Marietta Pritchard: A legacy gift that lasts
AMHERST — The holidays always seem to come at me with a rush. No, I don’t put my wreath and tree up the week after Thanksgiving, and no, I don’t like to think about Christmas until at least after my birthday, which is early in December. Most likely we will acquire our small Christmas tree by Christmas Eve and leave it up until well after New Year’s, by which time my husband Bill will have become irrationally attached to it.
But at the moment, there is a real barrage of holiday pressure, which I try to resist as long as possible: My email is full of breathless “last minute” gift offerings and stores are drilling down on the holidays songs that are supposed to make us open up our wallets. Fancy watches fill the pages of print publications — why, I’ve never understood. And elegant sets of shiny pots and pans seem to proliferate.
A recent article from the L.A. Times reminded me that some of the most necessary items in my kitchen are my cast iron skillets. No, they weren’t Christmas gifts, rather gifts of a different kind from Bill’s grandfather. After that rugged old man’s death in 1967 at 93 in his hometown of Candor, New York, we visited his modest house on the main street across from the hardware store he had run.
Bill’s mother was eager for us to take some of the “nicer” things in the house, an excellent stand-alone freezer, for instance, some heavy old-fashioned bedroom chests of drawers to replace our perfectly adequate Salvation Army ones that she was rather sniffy about.
My attention was drawn to some Native American artifacts, mostly arrowheads, and a couple of big cast-iron skillets, all of which we brought home with us. We would not take the freezer, which we had no room for, but were persuaded to take the bedroom furniture, which is still in use, though just as ugly as ever.
The skillets, by contrast, are beauties and invaluable in my kitchen. They hold heat well and when properly seasoned are effectively non-stick. I use them for sauteeing and pan grilling of just about everything. If I am cooking something that will spend a longer time in an enamelled cast-iron dutch oven, I always do the initial browning or searing in the cast-iron pans to keep from ruining the other pot’s enamel surface. (Yes, I have ruined some.) I also use the skillets as roasting pans for smaller pieces of meat, and one of them can hold a grilling rack when I broil steaks or chops or fish indoors.
From time to time, a skillet becomes a cake pan for pineapple upside-down cake.
Last summer, noticing that the pans had accumulated layers of baked-on blackness that tended to crumble off onto the stove, I looked into cleaning and re-seasoning them. I tried chiselling off the outer accumulations with a putty knife with only modest success. The best and simplest solution seemed to be to put them into the oven when I used the self-cleaning cycle. This seemed a little scary. (The self-cleaning cycle always seems scary to me, though it’s preferable to spending hours on your hands and knees with your face in the oven inhaling toxic fumes.) So I waited a while, but finally put the pan in as a test case, opened the windows and turned on the exhaust fan.
Presto, change-o. There was an unusually large pile of ash on the bottom of the oven, and I had an amazingly naked pan, clean as a whistle, though a kind of depressing gray color. The next step was to re-season it with layers of fat thinly applied and baked in the oven until it was a lovely shiny black. The next time I clean the oven, I will de-crust the other one.
Although I don’t think my mother-in-law approved of my choices all those years ago, I’d like to think she’d see the long-term value of the gifts I chose. Those skillets will last much longer than the chests of drawers. I like to think of them as part of our own heritage as well.
Marietta Pritchard can be reached at email@example.com.