What sustains a culture over centuries and through disruptions both social and geographic are things like literature, art, and music. These are obvious documents of a culture that remain constant even as they are re-worked and re-imagined by succeeding generations. One of the reasons the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition thought it important to look at Appalachian foodways was the belief that food, the way we access and grow our food and our relationship to food, also sustains the rich traditions and culture of Appalachia. As another example of Appalachian foodways, I decided to focus on the cast iron skillet as a central feature of Appalachian foodways.
In his book, Appalachian Home Cooking, Mark Sohn explains that the earliest settlers in the Appalachian region brought with them, among other things, “wheat, cattle, pork, guns, and cast iron cookware.” Sohn further explains that the ability to smelt iron solidified these early settlers to the regions in more ways than the items they carried. The ability to work with iron laid the foundation for cookware as much as it laid the rails on the railroads that would one day connect the mountains to the rest of the country and to each other. If we think about the humble cast iron skillet as part of the culture and industry on which the people of Appalachia built their very lives, it takes on a larger dimension than the simple item you may have found in your grandmother’s kitchen.
Indeed, Sohn explains that the cast iron skillet is “as fundamental to the mountain kitchen as corn or pork.” The durability and simple practicality of the iron skillet make it the center of Appalachian cuisine to this day. Even modern chefs have come to appreciate the way a cast iron skillet “distributes heat, quick-seals meats, and slow-cooks stews.” Corn bread and several varieties of cakes are traditionally made in an iron skillet. There is of course a place for the three sisters of Appalachian cuisine: corn, beans and squash. From a time and place in which waste and frivolity could not be tolerated, the cast iron skillet emerged as a staple that put delicious food on the table when no other cooking methods were to be found.
The cast iron skillet as we know it appears to be a descendant of the spider, a three-legged pot with a handle that could be placed directly over a fire. It looks like an old witch’s cauldron. The legs allowed it to stand upright on the fire. With modifications of the cooking hearth, the skillet became more practical. Along with the cast iron Dutch oven, the iron skillet came to take over in Appalachian kitchens as an indispensable tool of everyday life. Since the cast iron skillet played such an important role in how an Appalachian family was fed, and therefore survived, they tended to become family heirlooms that passed through generations. When seasoned properly, they only improve with age.
As for seasoning an iron skillet, I won’t enter into this conversation because I know I will likely stir up strong opinions I am not qualified to counter. The proper method for seasoning an iron skillet is something people take as gospel. You can consult Mark Sohn’s method. He suggests coating the skillet with Crisco and baking it upside down at 350 degrees for an hour or so. I have heard of others who use oil instead of Crisco. My buddy Dan just kept cooking things on his until it worked the way he wanted. That method was gross, but Dan made the best eggs I’ve ever had. In any case, once you season your iron skillet, most will say to never use soap and water to clean it. Since most of the cooking with iron skillet is on high heat, there is little danger of bacteria growth. Rinse and dry immediately because the iron will quickly oxidize. Properly cleaning a cast iron skillet is another topic that will elicit many strong opinions.
With the Appalachian migration, people took the things with them that mattered most. The iron skillet, like the sacks of dried pinto beans for soup beans, traveled easily. It could be used on an open fire and it could take its place at the center of the urban Appalachian kitchen. Because cast iron skillets where ubiquitous in urban Appalachian households, they came to be associated with the negative stereotypes that were attached to Appalachians as they came to live in cities like Cincinnati. In this way, the iron skillet became a feature of what has been called “the cuisine of poverty.” The poor Appalachians were making corn bread and frying eggs on cast iron skillets while middleclass America was embracing Teflon.
It is ironic, then, that cast iron skillets are getting a new moment in the spotlight. Chefs all over the country are working with iron skillets for the same reasons that Appalachian cooks began using them centuries ago. The durability and versatility of the iron skillet is winning over a new generation of chefs. Some of these chefs have roots in Appalachia, like Chef Aaron Deal at the River and Rail restaurant in Roanoke, Virginia. Others have simply re-discovered the perfection of the cast iron skillet.
Some of the most well-known manufactures of iron skillets include the Griswold Cast Iron Foundry in Erie, Pennsylvania, the Wagner Manufacturing Company in Sidney, Ohio, and the Lodge Company. The latter is the easiest to find these days. Part of the beauty of cast iron skillets is that they are virtually indestructible. If you find one in a thrift store, it can be brought back to life no matter how rusty and old.
Foodways is a language that expresses and binds any culture. Just take a moment to look at the way food and foodways are at the center of cultural practices that run the full spectrum of cultural life. From the Last Supper to the banana leaf in Brazil, foodways are far more than just incidental features of life. For Appalachians both rural and urban, the cast iron skillet has served as a mode of survival and a medium through which family and local ties are cemented. From the mountains to cities like Cincinnati, Appalachians fed their families and sustained cultural ties that stretch across geography and history. One of the primary commitments of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is the promotion of Appalachian culture. The simple cast iron skillet is central to Appalachian culture and foodways. Like every other defining feature of Appalachian culture, the cast iron skillet remains one of the ways Appalachians flourish both in the mountains and in the cities.
Sohn, Mark. Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.