My Southern Roots and the Iron Skillet

Mama Juel was my grandmother (her real name was Juel Victoria Winstead Hipp). Her name sounds quite regal and, in my mind, she was. However, she was a “roll up your sleeves” and get it done kind of woman. As a child, growing up in Arkansas, she used to tell me about cutting the heads off of chickens in preparation for frying it up. She talked about the curing of meats from their hogs which included bacon and country ham. If you don’t know it already, bacon grease is a staple of southern cooking. Mama Juel and my other grandmother, “Nanny”, used to keep a Mason Jar full of bacon grease in the cupboard right next to the stove. Much like fresh oregano and basil are mainstays of our cooking today, bacon grease was (and still is for many true southern cooks) a requirement for good flavor. Mama Juel used to add it to her green beans, cabbage rolls and even in her soups. But, the dish that I love (and still love) is biscuits and gravy. And, in order to make good biscuits and gravy, you need a good well-seasoned iron skillet–period. It doesn’t matter if you cure your own bacon or buy Oscar Mayer, it’s the seasoned iron skillet.

My grandmother, Nanny, passed her iron skillet down to my mother. My best estimates date the iron skillet back to the 1920s. The handle broke off long ago, but the magic of that skillet still remains.

It takes many years to get a good seasoned skillet. After all, many slabs of bacon, slices of country ham and legs of fresh chicken to get it ready.

Fortunately, you have the opportunity to pick one up that has seen many mornings and has experienced a lot of fried eggs and bacon. A inside bottom of a good seasoned skillet will look somewhat shiny. It will be very smooth (a texture that is quite different from its handle). Not only does it mean that the iron has picked up and held a lot of flavor, it also means that you won’t have to use any non-stick cooking spray–it’s better than that chemical that they use in the pots and pans at Target.

The critical thing about keeping a good iron skillet seasoned is that you never, ever wash it with soap. If I have cooked fried chicken in my skillet and some of the droppings or skin are sticking a little, I put a little water in the bottom of the skillet and throw it back on the burner until the water is boiling. Once boiling, I gently use a spatula to losen it up. Pour it out and wipe it out with a paper towel. You’ll notice that the bottom is a little greasy. Not to worry ! That is exactly what you want to have happen. It adds to the existing seasoning and keeps the skillet moist–ready for your next batch of cornbread, or whatever it is that you want to taste amazing.

If your skillet is looking a little dry, I like to put a little vegetable oil in the skillet and rub down the skillet–again keeping it moist.

This past weekend, Kevin and I were in Cape Cod with a group of friends. They asked that I make a batch of biscuits and gravy. Unfortunately, the only skillet they had was one of those new fangled Calphalon skillets–the kind that looks brand new. Biscuits were made and the gravy was too. Everybody loved it, but I couldn’t help but think (and know) that my gravy would have made my family proud–only if I have had my Nanny’s iron skillet.

Next time you see a good iron skillet, griddle or cornbread pan at an estate sale, do NOT hesitate. Although your arteries may not thank me, your stomach will find itself in pure nirvana.

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