Every cast-iron pan tells a story

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Jenelle Kellam's Pommes Anna, prepared in one of the cast-iron skillets she got from her mother. (Photo by Dillon Deaton/ for The Washington Post.)

For a humble item, the cast-iron pan occupies an exalted place in many American homes. The glossy black skillets are easy to find, relatively inexpensive, and versatile tools in our kitchens, but they are more than mere workhorses.

They get their heft from the metal from which they are forged, but also from the freight of memories: of the people we inherited them from, the meals we made in them and the lessons we learned from them.

Like us, cast-iron pans might be resilient, but they flourish with care. They get better with time and seasoning. And they don’t just hold our favorite foods: fried chicken for picnics, pancakes on lazy weekends, stews on cold days. They hold our history.

Every pan has a story, and we asked readers to share theirs. Here’s what they told us.

– – –


Cast iron links generations, and when we use these pans, we often cook alongside our loved ones, whether far away or long gone.

Jenelle Kellam, 38, Charlotte, N.C.

When Jenelle Kellam was growing up in southwestern Virginia, her mother would kick her and her siblings out of the kitchen when she made big meals, such as the annual Thanksgiving dinners for extended family that would take days to prepare.

Still, without even realizing it and without formal tutorials, Kellam absorbed lessons from the way her mom cooked, adding a little bit of this and a dash of that, never needing a recipe. She recalls once asking her mother for a recipe, and the answer was what she had expected: “She’s just like, ‘You just do it until it’s right,'” Kellam says. Decades later, in her own home, she has found that same rhythm. “Now I’m like that when I cook, too.”

And so after her mother gave her a couple of used cast-iron skillets for her own kitchen, Kellam, a speech pathologist, felt her mother’s presence – coaching her, or just being with her. She remembers the cornbread her mother would make in her cast-iron pan, served with what they called “fried corn.” “It’s basically creamed corn,” Kellam explains.

Most of all, every time she cooks she thinks of her mother, who likes to dress up for church on Sundays and does word-search puzzles to stay sharp at 76. “For me, food is connections, it’s family,” she says. “It’s comfort.”

– Ann MacLaughlin-Berres, 54, Arena, Wis.

“Grandpa filled us up with stories, knowledge, poems and songs while he cooked. He loved to teach and tease, and he was a better cook than Grandma. When I use his cast-iron pan, I think of him and feel connected to him.”

– Tom Smedley, 55, Palmyra, Va.

“This is a deep skillet from my mom’s mom. I’ve researched it, and it dates circa 1935-1959. When Grandma passed away, my wife and I got a few pans. As we got older, we bought our own cookware and passed on the lesser-quality pans. This Wagner skillet is so heavy and smooth. It takes a low, slow heat very well, so it’s my go-to pan for oyster stew, where you really want to control the temp on the evaporated milk. But I also use it to heat the oil for my fried oysters: lots of space to put in 10 at a time. When I hold it, I think of Grandma, her house and her farm. She was a great cook and the matriarch of a great family.”

– Anne Middleton, 28, San Diego, Calif.

“My cast iron belonged to my late grandfather, Pappi. He could always be found cooking bacon in his underwear with a cigarette hanging from his lips. When it wasn’t being used for cooking, he’d (lovingly) threaten to beat anyone with it who entered his kitchen. He cooked everything in that pan. It’s been through some tough times, including seven roommates at once in Columbia Heights [D.C.]. I would die if someone left it soaking in the sink. But it happened. And because cast iron is amazing, I’ve been able to bring it back to life many times. Pappi lives on in the molecules of bacon grease that now flavor my pizza crust.”

– Tom Marx 60, Princeton, N.J.

“It was the trusty cast iron that my grandparent’s cook used to make the best fried chicken in the world. (I’m a vegan now.) I don’t know how long it has been in the family – it is beaten up on the bottom, but still works its magic.”

– Christina Burch, 62, Goodlettsville, Tenn.

“In 1922, my grandfather went to Italy to bring home the bride his father arranged for him. She got her first pan (pans?) then, but I don’t know if she bought them or got them from her sisters-in-law. There are six of various sizes, and they’ve been part of our family ever since. After my grandmother, my mother used them, and now they are mine. They are so well-seasoned, very little sticks to them. I use them for almost anything that doesn’t absolutely require a nonstick surface. And I smile at my Nonna and my mother every time.”

– Emily Myers, 28, Washington, D.C.

“The cast iron comes to me by way of my late paternal grandmother. She died when I was 13 years old, and my parents held on to the well-worn cast iron for me. There’s no branding besides a small “8” engraved on the handle. I can’t tell how old it is, and my parents don’t know. I like to think that it’s a Depression-era pan, and has gotten my family through some hard times – just as the quesadillas I make in it now are doing for me.”

– Jan O’Brien, 74, Riverside, Calif.

“That pan was always on the stove when I was growing up. Everything was cooked in it. Maybe my mother obtained it from her mother. It was very black and heavy. When my mother was in her 80s and very frail, I noticed that she had burn marks on her arms and that she was limping, and I knew: It was the pan. And I threw it away. I did. It went down the garbage chute in the apartment building. Memories of spaghetti, bacon, eggs, potatoes – all thrown away. Mother had outlived her pan. I was too rash. I should have spirited the pan away. I am now in my 70s, waiting for my second vaccination, remembering that pan, remembering my mother.”

– Margaret Grundstein, 77, Los Angeles

(A poem)

1945. Flame licks at my crusted bottom. Slabs of cornmeal mush crackle on my flat, black surface. “Are they done, Mommy?” ask the four excited children at the kitchen table. I hunker down. The second side browns. Spatula lifts my work high. “More, Mommy! More!” they cry.

I am ready for this job – and for the Passover briskets, Sunday cobblers, and birthday ribs that metamorphose in my iron belly.

1985. “More, Mommy, More!” the children at the table cry. I live at the house of the daughter. Again and again, the fire moves through me. I am strong.

2020. The room is quiet. The children are gone. The daughter cooks for herself. She turns the crisped polenta with mottled hands. Memories rise; her mother at the stove, her babies at the table.

Both of us wonder what lies ahead.

– – –


Many skillets are family heirlooms, but others come into our lives the way people do: We find them in unexpected or unassuming places.

– Bob Mays, 68, Wilton Manors, Fla.

Bob Mays still feels a twinge of guilt when he reaches for the skillet he’s had for more than three decades, the one that makes cornbread perfectly, every time. This pan shouldn’t be his, he knows, and wouldn’t have been, if not for a fateful transaction one summer in the mid-1970s.

As a college student in Elkins, W.Va., he spent school breaks in Cass, an old logging town nearby where a friend operated a craft store. There, he entertained tourists by throwing pottery on an old-school kick wheel. His buddy mentioned that one of the local men could find collectibles for just a little money.

So Mays asked the guy for a cast-iron skillet, and was soon rewarded with a nice specimen, a deep-sided chicken fryer for $5. Only later did he realize that the resourceful peddler was known as the town drunk who would steal items from family, friends and neighbors to raise cash for his next drink.

“Sometimes I wonder about what the poor woman – and I assume he stole it from a woman – what she did without it,” says Mays, who eventually gave up pottery for accounting. “Got another one, maybe?” The pan’s gifts, including the cornbread, assuage his discomfort. “You put a couple tablespoons of butter in and it gets a crispy crust,” he says. “It’s wonderful.”

– Lisa Siegle, 57, Springfield, Ore.

“I found this pan half-buried under a barn in western Oregon while searching for a missing pregnant barn cat. The pan was heavily caked in dust and dirt, but it was dry, so there wasn’t any rust. I scrubbed it with a metal brush, washed it with soapy water, dried it on the stove, rubbed oil into it and have been using it ever since.”

– Julia Crookston, 65, Buellton, Calif.

After the cooking school where she taught was sold, “One day all our grills and griddles were gone and so were my pans! Qué lástima! Later that day on a quick walk around the block, there was a truck full of our pans and griddles. I looked the pile over and saw one handle I recognized! The driver said it had been sold as scrap, and if I wanted the pan I could have it for $10. He waded in, rummaged a bit and said, ‘Here’s another one, do you want it too?'”

– Deborah Dimitrov, 68, Thornhill, B.C.

“I found my cast-iron fry pan in a deserted trappers cabin in the wilderness in northern British Columbia. The man who owned the cabin told me to take it. I can barely lift it now, but this pan will cook anything. If I could thank someone for it, I would do so gratefully. When it’s time to hang this pan up for the last time, I will pass it on to someone else who will appreciate it the same way I do. Anything this useful, resilient, old and well-made is meant to be passed on to others and shared. No one person should ever be the sole owner!”

– Sandy Bartlett, 81, Ridgewood, N.J.

“We were at a church sale in Maine. We saw a cast-iron griddle (two-burner size) under some candy for sale. We asked to buy the griddle. The answer: ‘This old thing? Why would you want it?’ Well, we just did. She sold it to us for $5, and we are still using it – now passed down to our son last year as we are 81. It was very old and had been well used when we bought it, and it was made probably well over 100 years ago at this point. Our son uses it for a lot of things we never thought of.”

– Becky Fajkowski, 74, San Francisco

“I found it under the sink of this really cool apartment on Sage Road in Houston. The girl who moved out was named Tuesday (or Wednesday), back in the early ’70s. Still have it.”

– – –


Many pans have traveled farther than their owners have, crossing seas and cities. They’ve been to campsites, Renaissance fairs, new apartments – even to a strip club.

Katherine Bedard, 44, Washington, D.C.

The most cherished pan in Katherine Bedard’s D.C. kitchen took a circuitous route getting there. It first belonged to Bedard’s maternal grandmother, who left her hometown of Mobile, Ala., to serve as a nurse in World War II, a job that took her as far as North Africa. After the war, she settled with her new husband, a native of Upstate New York she had met while serving.

In postwar Malone, N.Y., Bedard’s grandmother seemed exotic to her new neighbors, with her Southern accent and the unfamiliar dishes, like roux-thickened gumbo, that she made in her cast-iron skillets. Bedard was equally entranced by her grandmother’s cooking: In memories of her visits to the family in Wisconsin, her grandmother is always in the kitchen, a pot of fried chicken or that gumbo on the stove.

It wasn’t until two years ago that Bedard’s father casually mentioned the cast-iron pan that her grandmother had left when she died decades ago, one of the few items that she had bequeathed to her family. “My grandmom wasn’t really about possessions,” Bedard recalls, “so I had no idea that it existed.” What had become of it, she demanded? Her father informed her that he had long since given the pan to a pal of his, a fellow Civil War reenactor who was the regiment cook in the 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, to use in battles.

Bedard insisted that he get it back, and now the pan is the prized heirloom of her city condo, valued even more because it was almost lost. She is experimenting with Southern dishes like those her grandmother made, though she admits she doesn’t yet have the ease that comes with time. “My eggs still stick,” she says. The cook and the pan, “we’re still getting to know each other.”

– Brian Mentha-Bennett, 72, Biel/Bienne, Switzerland

“Most likely used by great-grandmother on the McIntyre family ranch in the Bitterroot Valley, Mont. Used by me during college in Boston and Seattle, then brought with me to Europe 43 years ago where I cooked on it on my Bunsen burner in my chambre de bonne in Paris, then on to 15 years around Germany (Munich, Bremen, Wūrzburg, Mūnster), 14 years in Innsbruck, Vienna, and Graz, and now in Switzerland (Zurich and Biel).”

– Ellen Shook, 75, Birmingham, Ala.

“Both skillets came from ‘the old Thompson Homeplace’ in very rural Walker County, Ala. My father’s family homesteaded the land in 1792, which was a grant from the governor of South Carolina. Samuel and Joe Berry Thompson came first, claimed the land, built a cabin, and then returned to South Carolina to collect their wives and children. All came from England originally, and then to Alabama in a wagon train with their belongings. I do not know where those two oldest pieces originated, but I was always told that all these iron pans came with them from England.”

– Daniel Kelly, 37, London

“Years ago, I used the cast iron to make an apple tart for a Friendsgiving. When I left the party with some friends, I brought the pan with me as we headed back home on public transit. We got sidetracked along the way, and I ended up sneaking a 12-inch frying pan into a strip bar (Jumbo’s Clown Room, to be precise).”

– Julia Martin, 55, Tampa, Fla.

“This pan is my grandmother’s. When I moved out of my parent’s home into my first apartment in 1986, my grandmother gave me this little skillet. I remember her frying eggs in it and ham for a single meal. She and I would ride horses out to the field and cook over an open fire so my grandfather could have a hot meal in the winter when he was farming. After the meal, she would take it to the creek, scour it with sand and rinse it out, drying it carefully. She’d then put it back in her saddlebag, and she and I would ride off back home. I was probably preschool or elementary school age at the time. It is a treasured memory of her, both on the bank of the creek and cooking in her kitchen. Nowadays I have several Lodge cast-iron pans that I use all the time, thinking of her every time I use one.”

– – –


Cast-iron stories are often ones of survival and endurance, about surfaces that are marred or broken, then uncovered and made beautiful again.

– Shom Mazumder, 28, Brooklyn

It wasn’t love at first sight for Shom Mazumder and his cast-iron pans. Their relationship began inauspiciously, when he picked up a few at a hardware store when he was in graduate school. Low price was their appeal.

It took a while for him to warm to the heavy black skillets. At first, he didn’t like the hassle of caring for them. Cooking was becoming his favorite hobby, but washing dishes was the least favorite part of any meal, and the finicky pans added a step or two. Food stuck to their surface. So they sat in the back of his cabinet.

But it was his growing passion for making delicious meals for himself and his friends that led him to pull them out more frequently. Nothing else could put a restaurant-quality sear on a steak. He could throw a pan of vegetables from stovetop into the oven to roast to caramel-edged perfection. So he learned how to season them, and embraced the act of cleaning them. And although he is a relative newbie to the cult of cast iron, he’s quickly identified an essential truth about the cookware that has appealed to so many users over the ages: “The reason I fell in love with my cast iron is when you give a little bit of love to it, it gives a whole lotta love back.”

– Jane Ahern, 53, Madras, Ore.

“Last summer we had a house fire. The house didn’t burn completely, but the kitchen was one of the worst-hit rooms. The upper cupboards had fallen off the walls, spewing broken dishes around. Powerful fire hoses also blow stuff all over the place, so it was all a jumbled mess of charred and broken remains, some of it barely identifiable. I could see my cast-iron skillets partially buried in debris. I scrubbed them thoroughly and reseasoned them. To remove the residual charcoal smell, I made up several batches of cheap pancake mix, cooked them in the pans, and then threw them away. This is a good trick to know for when you make something like salmon patties that leave a bit of a taste and smell in the pan. Pancakes absorb it and lift it away.”

– Amanda Wills, 34, Brooklyn

“My Mamaw gave me this pan when she felt confident I was ready to ‘handle’ it. And by that I mean care for it as the women have in my family for over 100 years. It has even survived a fire. It was my great-great-grandmother’s cast iron, made by a man who lived down the dirt road from my family in Maynardville, Tenn. The maker’s name is signed on the bottom, thought it’s illegible. Every Sunday I make roast chicken in it from my apartment in Brooklyn, and it takes me right back to my Mamaw’s house in Tennessee.”

– Carol Eberhard, 63, Jersey Shore, Pa.

“My father never cooked (not even a sandwich), except for rib-eye steaks, in this cast-iron 12-inch pan. I inherited it. It hung by a nail in my cellar way, but it fell down the stairs and the handle broke. My husband’s buddies at work welded it, over 30 years ago, and it still is used at least three times a week. I have raised four kids and countless guests using this old favorite pan.”

– Pamela Friedman, 65, Charlottesville, Va.

“As a college girl, I bought my very own cast-iron skillet. I cooked for all my friends, especially a group of boys who shared an apartment near my dorm. I cooked, they cleaned. That was the deal. Imagine my horror when I came by the apartment to pick up my cooking gear a couple of days after the (excellent) dinner to discover that my skillet had been scoured. Right. Down. To. The. Metal. I was horrified. The pan was never the same, and my friend was severely chastised. I ultimately inherited another skillet, likely older than I, which is the talisman of my kitchen. And the clueless boy? Reader, I married him. 30 years later. He never scours my skillet.”

– Giovanni Rufino, 58, New York

“I started cooking at age 7, preparing pancakes to enjoy while watching cartoons at 7 a.m. My parents taught me how to safely use the stove, allowing them extra minutes of sleep. I learned the best tool was their cast-iron skillet, on a heating coil set to low. Flash forward 50 years: Both my parents recently passed into the hereafter. While emptying the contents of their home, I found the skillet from my childhood. It looked sad, caked in crud, but with a glass-smooth cook surface from 60-plus years of use. A grinder and cup brush polished it to bare metal, looking better than when new. This material is one of the few things in the kitchen that improves with age, unrivaled in its versatility, place directly on red hot coals, or to bake bread for great crust. My cherished family heirloom!”

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