When I was seven, my mother’s beloved grandmother passed away. After a short custody battle, her cast-iron pan came to live with us. It was a complex calculus, deciding who would inherit what. My great-grandparents were never particularly well-off, so the value of their belongings lay in sentiment and memory. You would think that would make those selections and distributions that much easier: different objects would mean more to certain family members. Conversely, it was an arduous process.
At the center of one debate was my great-grandmother’s cast-iron pan. The heavy, gleaming black pan was the centerpiece of the cookware collection and the primary pan for preparing every meal, decade after decade. At breakfast, Grand-Mary regularly fried a dozen eggs and a pound of bacon; at dinner, the pan turned out two or three chickens. My grandfather, the second of her four boys, said she “cooked like a small restaurant.” Between meals, it stood sentry on the back burner of the stove, domiciled there because the pan’s dense weight and service at every meal ruled that the most logical home. Only when company came was the pan removed to the oven’s broiler drawer.
After she cooked each meal, Grand-Mary readied the pan for its next outing. Often this simply meant rubbing the remaining oil back into the surface, other times she used a few splashes of water to clear the pan, set it over low heat to dry and then rub some extra fat into the surface. To inherit this pan would be a coup: its surface held the accumulated flavors, seasoning, and residue of no less than two generation’s worth of Grand-Mary’s meals.
As I remember her, my great-grandmother cut an imposing figure, nearly six feet tall, with broad cheekbones and natural dark hair to the day she died in her eighties. My family called her Grand-Mary, and her compassionate, kind, worried manner as our matriarch belied the adversities she faced in her life. By the time she was twelve, both of Grand-Mary’s parents had died, and she had left school to care for her siblings. She and Granddaddy had four sons, whom she raised on her own while he fought in World War II. A city girl, she was a fish out of water when they moved out to the country after the War, so that they could farm their food and the boys could roam. Rather than hardening her, each of these trials seemed to soften my great-grandmother; they mellowed her and made her acutely aware of the worries and interests of everyone she loved. Grand-Mary was the matriarch who knew each of her progeny thoroughly and intuitively. When her grandchildren came to stay in the summer, she had each child’s favorite breakfast waiting for them, a special box of cereal, a particular type of fruit. She knew your favorite sheets, and they were already tucked into ‘your’ bed. She had an extraordinary ability to get plants to grow, and she won over the cats who roamed the farm.
She died one hazy, warm evening in September. Summer was cooling into autumn in Tidewater Virginia: leaves just beginning to fall and a hint of crisper air. She had spoken to one of her sons on the phone a few hours previous, so when another son called and she didn’t answer, he drove over and let himself into the farmhouse and found her. A week later, my cousins and I played on the porch of the funeral home during the visitation, only tangentially aware of the gravity of the event taking place inside. The following day, after the funeral, we parked the car under the grand old beech tree next to the farmhouse as we had countless times before. Inside the backdoor, standing in the kitchen, I saw Grand-Mary’s home as I had never seen it: the intimate, personal world she had curated and cultivated over the space of decades was being divided up, parceled off to different descendents.
Ultimately, the fate of the cast-iron pan came down to my mother and her aunt, one of Grand-Mary’s four daughters-in-law. My mother won out for two reasons: she would continue using the pan, and she’s a Saunders woman by blood. See, my mother has a particular place in that family: she was not only the first grandchild, but the first girl born into the Saunders family in decades. So while Grand-Mary cherished every member of the family, she had a special affection for my mother.
Grand-Mary ran an egalitarian household. On the farm where she raised four boys, there weren’t ‘girl chores’ and ‘boy chores.’ There were just tasks assigned, work to do. This ethos has carried on, but why then, is that cast-iron pan a bastion of feminine privilege in my family?
One evening my father burned the pan.
Burning a cast-iron pan ruins the seasoned surface that develops through frequent use and careful cultivation. That surface must be removed – char, seasoning, fat, and all – with sandpaper or an abrasive scrub. Then you begin anew with developing the seasoning, transforming the cold, porous iron to a lustrous, warm surface that imparts complex flavors and is naturally non-stick. It’s this surface that attracts cooks to cast-iron, meal after meal.
Cooking with cast-iron is old-school. Cast-iron pans were popular in early America: colonists brought them from their homelands based on their guaranteed utility. Later, building forges and finding iron ore helped establish America’s resource-independence. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson distinguished which mines produced the best iron for cookware, saying the “toughness of the cast iron…is very remarkable.” Lewis and Clark took extra cast-iron pans with them to give as tokens of goodwill on their expedition to the West. The cookware’s popularity continued as pioneers required supplies that were durable and utilitarian. Simultaneously, manufacturing innovations meant that cast-iron pans were cheaper to produce. The raw materials were cheap, but the pans were expensive because of the blacksmith’s labor to forge each one. By the turn of the twentieth century, it was a utilitarian, durable, inexpensive and widely accessible product. Then, new technology was introduced to the market: all-clad pans, stainless steel, and Teflon. These surfaces’ total effortlessness compared with cast-iron tarnished America’s love for the gleaming black pans. Cast-iron pans became a niche product, found in kitchens where their utility and benefits would outweigh the required care. These places were Southern kitchens, where bacon, cornbread and tradition are of utmost importance.
A cast-iron pan is a punishing instrument: utilitarian and durable until treated improperly, then requiring a ponderous, delicate routine to render it useful and usable – its gleaming, smooth beautiful black surface deceptively hot to the touch.
When my father burned that pan, it required my mother to remove the accrued seasoning, flavor, care and expertise her grandmother had imparted over the course of decades of use. My father’s mistake was a deeply felt violation to the memory of Grand-Mary.
My mother’s reaction was banishment: either my father or the cast-iron pan. Like many great Southern family stories, this one ended with something pushed to the back of the closet: the cast-iron pan exiled to a dark pantry corner for several years. My mother’s case for putting the pan away was varied: it allowed her to process the extraordinary anger she felt at my father, it helped her to begin to unbraid her grandmother from her pan, and it allowed my younger sister and me to learn and get comfortable in the kitchen without the fear of ruining an irreplaceable family heirloom. In our cooking educations, my sister and I did learn how to cook on cast-iron, but with a far less valuable pan, purchased at a thrift store with the express intent that it would be for learning. Once we proved ourselves, and were competent cooks capable of following cast-iron’s etiquette, Grand-Mary’s pan made a quiet, triumphant return.
Since its resurrection, the pan has cooked many of the old standbys – pancakes, cornbread, bacon, chicken pot pie – and a few meals Grand-Mary never would have considered. When my great-grandmother passed away and my mother inherited her pan, it seemed as though its life were strictly linear, but it has proven a cyclical and evolving path. With every use, the pan’s surface is renewed and even re-invented through the same ritual of seasoning it; similarly, when my mother renewed the pan’s life after her grandmother passed away, it was an inheritance based on a promise of utility. One day, I will inherit that pan from my mother. I am the eldest of two daughters, and the one who loves cooking. I will inherit the pan, vowing to respect its memories through use. While some Southern families inherit silver and china, mine treasures that enduring cast-iron pan.
Ellen Saunders Duncan
Engelhardt, Elizabeth Sanders Delwiche. A mess of greens: Southern gender and Southern food. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. Print.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Richmond, Va.: J.W. Randolph, 1853. Print.
Rogers, Mara Reid. Cooking with cast iron: yesterday’s flavors for today’s kitchen. New York: HPBooks, 2001. Print.
Wheaton, Paul. “Cast Iron Skillet Non-Stick and Lasts a Lifetime.” Permaculture Articles by Paul Wheaton. Web. <http://www.richsoil.com/cast-iron.jsp>
Thanks to my mother, Dianne Saunders, and members of our family – Deborah Saunders Asher, David Saunders Jr., Barbara Saunders, David Saunders Sr., Zeb Saunders Jr., and Janet Saunders Daly for their memories and thoughts. Thanks especially to Dianne Saunders and Janet Saunders Daly for their help with finding pictures of Grand-Mary, and family life at the farm.