Please don’t wash my cast iron pan and other things you say to people not raised in the South

by Beth Graham

Yep, that’s a Christmas mug in the picture below. In May. And it’s filled with bacon grease…a little trick I learned from my early childhood. And one reinforced from my dip into the Paleo diet waters. I’ll just say, IT FLAVORS EVERYTHING! So I thought it was the perfect way to start off this post. If you don’t know the glories of cast iron cooking, bacon grease in a coffee mug, or the finer revelries of Southern cooking, this post will probably be lost on you.

So…the bacon grease. I just remember there always being a cup of it next to my grandmother’s stove. I mean, bacon and eggs were a morning staple so it was in ample supply. And a spoonful of this artery-clogging goodness made its way into many dishes, from cornbread to casseroles. It adds just the right amount of smokiness and fat to every dish. And so, I’m returning to those roots and I’m shocked to say, my cup runneth over (that means I make too much bacon). And I add a spoonful of it into just about everything.

So on to cast iron. I inherited (or maybe I just stole it from my mother’s kitchen) my grandmother’s cast iron skillet. And it’s become the one pan I cook everything in. It’s enjoyed decades (I’m guessing roughly 70 years) of seasoning. For you non-Southerners, THIS is why you don’t ever wash a cast iron pan. The pan holds onto (in a good way) all of the flavors of its past, imparting a tiny bit of them into every dish you prepare in it. Using soap and water washes away all those bits of flavor and all of those memories. I think it’s akin to painting over your family photos. No matter how embarrassing, let those crusty bits shine! I just give mine a good old scrubbing with water (some dishes require a bit harsher scrub) and finish it off with a drop of oil to keep it fresh and seasoned for my next use.

In my minimalistic ‘don’t be a hoarder and hold on to random shit’ days, I may or may not have thrown out my great grandmother’s cast iron dutch oven. I knew it was valuable, and remember “claiming” it among my mother’s kitchen goods, but it was old, and rusty, and unkempt. There was a grossness factor to it but had I taken the time to scrub it down, I’m quite sure I would have found immense value in it. Regrets and lessons learned.

If you’ve never taken a stroll through a Southerner’s pantry, I encourage you to plan a trip. You’ll be amazed and awe-inspired with plenty of “what is this?” and “what the heck is this used for?”. 

It wasn’t long before my mom’s recent illness that we were reorganizing her pantry (at 78 years old, she had held onto most of her kitchen gadgets over the years including a syrup dispenser she used at Howard Johnson’s with my dad on their honeymoon, I digress…) and I came across a wood router-type contraption that looked like it belonged in my husband’s toolbox rather than the kitchen. So I Marie Kondo’d it. No joy for me. Days later, my mom asked me where I put her creamed corn shucker (so that’s what that was!). Apparently it brought her great joy. Another family heirloom that in my desire to not appear on Hoarders one day, I tossed.

My kitchen today is a mix of the old and the new. My grandmother never served anything in its original container; even jelly at breakfast was in a beautiful glass dish. The older I get, the more I seem to be returning to my roots in the kitchen. I’ve been toying with trying my hand at canning and preserving veggies and I know my mother had some weird devices sterilize jars. As everyone seems to be downsizing and minimalizing these days, it’s important to think about the joy something could bring you in the future. What I wouldn’t give to have that cast iron dutch oven back today. And my mom’s creamed corn shucker thingamajiggy.

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