My grandmother was, by all accounts, a profoundly crappy cook. The last time she tried cooking was probably in the mid-seventies, and even though she passed away several years ago, my family is still talking about it. Grammy’s signature dish — to which she occasionally subjected Dad and his sisters when the spirit moved her — was tuna fish casserole. She’d gotten the recipe from “Good Housekeeping,” so the legend goes. It’s simple. Combine a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom with a can of StarKist tuna. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes at 400 degrees in a cast-iron skillet. Garnish with Kellogg’s corn flakes.
I might not have believed that Grammy actually made this odious dish were it not for the evidence in my kitchen: the cast-iron skillet, which my family inherited. White scorch marks are still faintly visible around its rim — the wounds, Dad claims, that Grammy’s cooking inflicted. His account may be spurious. The stories the Lees tell are often exaggerated. But the skillet always remembers. That skillet is part of a small family of cast ironware that quietly appeared in my grandparents’ kitchen sometime in the fifties or sixties or seventies — nobody seems to remember. It went with Dad to college after years of mostly sitting idle. Desperate for some good grub, he began watching Julia Child on “The French Chef” and soon became a fabulous cook. And after he graduated, he lugged the collection to Philadelphia, where he met Mom, settled down, and started a family. For the next 25 years, the skillet found its home on the front right burner of our KitchenAid stove.
It’s 13 inches in diameter and heavy; it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I could move it from the rack to the burner without using both hands. Its black surface is soft and oily to the touch, and it shines under the fluorescent lights of our stove’s hood. When I was still too young to use the skillet but old enough to know it made better pancakes than any of our other pans, Dad taught me the “season” caused this shine. The season is the build-up of all the oils that have ever been baked into the iron surface. It gives the skillet a better non-stick than any high-tech chemically treated pan, and it stops the iron from rusting. A good season takes months to create; ours has been building up for decades. When the skillet gets hot, the season loosens up and the old oils ooze out of the iron’s open pores. That’s why cast iron makes the best pancakes, I learned, and the best everything. The skillet carries a memory of everything it ever cooked, and if you take care of it, it only gets better with age.
Dad has a sort of intuitive genius for cooking. He always knows what a dish needs, and he dashes off daring experiments as if they were old recipes. When I was younger, I begged him to teach me what he knew. He tried his best. At the center of his art is the skillet. “Everything worth eating,” he says, “you can make in a skillet.” Dad’s first lesson for me about cooking had nothing to do with food — first I had to learn to clean cast iron. One day, he said, the skillet would be mine, so I’d better learn to take care of it.
I quickly learned that scrubbing cast iron with dish detergent was a cardinal sin. “Soap will kill the season,” Dad said. He taught me to get the kettle boiling while I cooked, so the hot water would be ready while the skillet was still hot. After it was rinsed, if there were still bits of food, I could scour them off with a paper towel dipped in oil and salt. Not too hard, though, since a little leftover flavor was a good addition to the season. Then, I’d make sure it was bone-dry — “I haven’t let this thing rust my whole life and I’m not gonna let you start” — and set it over low heat to drizzle oil onto it. Most people use canola oil, or whatever’s handy (Grammy used Crisco), but Dad swears by flaxseed oil. It’s the cooking version of linseed oil, which painters use to give their oil paints a glassy shine on the canvas and carpenters rub on wood to soften the grain. “It’s wicked expensive,” Dad always said, “but look at that shine.” The oil forms a hard gloss over the porous iron, sealing in the decades of built-up season for the next use.
This fall, for my senior year of college, my Dad let me pack up a cardboard box of old kitchen supplies to bring to my new off-campus apartment. My younger sister was leaving for her first semester of college, and I wondered what it would be like at home with both of us gone. I’m sure my Dad was wondering the same thing. He sat pretending to do a crossword at our kitchen table while I went through the drawers and cupboards in search of unused items. When I set an item on the counter to take, he would invariably shake his head and say, “Not that one, no, nice try, I like that too much.” I eventually called it quits and loaded up my box with a set of blunt knives, several painfully tacky mugs, a strainer that’s impossible to clean, and all of the silverware that’s ever been dropped in the sink disposal. Getting ready to drive back to school the next morning, I found that he’d already taped up the box and put it in my car. When I got to my new apartment several hours later, I opened up the box to find, buried under everything else, my Dad’s favorite skillet.
I use it every day. I love to cook meals for my friends, and for my parents when they visit. My Dad always checks the season when he comes, rubbing his thumb along the surface of the skillet. As he puts it, he just wants to make sure I’m “taking good care of my inheritance.” Whenever I set the skillet over a flame and watch the oils pool on the iron, I think of all the foods my family has cooked on it. The longer I wait, the more the oils emerge, ghosts of all the dishes we’ve shared, parading backwards through the years.
There are the recent additions: fried eggs for breakfast, teriyaki stir-fries made in a hurry, steaks pan-seared and bloody on the white-hot iron. Then come Mom’s various dinners, each served ad nauseam through my middle and high school years: egg-in-the-middle, stinky tofu curry, plump salmon with leeks and onions, fried chicken liver that we all loved and fought over, frittatas at Easter and baked jalapeño cornbread in the summer, Friday-night “trainwrecks” that cleaned out our fridge. Some dishes accompany favorite childhood memories, like Dad’s sliced mystery-meat scrapple on Christmas mornings, Nutella crepes I learned to cook for my picky little sister, cheese quesadillas brought out in endless stacks during playdates, rainbow trout that Dad fried over an open fire on river trips with me and my brother. There are meals from before I was born, too: pork chop dinners Dad made for Mom on early dates, fresh foraged hen-of-the-woods he cooked in college while Julia Child howled “don’t crowd the mushrooms!” in the background. Even Grammy’s tuna casserole. The skillet remembers it all.