Confessions of a Cast Iron Brat

by Kimberley Thompson, Tastemaker in Residence

I have always known that I am a CI brat. I was raised by two naturally born CI’s, heck, I even descend from a multi-generational line of CI’s…complete with our own language. “Hand me the Victor,” “Is it the large slant logo?,” “The SCOTCH bowl, not the Dutch oven,” “Who has the spider?” and “the Number 8 should be the right size.”

CI families know each other just by walking onto each other’s kitchens…if you spot dull, black frying pans, covered pots, intricate muffins pans and heavy griddles that obviously are proudly used…you have found a fellow CI.  Yep. A CAST IRON devotee in the flesh!

I cannot remember a time when I was in my Grandmother Ruth’s kitchen when her well used “Victor #7” wasn’t on her stove top, even when she shifted from a wood burning stove to her “modern” electric stove in 1967.  It made the best French toast, evenly browned with a slightly speckled surface and creamy interior. Bacon was the crispiest when fried on its dark surface….start it slow so it does not burn! And chicken, conversations were stilled when dining on her country fried chicken. Juicy and crisp; which should be oxymoron’s, except when they met and slow danced in Grandma’s Victor. 

I learned how to care for cast iron under her watchful eye: 

1. Never soak the cast iron. A quick scour with a nylon scrubby and a very hot rinse is perfect.

2. Never dry your cast iron on a cloth towel as it will leave black marks - paper towels are best.

3. Never put a piece of hot cast iron into hot or cold water - the results will be disastrous.  Let the cast iron cool to room temperature first.

As a child, I could spot a frying pan hiding anywhere at a flea market:  under tables, in corners, behind innocuous junk and in still unpacked boxes. My father and I scouted antique shows, estate and garage  sales always looking for a piece of CI to add to our collection. Heat, pouring rain and general grubbiness never stopped our adventures.   If we found one of “the names” of the most coveted CI, we became very quiet so the dealer wouldn’t know how much we wanted the piece in our hands.  Brands with the names “Griswold,” “Victor,” “Wapak,” (both made by Griswold out of Erie, PA) and Wagner (early, not later), were picked up and scrutinized. Then there were the logos on the bottom:  which ones meant early pieces…usually over 100 years. The ones were just prior to a merger that ended ruining the product. And the ones that indicated inferior overseas production. Sigh.

The condition of the treasured CI told my Father and I what type of person owned the piece prior to us finding it: some were beautifully seasoned and ready for immediate use, others needed TLC and some were so pitiful with deeply pitted rust marks. Dad often took the sadder specimens home to try to save them…if he could. 

Frying pans were only one of the many pieces of cast iron found in my childhood kitchen. Large covered Dutch ovens with either early cast lids or later glass ones…the biggest one was always used to bake and carry 40 pounds of smoked country style ribs to the Smith picnics every July. Double wrapped in newspaper and old wool blankets, it arrived steaming hot at the reunion. 

Cornbread was only made in CI…the crust was superior to any pan known to man or woman. The trick is to use the recipe you love AND pre-heat your greased pan for 6 minutes in your hot oven BEFORE pouring in the batter. Yum. A skillet or a baking pan…either was good…but I like the crispy corners from the baker! On special occasions….Dad stirred up cornmeal batter and carefully poured it in hot CORNSTICK pans. Making actual little corn cob shaped breads for us! 

Chili started on the stove top in the Dutch oven….browning the assorted meats, onions and spices. Once tomatoes were stirred in, the entire pot went into the slow oven for several hours of simmering and melding. The results were heavenly, especially after a cold day outside.

There are round griddles, square griddles, smokeless griddles, mini griddles and massive griddles. Skillets range in size from “0” to “14.” Some are covered…but then technically become a chicken fryer. Scotch bowls exist…but their main purpose has been lost to time. Muffin, Ableskiver, Vienna and monks heads are all multi-production pans which also have not stood the test of time well. Sadly, I only use my muffin pans for baking, the rest have become decorative.

Today, I still “hunt” for more of my beloved Griswold. I have very patient and understanding friends who know about my obsession. They will pick up pieces at sales; look at the bottom and say ”Kimberley, here’s one.” Often, if I am not interested because I already have enough of the size/style:  they will buy it for themselves.  Surprisingly I can still find lovely, useable pans for under $40.00. The very large or early pans have definitely become more expensive…I just paid $80.00 for an “Erie” logo Griswold number 12. But they are still made better than anything currently on the new market…they are “green”…and they enhance my reputation as a country cook!