Monday, November 19, 2007


Nanny’s cast iron frying pans are smooth, black and cool to the touch when I scrape the food out and gently wipe a rag over them. Nanny, paternal great-grandmother to my children, is a seasoned veteran of cornbread, sweet potato casseroles, collards and hasty meals thrown together to appease the ever-advancing army of visitors. This meal is one to feed the hordes brought together by the death of her brother-in-law, Claude Junior. Nanny, as I’ve known her since I became part of the family, has always been the most genteel of hostesses insisting I “don’t need to worry abut them dishes” but she and Pa are leaving tonight to sit with Claude Junior’s family. I want to do my part, however small, and insist it won’t take me long to finish up.

I don’t tell her I secretly want to feel her cast iron frying pans. Running my hands across them, I can feel generations before me passed into the skills of their daughters. Nanny’s pans have been well cured.

Standing before a stove for more than fifty years, Nanny has spent her life caring and cooking for the ones she loves most. Her own mother, raised in the hills of north Georgia, brought her daughters to the kitchen in a gentle process – testing their mettle in the heat and steam – slowly applying layer after layer of love to seal the strengths of her children. It was a curing process meant to last a lifetime.

“Joyce,” her mother would say while she was shelling peas or feeding chickens, “Why don’t you go on in the house and make some chocolate pudding? You always make such good pudding.” Joyce – Nanny now – must have basked under the praise and she willingly followed her mother’s suggestion. Certainly she carried this lesson with her through out life. She is always seeking to find the strengths of her family and fortify them with love and encouragement. Nanny never gives up on a lost child, always striving to bring them back in the fold. She has spent a lifetime caring for family and friends; treating their ills with a hug, a suggestion, patience, a home remedy, or a meal and a place to sleep.

* * *

My mother gave me my first cast iron pan when I moved into my own home at 23. It was small, black and smooth – just large enough to sauté onions or prepare an omelet. However, I began housekeeping as a mother to a four-year-old daughter and quickly discovered one pan would not suffice.

After a day’s long search that carried me through every local store, I gave up and called Mama in frustration when all I could find were gray and bumpy cast iron pans. They were not the black, smooth ones I’d grown up with in my mother’s house. Even the gastronomically inept such as me could see these gray imposters would never be worth using. Between gusts of maniacal laughter she said, “You have to cure it.”

“Of what?”

The perplexity of preparing meals had never been one I cared to explore when I lived at home.

* * *

The properties of cast iron make it a natural choice for use in cooking. It retains and diffuses heats evenly across the surface of the pan. It can easily be molded into many shapes including cookware. However, cast iron pans in their natural state are porous and food is prone to sticking to the surface. To create an impermeable cookware, one must cure the pan. Many people prefer to cure cast iron pans by simply cooking with them. By cooking food with a high fat content such as bacon, sausage or ground beef, the pan is cured over a period of several uses.

The process my mother gave me when I bought my first new piece of cookware was to simply coat the entire pan, inside and out, with a thin layer of shortening. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and put the pan upside down on a large sheet of aluminum foil in the oven. Bake it for two hours. Mama said to repeat the process several times.

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