A year or so ago, I stopped to consider the condition of my pans. Like most people, I had an assortment: a couple hand-me-down cast irons, a special German crepe, two random pieces of non-copper Revere ware; a whole bunch of Circulon. You could tell from looking at the collection that the Circulon was the favorite son.
They were eye-catching. Not because of the color, a uniform flat gray, but because the entire interior of each pan was subtly ribbed. Actually, it was a spiral groove, starting at the very center and circling all the way out the rim.
Counterintuitively, these were non-stick pans, even though one look made you think was “what a nightmare to clean.” But they weren’t. The idea was that, because the grooves were so small, the food only actually touched the tops of the the ribs, meaning that there was just plain less surface area to stick to. And it worked!
For a while. After that while, I found that while the food only touched the tops of the ribs, the same thing was true of cleaning implements. A special Circulon brush was purchased, to get down into those grooves which were slowly filling with some mysterious substance. The brush slowed the process, it didn’t stop it. In the end, I’d sometimes sit there with a toothpick, tracing the spiral and scraping out the whatever-it-was. It would improve the pan’s performance, but it wouldn’t make it like new, and it never lasted long. The pan, after a few years, was wearing out.
Then there was the issue of the non-stick coating. In my experience, a vague worrisomeness attached to teflon and its ilk, various hints that there might be problems. Still, you look around you and see that non-stick cookware is a cultural norm. Which staves off your concern until you pause to consider other cultural norms such as the mandatory use of automobiles and the installation of television sets in 50% of children’s bedrooms.
It’s not really on topic for me here, but let me say, if you have one of those pans with the failing nonstick coating? Stop reading right now, and go and throw it in the trash. Don’t give it away. Trash it. Trust me, you really don’t want to be eating teflon, breathing teflon, or feeding it to anyone you love. I suppose, however, you could donate it to a mortal enemy.
Anyway, I decided it was time to retire the Circulon pans. When I did, my eye came to rest on my cast iron skillet. It was a hand-me-down, ancient, anonymous, identified only by its size, in inches. The thing had literally been around as long as I could remember, part of the unnoticeable furnishings of childhood. But now, at long last, it was getting my attention.
That takes a little bit of doing, because cast iron is just plain plain. Modest to the point of homely. The antithesis of the pot-porn that fills the high-end catalogues and kitchen stores. But I decided to take a leap.
I unpacked the new queen of the range, a five quart dutch oven, all nine pounds, fifteen ounces of its made-in-America-since-1896 iron. Gloriously old-school. But in looking at it, I couldn’t help but notice that it didn’t seem to be quite the same as Old Anonymous.
The edges and rims of the old skillet were ever so slightly rounded, just enough that you never noticed them when handling the pan. The new pan, however, was faintly sharp on the edges of the handle, the rim of the pot. Not enough to ever injure you, but enough to make it unpleasant to handle.
But that was only aesthetics. Down in the bottom of the pot was something genuinely disturbing. The inside of the old skillet had a dull gleam, a sort of polished, impervious smoothness. To my eye, it looked like the alchemy of cast iron, the wonderfully smooth metal buffed to nonstick glory by seasoning, the process of polymerized oils filling the microscopic imperfections of the iron, leaving the food with precious little to stick to.
But in the bottom of the new cast iron? No gleam. And bumps. Lots and lots of tiny little bumps. Yes, this was a brand new, pre-seasoned pan from the oldest surviving American maker of such things and it looked just plain shoddy. What can you do, I asked myself. Like so many other manufactures with a long history, this one has “improved” their production by removing the “niceties” that make things work, leaving you with an object that resembles the fully functional kind, but isn’t really.
Turns out that in the old days, before “quality control,” there was another way of making things. It didn’t have a name, but perhaps we can understand what it meant by considering that “quality control” also means “keep quality under control.” Yes, manufacture up to a certain standard, but also make sure that you don’t exceed that standard. In other words, don’t make it too good. After all, quality costs.
So, the manufacturing process of the pre-QC cast iron pan meant casting the pan and then machining the pebbled interior surface so that it was smooth. I can see this in Old Anonymous and it forms a sort of spiral. I imagine that they must have rotated the pans while machining the surface. It would be interesting to know at what point correct cast iron manufacturing fell victim to economic “efficiencies,” but if cast iron cookware parallels the history of other iron tools, then it would be the 1960s, the same time when non-stick pans made their debut.
Looking at Old Anonymous’ spiral, I sometimes detect a faint mockery of Circulon’s useless spiral groove (very faint, not just because this pan was made long before Circulon existed, but because cast iron is inevitably deadpan). And there’s actually a second level of mockery, because the same polymerized oils that season cast iron, that improve it and make it almost nonstick, are the very same mysterious substance that choked Circulon’s clever spiral grooves.
Irony and perfection aside, my new dutch oven was the pan I had and I put it to work. I found that it did the things I wanted it to. It cooked with that strong, steady heat that didn’t collapse the second you put something in it. It didn’t poison anyone I loved. We took it camping and planted it right on the coals. My five year old made rock soup in it. And not that much stuck to it, despite the “textured” surface. Of course, that was probably because it was a dutch oven, and I wasn’t scrambling eggs in there.
It was enough of success — and the increasing age of my children meant increasing appetites — that I finally decided that I needed a larger skillet, too. I haunted thrift stores for a while, looking for a good old one, but never found the right size, and so finally I settled for new. It was just like its 21st century sibling, hard edges and bumpy surfaces, but it, too, got the job done.
If there was a lesson here, it was that the cast iron pan, despite appearances, wasn’t a blunt instrument. It required intelligence on the part of its operator. Not a whole lot, just some.
I needed to preheat the pan, to “load” the pan with that heavy, steady heat. I needed to take a little bit of care in washing and drying it. And, once in a while, I needed to touch up the seasoning. When I did those things, the pan rewarded me by being an absolutely dependable companion in the kitchen. It was reliable, repeatable, versatile, indestructible and even fought anemia along the way. Did it make what I was doing easier? I guess the answer to that depends on what it is I’m doing in the kitchen. If my goal is to get the hell out as quickly as possible and invest as little of myself in this activity that I must perform on a daily basis or die, then no. But if my goal is to produce a meal instead of fuel, then, yes, my cast iron friends make it a whole lot easier.
All this makes me ponder the temptation of the non-stick pan. Its overt lure is “don’t work.” But underneath that is “don’t think.” Or, if you have to, then think “it’s so easy!” All of which has an immediate appeal to the lazy primate that lurks within us all, but it’s still kind of curious. After all, I am in the kitchen. I’m already engaged in a creative endeavor that requires some degree of work and requires that I make all kinds of value judgments: how much pepper; is it done; which way does the grain run… So why is the pan different? Why is thinking bad? Why is easy better than good?
I could of course, totally opt out of thinking and go with pre-prepared food. But then I’d have to use a microwave, the kitchen device that suggests you replace any kind of thinking with guessing. Locked in its little radio-wave inferno, whatever you’re cooking can’t be seen, can’t be smelled, can’t be touched or otherwise inspected. Let’s see, how many seconds…? Is that…? No, no quite. A little more. A little, little more. Oops, too much… This isn’t cooking. In truth, the only food that you can dependably cook in a microwave besides water, soup or porridge, are pre-packaged foods, manufactured to exact tolerances of weight and water content, with unvarying components, all guaranteed by quality control. But then, even there, “microwaves vary.”
Back to my less-than-perfect pans. I was happy with them, but now and then, I’d catch sight of the dull, smooth gleam of the Old Anonymous and think about stopping by the thrift store in hopes of finding a sibling. That is, I did until the day I caught sight of that dull, smooth gleam and realized that it was in the bottom of the new dutch oven.
I picked it up, turned it to catch the light. It wasn’t a trick. Two years of using the pan, of spatula scraping and spoon banging, had worn away most of the tiny bumps. It wasn’t perfect, one side was smoother than the other, but, bewilderingly, it wasn’t wearing out, it was wearing in. Think of it: an imperfectly made object that becomes more perfect through use.
Truly, you don’t find a lot of that around. It made me pause and consider if there was anything else in the kitchen that did that sort of thing. Cutlery came close. Silverware endures if well-made and given half a chance; age can give it a certain luster. Good kitchen knives, if sharpened and cared for, will slowly take on a shape that reflects how they are used. But as to actually, genuinely, improving? I could only find one other thing that time and use could transform that way, and that was the cook.
Time doesn’t make us any more beautiful but it can, with work, diminish our imperfections. That’s the interesting thing about living things, they respond to the demands of their lives. You can see it with trees and the wind. Some become stronger and more limber, strengthened by the challenge. Others shrink and bend, stunting. The same holds true for people, but it’s the responses inside that are most interesting. When our minds become stronger and more limber in response to the demands, we call it experience or even wisdom. That ability to transform ourselves for the better is the temporary gift we get for being mortal.
The apparently humble cast iron pan, via its strange alchemy of metallurgy and cooking chemistry, has the ability to travel with us on that journey. Physically so, because a cast iron pan is essentially impervious to time and to hell with the “properly cared for” part. Throw one in the yard today and have your great-grandchildren come back for it in a century. It’ll be covered with a layer of rust but, unlike your car, it won’t rust out. In fact, rust (on iron, not steel) forms a kind of protective coating. Grind it off, re-season the pan, and you’ll be good to go for another century. Actually, it’s kind of galling.
And maybe that explains the appeal of nonstick. It diminishes, and sometimes poisons, everything it touches in the kitchen, cook included. But it does shorten clean-up, which is another way of saying it bestows the gift of time. And if the time you spend in the kitchen really is a waste, a thankless task of cranking out fuel to power the rest of the things you really want to do, then it’s nice to have something that makes you feel, even a little bit, immortal.
Old Anonymous by Christian Ford
Old Anonymous Speaks by Christian Ford
Cast Iron on the Grill by Another Pint Please
Griswold Cast Iron by Nic McPhee
Teeny Cast Iron by Mark H. Anbinder
Wagner Ware by Julia Frost