Country Seasoning: Frying Pans Into the Fire
There’s a summer flea market only ¼ mile away from my parent’s lakeside cottage in Michigan. I’m drawn to its characters and culture. It’s a sweaty, gritty, oddball lot. There’s facial hair in lengths I never see elsewhere. There are a lot of hairy, tattooed, sunburned bare chests. Few places remain where folks are in less of a hurry. No one is checking his iphone while you talk about the provenance of a 1970s lamp. There is a genuine quality to the smiles and conversation that is uniquely endearing.
People sell puppies and kittens there. They sell chickens and rabbits and dried chiles, and broken old outboard motors and boxes of rusty tools. They sell these big blanket thingies that I suspect are supposed to be like modern tapestries: one had a busty girl wearing marijuana leaves as pasties. It was merchandized next to one with a disturbingly graphic and sorrowful crucifix.
I dragged my dad on a mission to the flea market last Memorial Day weekend. Cast iron pans were my quarry. I wanted to buy a bunch for my friends and former students who want them. So many of my students cook in crappy pans. I want to offer them the power of cast iron!
The pickin’s were sparse. One vendor had a rather large stash, but they were in poorer shape than pans I’ve bought in the past. They were especially rusty and he was asking the high end of what I’m used to paying for pans that are already in good shape. We kept walking.
We stopped at a stall with a very tarnished copper saucepan being offered for $3. While Dad and I discussed how to clean it up, the seller emerged from her trailer to close the sale. As we were talking some sort of large animal scurried right behind my Dad, startling us both. “Ohmigosh! What was that?”
“Oh, that’s just a gopher. I feed ‘em by hand. They’re real friendly. Last night when my husband and I came home from dinner one of ‘em was in the trailer waitin’ on us. Can’t let ‘em do that though. I made ‘em go outside for his supper.”
Well, imagine that.
I asked her if she knew of anyone who had a good supply of cast iron cookware. She mentioned the seller we’d already seen and I expressed my reservations. Another customer who was trying to talk her price down on an oversized glass jug chimed in. “You don’t have to worry about that. Just re-season ‘em.”
I responded, “Of course, but I have to get all that rust off.”
“Just burn it off,” she offered. Rub the pans with some Crisco-“
“You never want to use animal fat,” chimed the jug dude.
“Naw. That’s right. Except lard.”
“Oh, yeah. Lard’s real good.”
“Anyhows. Just rub ‘em down with Crisco or lard and throw ‘em into a campfire. Collect ‘em the next morning out of the ashes and they’ll be perfect.”
“Really?” I asked, slightly unconvinced.
“Oh yeah. They’ll be perfect.”
This little trek to the flea market had now turned to an exciting project. It just so happened that our plans that night included burning a huge pile of brush and logs that we’d accumulated from the routine spring clean up. We’d have a lot of pans to burn and we’d have a fire that would be big enough to accommodate the whole stack of pans. It was destined to be.
We were not just going to burn stuff. We were going to burn metal. AWESOME!
We returned to the cast iron seller. I added up his asking prices and offered him 15% less to take them all. He accepted. He was clearly delighted to sell the lot. I’m sure it was exhausting just to pack them up at the end of every day. He couldn’t have been kinder or more charming. I told him what our plans for re-seasoning them were. He assented to the plan. Dad and I were confident.
I brought the pans home and made a greasy, rusty mess of my self- nothing a dip in the lake couldn’t wash off. As the sun got lower, we started the lakeside fire. I squeezed in a bit of an upper body workout hauling the pans down the thirty or so stairs to the lakefront. I tossed the first pan onto the fire to see what happened. I watched impatiently, waiting to see something interesting happen. Dunno exactly what I was hoping for. I tossed on a second. Nothing interesting. Aw heck, I decided, let’s just go for it. I scattered them all over the fire.
And then, coincidentally, things did start to get interesting. We had burned off a lot of the brush and we started adding big logs. The fire got hotter. And hotter. We’d build it up, it would burn and then collapse, enveloping the pans.
And then they started to GLOW. Like a freakin’ foundry. Would they actually ignite? Melt? The entire family was in a pyromaniacal frenzy. We were no longer about returning beauty and functionality to antique cookware. Maybe we were teaching our children about science now. Okay, let’s be honest here. We were about watching shit burn.
The fire got too hot to even roast marshmallows. The kids couldn’t stand close enough to it. They were actually scared to get near it. Mosquitoes arrived to crash the party. We all headed back up to the house. As I climbed the stairs, I had a little regret in my belly. Maybe we got carried away. They said “campfire,” not “hellfire.” What was going to be left in the ashes?
The next morning my Dad was the first one up. Like a little kid, he headed down to see what was left of our infernal foundry. The ashes were still very not and the pans too hot to touch. By the time he came up, I was up and heading out the door for a run. “How they look?”
“Well…,” he struggled for the words. “One is very misshapen. The rest- it’s kind of hard to tell.”
Some of the pans were bright red in spots. Some were caked in ash. The rust that remained seemed very fine and powdery. We were definitely going to need to do some more work.
We lost two pans. Besides the warped misshapen pan, one other had a crack all the way through it. I’m not sure if that’s a critical problem, but I’m calling it a loss. Mom hung the warped pan by the front door. We’re planning to paint our address on it or something. That pan will always put a grin on my face. Hey dude, I melted THAT!
I took the pans home. Picking out a pot with a lid that can also be used as a skillet, I went to work on it. After a half hour with some steel wool and one session of seasoning, look what I got!
I’m telling you this story for two reasons. First, I hope you’ll laugh. At me or with me, I don’t care. Second, this story illustrates something important.
A cook should be willing to throw stuff in the fire and see how it turns out. If it doesn’t turn out exactly the way you hoped, you deal with what you’ve got. You learn something. Most importantly, a cook should find pleasure in the process.