The legacy of cast iron skillets in Appalachia

By Melissa Martin - Contributing Columnist

Cornbread baked in the oven in a heavy, black, round, skillet with a large handle. Crumbling a hunk of the cornbread into a glass of cold milk—my favorite way to eat it. Fried potatoes, fried apples, fried eggs cooked on top of the stove in various sized skillets. Country memories of my grandmother Hila cook’in up a storm in her cast iron skillets. My most notable tie to the history, culture, and cookery of Appalachia was family, especially my grandparents, whom we called Mamaw and Papaw.

According to Mark Sohn in his book, Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture and Recipes, “cast iron is Appalachian to its core.”

Cast iron can be used for frying, searing, broiling, baking, sautéing, braising and stir-frying. And I agree—after spending a lifetime in the company of cast iron skillets and pioneer women.

“Cast iron has been around for thousands of years — initially in the form of Dutch ovens or spiders (a pan with a handle and three legs) that could be cooked in a hearth or fireplace. When household stoves became more commonplace, cast-iron pots or pans with flat bottoms were introduced — specifically, the cast-iron skillet,” according to a 2017 article in The West Virginia Gazette.

“For my feisty grandmother, the iron skillets in her kitchen represented something more than a piece of cookware, for her, it was a way of life and a source of mountain pride – a tradition that would not die so long as she had breath in her lungs.” Read more from the website Appalachian Magazine.

Check out info at a website that’s all about cast iron. “Southern Cast Iron highlights unique collectibles, shares tips for caring for your favorite pans, and gives in-depth stories of collectors, chefs, and foundries. Take a look inside the world of cast-iron cooking and history.”

A Cast Iron Cook-Off event is held annually in Huntington, West Virginia, and is part of the Fall Festival at Heritage Farm.

A few years before she died, my mom gave me two large cast-iron skillets. Just old, well-used cookware some may say, but the monstrosities—black with a rich patina—are my treasures. Mom’s skillets are full of food stories. Closing my eyes, I picture mom standing at her stove—stirring and stirring as she made flour and milk gravy in her beloved skillet. Gently touching her old skillet, I imagine the feel of her hand on the handle. If only I could set at her kitchen table and watch her cook one more meal with those skillets.

Cast iron cookware can be found in antique shops and at Flea markets. Each skillet tells a unique story about its folks and its food. Fried green tomatoes. Buckwheat pancakes drizzled with sorghum, honey, or maple syrup. Fried bologna.

Among the first American cast iron cookware companies, Wagner established a factory in Sidney, Ohio. The Wagner Manufacturing Company was a family-owned manufacturer of cast iron products.

“What better way to hit the heartstrings this Holiday season, than to serve your favorite party dishes warm to the table in an Ohio shaped cast iron skillet. Be the first in your family to start a new tradition of fun gatherings creating memories around signature tastes cooked in a memorable skillet that everyone can enjoy.”

I know what my daughter is getting for her next birthday—an Ohio shaped cast iron skillet. She’ll be so surprised.

And before I pass through Heaven’s Pearly Gates, another generation will inherit the cherished cast iron skillets.

By Melissa Martin

Contributing Columnist

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in Scioto County. Contact her at [email protected]

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in Scioto County. Contact her at [email protected]