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Our Coast’s Food: Southern Workhorse

Perfectly seasoned: The more you deep-fry in a cast-iron pan, the better a "non-stick" surface develops. Photo: Liz Biero

Perfectly seasoned: The more you deep-fry in a cast-iron pan, the better a “non-stick” surface develops. Photo: Liz Biro

A cast-iron frying pan as big around as a hug sits in a dark storage room where I keep seldom-used kitchen things. Dust covers its broad basin, too big for any stove. Rust reveals neglect. I have no plans to give it away.

Like many cast-iron pans that lay forgotten in cabinet corners or that remain Southern cooks’ favorite workhorses, this one has a story.

In the mighty tome titled The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press, 1999), author Alan Davidson writes that in medieval kitchen scenes, “many a cauldron bubbles in exotic settings: devils tend their pots over the fire of hell in a Last Judgement (sic), cooks stir their dinner on the back of a whale at the bottom of a page. A stew pot perched on the head of a rakish monster in a manuscript border, a stumpy little man carved on a bench end, clutching a ladle as long as himself …”

No doubt the cauldrons are cast iron. Animal skin soup pots that 14th century Scottish and Irish cooks fashioned on three posts above fire could never have taken the devil’s heat.

Cast-iron cooking vessels date at least to China’s Han Dynasty (25 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.). Exactly when cast-iron cookware first appeared is “impossible to say,” Theodore A. Wertime argues in The Coming of the Ages of Steel (University of Chicago Press, 1962). The ancient Chinese narrative history Zuo zhuan contains a 512 B.C.E. account of the casting of iron cauldrons. Bronze casting of pottery apparently led to casting in iron, Wertime concludes.

While wild medieval depictions of cauldrons “suggest that cooks were exceedingly cross and their kitchens in perpetual uproar,” by Davidson’s account, writer Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in her History of Food (Bordas, 1987) also finds that “The pot-bellied cauldron full of delicious things simmering away has a prominent place in folk memory.” Despite “sinister concoctions” (“Medea boiled old King Pelian himself”) Toussaint-Samat surmises that “the image of the steaming pot on the table has remained the symbol of tranquil family pleasures in the Paradise Lost of childhood.”

That’s where my cast-iron frying pan’s story resides.

Summer weekends when I was growing up were reserved for fishing Onslow County’s New River in and around Sneads Ferry. My family didn’t grab poles and picnic away the day. Dad was outside usually by sunrise hitching up the boat trailer. It carried a small, green, fiberglass skiff we jammed with coolers, nets, clamming bags, snacks, drinks, a bottle of cooking oil, a bag of cornmeal and a small cast-iron frying pan.

Miss Todd, the neighborhood matriarch, contributed cornmeal griddle cakes that she cooked in her cast-iron skillet. Photo: Ten Speed Press

Miss Todd, the neighborhood matriarch, contributed cornmeal griddle cakes that she cooked in her cast-iron skillet. Photo: Ten Speed Press

Once on the water, Dad maneuvered the boat to a small island. We unloaded quickly, allowing my father time enough to set off and drop a gill net in his favorite fishing area during early morning hours. While he was gone, we gathered wood and spread a blanket under a low-hanging, live oak.

As nets filled with fish, we dug clams. Dad might head to the beach for some surf casting or drag the shrimp trawl. Close to lunchtime, he and one of us kids would pull up the gill net. Back on the island, Mom steadied a makeshift grill over a small fire. The minute Dad returned, we were dressing spots and croakers that Mom would dust in cornmeal and then fry in that cast-iron skillet set over the flames.

You never forget the flavor of fish so fresh. It ruins you for any other fins, no matter how reputable or expensive the restaurant. The flake, the juiciness, the essence of a life spent swimming in the mild salt of brackish waters infuses each bite. My brother and I called it “fresh meat.” The cast-iron skillet in which the fish fried wasn’t even an afterthought for us. A giant cast-iron frying pan back home got all the glory — although sometimes the cast-iron kettle Dad hung over a fire for simmering the stews of his native Hungary snatched the big dog’s celebrity.

Because cast iron retains heat and withstands open-flame cooking, it has outfitted kitchens across many cultures. Settlers and pioneers brought their cast-iron pots and pans to the New World. Inexpensive and durable cast-iron cookware dominated American kitchens until the early 20th century, when lighter, cheaper aluminum was introduced. Non-stick skillets and chef-endorsed stainless steel pots and pans further eroded cast iron’s place in U.S. homes.

Down South, however, many cooks clung to their cast-iron skillets, precious pans passed down through generations. Along the N.C. coast, they are the optimum vessels for frying and “stew-frying,” the latter referring to browning vegetables or flour-dusted seafood or game birds in pork fat and then simmering them until tender. The heavy pans keep cooking oil evenly hot without burning it. Oil absorbed into the iron creates a non-stick surface that rivals Teflon. Black cast iron shows no soot marks from a fire.

Cast iron gives thin cornmeal griddle cakes the perfect brown. A cast-iron skillet full of biscuits or cornbread hot from the oven at one time warmed family tables nearly every day.

By late afternoon on New River, my family’s coolers were loaded with fish and shrimp, and the boat was weighed down with at least 1,000 clams. We sold some to wholesalers, but we carried a good bit home to stock our chest freezer to share with neighbors.

Still relevant: Cast-iron skillets hang among the more common stainless steel pans students use at The Chef's Academy, a culinary school in Morrisville, near Raleigh. Photo: Liz Biro

Still relevant: Cast-iron skillets hang among the more common stainless steel pans students use at The Chef’s Academy, a culinary school in Morrisville, near Raleigh. Photo: Liz Biro

Everyone who lived nearby knew to look for the little green skiff on its trailer rolling into the Biro driveway just before sundown. As soon as we unloaded our catch onto the concrete patio out back, the neighbor from two doors away was by to purchase bluefish no one else wanted, not even the seafood markets. Strangers who heard they might find fresh clams on our street showed up in hopes that Mom and Dad might have a hundred or so to spare for a good price. Neighborhood wives came to help gut fish. Curious kids unlatched coolers to marvel at the two eyes flounders wore on just one side of their heads.

Once the boat was washed, the coolers stowed and a whole bunch of fish dressed, Dad sparked the day’s second wood fire, this one in the huge brick grill he had built in the back yard. Then he pulled out his grand cast-iron frying pan, the one that whispers today from my storage room. It was a point of pride almost greater than the two-foot long flounder Dad once caught. I have no idea where he acquired the pan. We marveled at its circumference. Your perception of size changes from the time you’re a child to adulthood, but the frying pan appears as huge today as it did when I was a 8 years old.

Wearing a grin I recall as pure sparkle, Dad fried dozens of cornmeal-dusted fish, or sometimes his specialty beer-battered filets. Eight or 10 of them at one time bubbled in hot oil. Meantime, my mother and her friends pulled together potato salad, steamed corn, sliced fresh tomatoes, cucumber salad, fried okra, or whatever they picked at local farms. Miss Todd, the matriarch among them, contributed cornmeal griddle cakes cooked in her favorite cast-iron skillet.

We gorged ourselves, all 15 or so of us, nearly every summer weekend. At the kids’ table, my brother, the seven Melson kids who lived next door and I pulled what seemed to us like giant chunks of meat from the bones of small spots and croakers. “Fresh meat,” one of us would cry each time we boasted a hunk of fish at the end of our white plastic forks.

When the eating was done and us kids were chasing fireflies while grown-ups pontificated in lawn chairs encircling lemon yellow mosquito candles, the cast-iron frying pan slowly cooled to the touch. Before the night ended, Dad poured the leftover oil into an empty coffee can for use during the week. We didn’t mind the fishy flavor on our fried potatoes. Finally, holding a soft cloth or paper towel and with the gentlest hand, Dad wiped the pan clean and put it away until the next fish fry.

People ask me all the time how to season a cast-iron pan. “You rub it with oil and put it in the oven right?” “Should I use olive oil?” “Do I need to season it over and over again?” “Is a pre-seasoned pan better?”

And they want to know how to care for cast iron. Many fear they’ll ruin a skillet or that it will absorb deadly bacteria if they don’t wash it in soapy water. “Couldn’t I just rinse it with bleach?”

Their questions are endless. Books thick and thin have been written on the subject – with appropriate cast-iron recipes. Line after line of advice is available online. My answer to queries is much briefer and always the same: Buy whichever kind of cast-iron pan you like. Steel wool away the rust in any old pan you inherit. Wipe clean with plain water. Immediately fry a mess of fish. Invite a bunch of people to come eat. Repeat the process over and over again, weekly if possible.

Never give your cast-iron pan away.

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About the Author

Liz Biro

Liz and her family came to North Carolina for the expansive beaches, friendly atmosphere and fresh seafood. Since arriving as a child, she’s never looked back at her native New Jersey. A journalist for 25 years, she's covered everything from local fisheries to politics. Liz left it all behind for a while to become a chef and run her own catering company. Today, she writes about food and dining for the Indianapolis Star and for Coastal Review.