There are many things that tie me to the past. I suppose there is no item that does so better than a black-iron skillet.
My maternal grandmother – we called her Granny Lena – had a kitchen filled with cast-iron cooking utensils. There was one for muffins, and one for cornbread sticks, and then there were a half-dozen black-iron skillets of various sizes. My favorite and most memorable was the biggest one. It was the biggest skillet I believe I have ever seen.
I think I remember it best because of its utility. Granny Lena used it when she cooked dog bread. My grandparents owned two dogs back in the days of my childhood. There was Ole Skip, which was part collie, and Watch, a black German shepard. Both were big dogs. And they ate a lot of dog bread.
Granny Lena had a simple recipe for her dog bread. The main ingredient was course-ground yellow corn meal, which my grandfather had ground at the feed mill. He brought home a big sack full ever so often. The other two ingredients were water and cooking grease. Let me clarify the term cooking grease here. The drippings from frying country ham were used to make red-eyed gravy, and bacon drippings were saved for seasoning vegetables. All the other grease derived from cooking meat was saved for dog bread. Nothing was wasted.
Ole Skip and Watch loved that dog bread. It was filling, and the grease in it made for a healthy, shiny coat.
A feature in Granny Lena’s kitchen was that big, black-iron skillet filled with dog bread, sitting on a cooling rack. Sometimes it was filled with bread just cooked. Sometimes it was half-full. And sometimes there was only one piece left. It smelled divine. And it was quite tempting. I was instructed on many occasions not to be eating the dog bread, but I can tell you the crust was mighty fine.
The dog bread experience is one of many reasons for my fascination with black-iron skillets.
A few years ago, I made a keynote speech for the International Cookware Association. There were representatives of the cookware industry from all around the world in attendance. At the meeting, I met the Kellerman family of the Lodge Manufacturing Co. They had traveled all the way from South Pittsburg to be there. That’s right, South Pittsburg, home of the finest cast-iron cookware in the world. They sell under the Lodge brand. You have seen it in the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and other fine stores.
Well, I was so inspired a year later when I was in the area that I stopped in South Pittsburg at the Lodge Outlet and bought three black-iron skillets. I found you could buy them seasoned or unseasoned. With the help of some of my friends, I learned how to season a black-iron skillet. I also have learned you don’t use detergent when cleaning a skillet.
My late mother used to say cooks of yesteryear were great cooks because they cooked. By that she meant they were constantly cooking. Their black-iron skillets didn’t require special care, because those skillets were continuously used.
For the several years, I cooked with black-iron skillets almost every week. The Whosoever Will men’s Sunday school class meets every Sunday morning in downtown Hartsville. For a while there, our membership consumed 60 buttermilk biscuits, a quarter country ham, 3 pounds of Tennessee Pride hot sausage, two 12-packs of soft drinks and two pots of coffee. Now, each Sunday morning, the staff at the early Bird Café does all the cooking.
I have one black-iron skillet that is almost as big as the one in which Granny Lena cooked her dog bread. You can layer country ham slices in it, add a half-cup of water, cover the skillet tightly with aluminum foil and bake it in a 350-degree oven for 45-50 minutes. Let me just say any buttermilk biscuit is proud to sandwich that moist and tender country ham.
But the job is not finished until I clean that skillet and ready it for the next time. I carefully wash it without detergent and dry it with a paper towel. Then, while the skillet is still warm, I drop a dab of bacon grease in the bottom of the skillet, and after the grease has melted, I cover the skillet inside and out with an ever-so-thin coat of oil.
When the task is completed, to see that skillet resting on the stovetop, black as night and shining like new money, it is a beautiful thing.
Jack McCall is a motivational humorist, Southern storyteller and author. A native Middle Tennessean, he is recognized on the national stage as a certified speaking professional.