Recipes for the Black-Iron Heart of America

A new cookbook reminds us of the age-old glories of cast iron

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Peter Reali / Corbis

Let me tell you about my cast-iron pan. I bought it when I was at a Waldbaum’s in Jersey City, on a rainy night, for the cost of what then amounted to two pizzas. (Today, it would be one.) This black and craggy pan — mistreated, temporarily misplaced, abused, taken for granted and used in unspeakably heavy rotation for over 20 years — still sits on my range. It looks almost ludicrous atop the transhuman cool of that glass ceramic surface, like a MacBook Pro wired up to a punch-card reader. But that’s OK. This range will be out of fashion in a year or so, and the pan will be sitting on something else. That’s the point of these pans. They stand outside of the times and the trends, and all the bad ways we have trivialized and commodified the way we eat and live.

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I recently got hold of a copy of the newly published The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook: A Treasury of Timeless, Delicious Recipes, compiled and edited by Pam Hoenig. I don’t know why it came out now. Lodge has been making cast-iron pans since 1896; why would its customers need new or, for that matter, old recipes? The idea for the cast-iron pan has been around for hundreds of years, a relic of an age before cookbooks, let alone blogs, recipe apps, and all the rest. It’s an enduring, sacred object that transcends almost everything we think and believe about cooking. It’s a wonder to me that even I, a person who traffics in meditations on food and history, took it for granted so long. But then, that’s easy to do when something has no label, no parts, no color, and virtually no cost. I would suggest that every household in America needs to own a cast-iron pan, even if you aren’t in the habit of making fried chicken, one of the many dishes for which it is absolutely indispensable.

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This pan, this mute dense tool, roots us to our parents, and our grandparents, and the hundreds of generations that came before them. It is Confucianism cast in black iron. Every one that was ever made, whether by Lodge or the million nameless smithies and shops across America, is basically the same: a heavy, immovable piece of metal that takes a long time to heat up, that picks up a patina with long use, and which grows to fit the hands that hold it. The modern way of cooking is to buy a pan, use it for a while, and then throw it out when a flashier or better version comes along. I have thrown out dozens of non-stick pans, ranging from toxic tin bought in Indiana superstores, to luxury versions purveyed by Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma. I’ve had copper pans that cost a fortune, and which I never used before losing in a divorce or a move, or ruined by leaving on the stove too long. But I still have this same black pan, which has accompanied me, like the last survivor of a shipwreck, through every turn of a life radically wrenched on multiple occasions.

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I didn’t take good care of mine over the years because I didn’t take great care of myself and even committed the cardinal sin of leaving it to soak in the sink. (Cast-iron pans don’t get washed; they get cleaned out with salt and rags, another of their weird but loveable idiosyncrasies.) It has gashes and chips and knife marks from where I tried, one night in 2003, to scrape out some burned hash browns. It is damaged; it has baggage; it has lived a life. And unlike me, these pans are indestructible. Parents bequeath them to their children, who bequeath them to their children. And one can only hope that the memories and traditions that come with them last as long as they do. Of course, the pan isn’t any good for making Hot Pockets or Lean Cuisines, or tofu tetrazzini, although I suppose you could try. It’s made for an elemental kind of cooking, using whole ingredients and open flames, that has become marginal in the age we live in. But as long as the pans are still around, the kinds of cooking they do will be too, and maybe, just maybe, the bent, burned, damaged traditions that the pans embody will be too. You can forget these pans, leave them in the garage indefinitely, go years without using them, and they’ll still be there for you when you are ready for them. I think maybe that time, for some of us anyway, is now. It is for me.

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