The Box at the Side of the Road

It didn’t look like much, sitting there on the side of the road, sticking out of a box along side a broken air popper and a lamp with a missing lampshade. But you couldn’t fool me – I knew what it was.

My brother-in-law was visiting us – this was in the before times – and had gotten up early and went for a walk in the neighborhood. When he came back, he had told me that a few streets over, someone had set a bunch of trash at the curb.

“And sitting right on top of it all is a cast iron skillet.”

I drove over to check it out. It was, in fact, a cast iron skillet; a 10 inch one, to be exact. It wasn’t any collectable brand; just a no-name workhorse of a skillet, the sort that used to be in every southern kitchen, and still hangs on the wall of mine.

But, it had been a long time since somebody loved it. It was filthy, and covered in rust. I put it in my shed to “deal with later”. And then a few weeks later, a global pandemic happened, and my mind became filled with other things.

But last week, I came across it again, as I was moving some things about, and decided it had been neglected long enough.

In the book Hannibal, the author Thomas Harris has Hannibal Lecter write a letter to Clarice Starling, in which he says the following:

“Do you have a black iron skillet? You are a southern mountain girl; I can’t imagine you would not. Put it on the kitchen table. Turn on the overhead lights.

Look into the skillet, Clarice. Lean over it and look down. If this were your mother’s skillet, and it well may be, it would hold among its molecules the vibrations of all the conversations ever held in its presence. All the exchanges, the petty irritations, the deadly revelations, the flat announcements of disaster, the grunts and poetry of love.

Sit down at the table, Clarice. Look into the skillet. If it is well cured, it’s a black pool, isn’t it? It’s like looking down a well. Your detailed reflection is not at the bottom, but you loom there, don’t you? The light behind you, there you are in a blackface, with a corona like your hair on fire.

We are elaborations of carbon, Clarice. You and the skillet and Daddy dead in the ground, cold as the skillet. It’s all still there. Listen.”

I love that. Cast iron is sacred to me, in a way other skillets are not. They have soul, personality, character. Perhaps it is the vibrations in the carbon. In any event, it was time to make things right.

There is a lot of mythology around cast iron, but it isn’t rocket science. It requires a modicum of care, and there are rules to its use, just like there are rules to how to use nonstick.

So I ran a sink of hot water and dish soap, and scrubbed it down with a Scotchbrite pad. I scrubbed the grease and the rust off, and when it was done, it was a pale grey with some splotches of rust here and there, but clean. I then poured white vinegar in the pan and scrubbed the rust, adding kosher salt to make a paste.

With cast iron, your two enemies are acid and water. But the dose makes the poison, and first, we have to strip it down before we can season it.

After it’s clean, I turned the burner of the stove to low heat, and then set the skillet on it for 10 minutes or so. I want it dry as can be, and the heat drives the moisture out. While that’s happening, I turn the oven on 450 and let it heat up, and get out the vegetable oil.

There is a lot of mythology around seasoning the skillet, but it’s just that – myth. All you are going to do is create a thin coating to protect the skillet. And virtually any oil will work. The old folks used lard, because that is what they had, but plain old vegetable oil will work a treat. What we are going to aim for is 4-5 thin coatings. You don’t want one thick coating, because it will glob up and get sticky.

OK, now your skillet is on the burner, and dry and scalding hot. Pour a small dot of oil in the skillet – like, twice the size of a quarter, maybe. Then put on an oven mitt and, with a pair of tongs and a folded up paper towel, smear a thin coat of oil over the entire skillet, inside and out. I can’t emphasize how little oil will be on the skillet at this point – a thin coating, with no oil remaining when you are done smearing. Your skillet will look the same as it did before, only slightly darker from the oil.

Now put it in the oven upside down and leave it there for 30 minutes. It might smoke a bit – this is not failure. Using your oven mitt, take it out and repeat. Small dollop of oil, smear it all over, thin coat, put it back in the oven for 30 more minutes. And again. And again. Do it at least four times.

You put it in upside down to keep any oil from pooling. There shouldn’t be any oil to pool, if you used as little oil as I told you to, but still – better safe than sorry. The fourth time, just turn the oven off and let it cool, with the skillet in it. And when it cools, you are done.

It’s now ready to use. You don’t have to be precious with it. Use it to fry bacon, make cornbread, or really to cook anything, although you should probably avoid heavily acidic dishes like spaghetti sauce. And when you are done, use a scrubby pad to clean it with a little soapy water – the no soap thing is another myth – dry it off, and put it away. I usually dry mine by putting it over low heat for a minute or two to drive the moisture out, then wipe it down with a few drops of oil.

And that’s it. Using it continues to season it naturally, and your drying it and wiping it with oil protects it. Keep it dry and it will, properly treated, outlast the kitchen in which it is stored. I do not, however, recommend storing it in a box at the end of the driveway.

One thought on “The Box at the Side of the Road”

  1. If you ever have to to reseason another one, I can highly recommend the linseed oil method laid out by Cooks Illustrated (it wasn’t behind a paywall the other week fwiw). I had one that wasn’t precisely rusty but after living in a moving box for far too long, it needed some TLC. Anyways the new coat is this deep intensely black color that seems to be bombproof, and I’m happy that I took the time. There are some other pans I’m eyeing but I’ll wait another month to spread out the hit to my gas bill.

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