Cast iron memories and delicious treats

ESCANABA — Nobody can argue with a cast iron frying pan.

Grandma was right: you have to use good, healthy utensils if you want to prepare good, healthy food.

Let your memories take you back to that big old kitchen of your younger days.

You’ve just walked in from the cold, damp October wind and the smell of chicken frying on the stove greets you. Maybe the aroma of fried cabbage, fresh from the garden, perks up your senses. Venison tenderloins sizzling in a little bit of bacon grease or cornmeal “Johnny cakes” gold and brown in the oven are few of the delicacies that Grandma’s cast iron frying pan produced.

Everything from pancakes to fruit cobbler and from popcorn to pan-fried trout cooked in the heavy iron pan. And it tasted better somehow back then.

It took some muscle to lift the iron cookware and it took a little elbow grease and hot water to clean the pan after a big meal, but Grandma never complained.

Many of us learned how to cook with the “favorite” cast iron pans and sometimes on the old woodstove at camp.

Over the years cast iron gave way to Teflon and Silverstone cookware. The new modern frying pans were much lighter in weight, and were treated with a chemical coating to prevent sticking. Some came in bright colors and had “stay cool” handles.

The biggest selling factor was their claim to be much easier to clean up and they never rusted. All of the old cast iron pans were cast off into basements, camps, and garages. Not used, a beautiful iron pan loses its seasoning and rusts.

Gradually the “new” non-stick pans get scratched and the coating can contaminate the food. Studies have shown that Teflon-coated pans can emit dangerous fumes.

An old cast iron frying pan found at a rummage sale or in Grandma’s pantry now has become a best friend. The resurgence of iron cookware is an amazing thing. Now experts are even telling us that the traces of iron that leach out into the cooking food is good for us.

So if you are anemic, cast iron pan-fried food might be easier to swallow than an iron pill.

Cast iron cooking never truly went out of style in Upper Michigan, though. Plenty of old-timers kept using them, especially in woodstoves and over campfires.

One of the nice things about cast iron is that it can go from the stovetop to the oven or from the oven to the stovetop. They heat up slowly, seldom scorching anything and they keep their heat for a long time ,even after they are removed from the heat.

There are a few things that are always their best when cooked in cast iron. One of these is “raw fried potatoes.” It’s a simple Yooper treat that always tastes so good at harvest time. Here is how my mom made “raw fries”:

Peel and thinly slice enough fresh dug potatoes to fill your cast iron frying pan.

Melt some bacon grease (or cook bacon) to cover the bottom of the pan.

Peel and slice a large onion, add it to the hot grease and stir.

When the onions start to soften, add the sliced potatoes. Salt and pepper the layers of potatoes.

Reduce heat. Cover and cook until potatoes soften.

Remove the lid, turn potatoes a few times, and cook until potatoes start to brown and get crispy.

Serve hot with catsup. Enjoy your cast iron pan side dish.


Karen (Rose) Wils is a lifelong north Escanaba resident. Her folksy columns appear weekly in Lifestyles.


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