Growing up there was one pan in my mother’s kitchen that was pretty much a constant even as times and styles changed. My grandmothers both had similar pans and I have long stretches of memories that involve those pans sitting on stovetops or being stored in the oven and, in one specific memory, being tossed into a fire pit so it could be intentionally burned. When I graduated college and moved out on my own I was given two such pans (I think at least one may have belonged to my grandmother who passed away days after I moved into my own place.) The pans I’m speaking of are big, hulking, heavy as all get out iron skillets. Mine in particular are made by Griswold and Wagner, and one even comes with its big, heavy iron lid. They’re valuable in terms of dollars and scents (my Griswold in particular is worth about $150) but they are also very valuable in the kitchen. Most of the meals of my childhood came out of an iron skillet. That’s just how it was done.
The problem with my inheriting these skillets, however, was that no one taught me how to cook. I’m the girl who can’t sit still and who talks a million miles an hour. My mother has anxiety. There was absolutely no way that she was going to have the patience to teach me nor was I going to be able to focus long enough to learn. When I wandered off to college the best I could do was follow basic directions on the back of the mac-n-cheese box. My first attempt at pork chops in the dorm hall kitchen resulted in dry, inedible hunks of meat that I had pretty much breaded in lemon pepper. I’ve improved greatly since, but trying to cook in a pan that didn’t appear to be nonstick and that I had been heartily cautioned to never put in the dishwasher was just too daunting. The pans have lived more or less in boxes or in cabinets since they were given to me. I focused on using various non-stick skillets picked up here and there along the way. They weren’t perfect, but I could use them.
Last fall my approach to food changed. After years of struggling with my health I found out that I can’t eat gluten. Eliminating it makes me feel far, far better. Since so many processed or convenience foods contain sneaky wheat and I have spent more than a few afternoons ill in my office bathroom after eating something for lunch I thought was okay I have been cooking more and more at home. I’ve been learning how to make the kinds of foods my grandmothers made — foods that are put together without the help of shortcuts or mixes. I’ve also been making close friends with my Crock Pot. One afternoon a couple of weeks ago I was putting away my Crock Pot when I rediscovered the two iron skillets sitting on the rack in my kitchen. They’ve been just sitting and waiting so I figured, why not?
The pans had both been seasoned and made nonstick from use and love in their previous lives, but since they had been sitting for so long I decided that I wasn’t about to just wipe them down and go. Germs, yo. They needed to be cleaned before I would feel fully comfortable before using them. It’s amazing how the mind remembers things, you know? As soon as I had those pans down from their storing space and sitting on my stove I remembered just how to care for them, not because I had done it before but because I had watched the women of my family do it for years. Stiff, non-metal brush and some hot soapy water made quick work of grime. It took off the nonstick surface (the one that I wasn’t sure was real at this point) but I also knew how to get that back on it. Granted, there was no fire pit to toss the skillets in here, but I lightly coated them with some vegetable oil and put them both in the oven at about 350 for an hour or so. Once they were done (and cooled, do not forget to cool them) I just wiped them both down with a soft cloth. They were gleamingly shiny. They looked like childhood. I could almost taste fried chicken from my memories.
I haven’t fried chicken just yet. I’m still working out a good coating that will taste like what I recall from my childhood and is still gluten-free. It’s harder than you’d think. But I’ve made potatoes and sausages and carne asada in the skillet. I’ve been surprised by how well the pans have worked and this morning I decided to test the nonstick surface with the ultimate test: eggs. I made pancakes (the Bob’s Red Mill GF Pancake Mix is amazing!) and then some bacon before getting to the main event. I’d seen this done thousands of times, but I was still nervous. It was a matter of crack the eggs, drop them in, and see what happened. I expected disaster, but to my surprise when I gently tipped the pan they simply glided forward, slipping along the surface without any force or prompting. This certainly never happened in my Kitchen Aid teflon pan. And when I flipped my egg? Perfection. This morning’s eggs tasted richer and better than any I’ve had in a long time. Success. No…victory.
The big Wagner has been wiped down and put away, stored this time not on a high rack but right inside the oven so I can get to it more easily. It’ll likely be out and used again tonight because cooking feels more important now, special because each time I put that pan to heat I am locking in with hundreds of years of the women of my blood. I’m keeping alive the tradition of making good meals. I’m spending time with my grandmothers again.
There’s nothing more delicious than that.