georgia, and Auntie, also eighty-one and on dialysis, hasn't been making it to Florida.

When I passed through Atlanta en route to Oregon with my mom's gifted pickup truck, I spent a few hours with Auntie, and while I was there, she gave me (with my mom's prior blessing) my grandmother's skillet.

We have several of the more modern iron skillets, in three sizes, and we're used to the way they handle. Not that we've used them much -- for years, they've hung on the walls while we fell for the ease of use of "non-stick" pans. While these are not as unhealthy to use, perhaps, as they were in the early days of "the miracle of Teflon," they are said to be not good for the people who live where they are manufactured. Our current ones are nearing the end of their useful life, that is, they are about ten years old, and so I've been reviving my interest in cast-iron cookery -- and I like the idea of working with a 125-year-old frying pan that doesn't look a day older now than when it was made.

It's a tall thing, and I've never seen another like it. It's ten and a half inches across the top and eight inches across the bottom, with sheer sides that don't curve in, and would just fit in the eye of the wood range we once had, which I suspect is the idea. It's supposed to plunk into the hole right over the flames and get the bacon going fast.

We try to refrain from putting our iron into soapy dishwater and we season with extra virgin olive oil. The Century Skillet arrived a bit rusty, was scoured with sand and steel wool, got the oil treatment, sat a few hours on the back of the woodstove, and was put into service.

On an electric range this pan seems at a disadvantage as compared to others that we have, but I'm attracted to it, and trying to learn what it wants from me. I'm a ham-handed cook and have to pay attention when experimenting.

The first few times I used it, I burned things and had to re-scour and re-season. Then I tried putting a film of oil into the pan, about 1/4 teaspoon, leaving that on the heat for awhile (fifteen minutes) and then making eggs or pancakes, using a lid to hold in heat. The preheating, for whatever reason, seems to work.

This would be an energy-wasting procedure on the electric range, perhaps, but the skillet can hang out on the woodstove (which lives in the dining room) while I prep ingredients. In colder weather, when the stove is working harder, I'll be able to cook right there. This heat stove has no eye, but I prefer a slow heat and almost never have anything on hand that needs searing anyway.

The last few days, Beloved is feeling better. I've been serving leisurely breakfasts from the Century Skillet, mostly souffles since she hasn't been able to get to her egg customers.

"How's that?"

"Oh, this is wonderful ... wonderful."

"More?"

"Mmm-hmm."

"Thank you, Grandma, Mom, and Auntie."

"Hmh?"

"Oh, nothing; coffee with that?"
.

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