Steph’s Note: My friend—talented story-teller, creative badass, and occasional butt-kicker—Dave Conrey of Fresh Rag, pitched me this story idea recently. While it’s a bit non-traditional for a mostly-recipe-and-info site, I immediately got drawn into the story and the nostalgia of it all. Since cooking is such an important part of many life stories, I was eager to have him share it with you. Take it away, Dave!
I remember a moment in my history when I went camping with a large group of family and friends in the Northern Sierra mountains. We’d spent a week hiking and fishing, and we all got together on the last morning before we headed back home. One of the dads manned a large Coleman camp stove, moving deftly between two iron skillets, one filled with bacon and sausage, the other topped up with scrambled eggs. He’d cook up a batch, toss the perfectly cooked proteins into an cooking tin for people to snatch up, and then repeat the process over again.
I don’t remember the cook ever eating any of his work, but I do remember the look on his face as he maneuvered the meats around the skillets like a professional. He was in his zone, and I believe this created a concert of good vibrations around everyone in the camp. Between the buzz of the happy campers, and the swirling aromas, this felt like the perfect life experience. We all had a great time on this trip, and this final breakfast was the perfect topper to memory that would last me for decades.
Over the years, I’d been exposed to skillet cooking many times, but never embraced it myself. Whenever it did happen in my family, a warm appreciation came over me, taking me back to that moment in the camp. I remember one time talking with my uncle as he prepared to season his own well used skillet. Not understanding the nature of iron, I asked why he was oiling it up before putting it into the oven. He explained to me how you needed to season the pans every now and again to keep them in top condition, and maintain their slickness. I followed that up by asking why he didn’t just use an anti-stick pan.
“Because this cooks better.” He said, holding his large iron pan with unwavering conviction. Seeing the look on my face, he knew I didn’t quite get it, but figured I’d get it someday.
Several years later, probably after reading one of Stupid Easy Paleo’s many posts on cooking, I mentioned to my wife that I would love a cast iron skillet. This might have caught her as ridiculous, because I wasn’t doing much of the cooking at that time, but she agreed, and catalogued that thought for the future.
On Christmas Eve this past year, my family all sat around after dinner, to honor our family tradition of opening one present each. My wife moved around the tree, grabbing a gift for my son, my parents, and herself. Then she reached behind the tree and struggled to pull out a long and heavy box, setting it on my lap with a thud. I thought maybe this was one of those gifts where the person puts something heavy in the box to disguise it’s real contents, like a gift certificate. My wife wasn’t above such shenanigans, and I indulged her as I pulled back the wrapping.
Dismissing the paper wrapping to the side, I cracked open the box to reveal the yellow and black Lodge Iron Co. logo sitting center face in the most beautiful piece of metal I’d ever seen. My mom laughed incredulously, because she thought it was a weird gift. In her world, you don’t give people gifts like cooking equipment because it comes with some sort of expectation of doing work for others, like a buying your wife a vacuum cleaner. However, anyone who loves to cook knows that getting quality equipment to work with is the best gesture of love.
I held the 12-inches of shiny blackness in my hand, feeling the slight oily texture of the metal under my fingertips, and thinking about all the wonderful meals I planned on making with it. It was already late in the day, but I was determined to use this for Christmas morning breakfast. I wanted to season this puppy up right away, because that’s what you did, but realized this one came preseasoned, ready to rock the hell out of bacon and eggs.
Slightly disappointed, I resigned myself to waiting until morning to play with my new toy. I cleaned off any dust or lint that gathered, and then placed the skillet on the stove top in anticipation of Christmas morning. I didn’t need any other presents, because I was ready to make the most memorable holiday breakfast ever. I could almost taste the eggs, bacon and sausage goodness.
The truth is though, the first few times you use a cast iron skillet, it may not go quite as smooth as you might think. Sure, the pan comes seasoned, but it hasn’t built up the layers upon layers of seasoned oil to make it operate at maximum potential. It takes time to get the skillet to that point, and I struggled through a few meals before I finally got the hang of cooking with it. Now, my steaks come out as perfect as my bacon and eggs, and the skillet has become my tool of choice to cook with, but there’s a surprising byproduct that I never anticipated—cleaning.
Like many, I dislike doing dishes. It’s a necessary evil that I look at as the cost of doing business in the kitchen, but it’s never fun for me. I will put the dishes off just long enough to be an annoyance to my wife. However, the skillet is different. I used to look at the pools of grease, and bits of food crisps, and wonder if I would ever get it clean, but because I’ve done the proper work each time I use the skillet, cleaning has become less work and more craft.
Approaching the job like a journeyman, I wait for the pan to cool enough to pick up, and pour the excess grease into jar. With a paper towel, I wipe up the loose food bits and the excess oil, discarding the temporary rag into the trash. Straddling the skillet upon the sink’s edges, I put in a small bit of water, not enough to soak, but enough to help break the surface tension of the stickier bits. Using a $3 kitchen brush I bought specifically for the skillet, I run it around in a circular motion, and swirl the water like a miner looking for gold nuggets in the silt, dislodging any last food remnants, and dumping them into the sink.
Transferring the skillet back to the stove top, I use another towel to wipe clean any excess water, both above and below. Once complete dry, I pull out my can of diffused coconut oil, and give a light coat to all interior surfaces. One more paper towel, and I rub the oil in, pushing it into the nooks and crannies, and buffing it to a nice satin sheen.
All finished, I admire my handy work, checking for sticky spots, and rebuffing as needed. I may sound like a complete nerd, but this process makes me feel a little more manly than I started that day. Say what you will, but there’s definitely something cathartic to putting time and energy in something that helps me provide for my family.
Anytime you buy a tool, no matter what that tool is for, there’s this romantic moment that exists where you imagine all the wonderful things you will do with that tool. The romance soon dies off because your first attempts usually don’t end up quite the way you hoped. You hammer nails a little too crooked, cut wood a little too short, and cook food a little too long. It can be disheartening for awhile, but if you keep working at it, eventually you get better. You’ll hit that nail true, score that wood straight, and cook that marbled steak to perfection.
When I hit that moment with my first perfectly cooked skillet meal, this wave of understanding came through me. I knew that I had learned how to respect the skillet for being more than a hunk of iron, but a craftsman’s tool to be treated as such. Is it the most perfect culinary device? I cannot say, but it’s the most perfect one for me.
Now I personally cannot elaborate beyond that on the benefits of using cast iron skillets in your cooking, but I’m sure if you scan the annals of Stupid Easy Paleo, you’ll find a plethora of information on the subject. Read them, and then go buy yourself a Lodge. I recommend the 12-inch to start.