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I had never considered how cast iron skillets could look at home anywhere until I saw them displayed in a truck stop just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. There were stacks and stacks of new, slick, black skillets for sale, varying in size and depth, balanced on an end-cap between neon energy drinks and flimsy plastic bags of peanuts. To me, the message was clear: Everyone should have a skillet of their own. In Kentucky, I grew up around women who used cast iron consistently to fry up bacon and eggs, brown buttermilk biscuits, and simmer pork fat gravy; and now, the cookware is having a sort of mainstream renaissance in kitchens that look far different than that of my grandmother.
Cast iron skillets are notably versatile and distinctive. For this reason—as well as the nationwide emphasis on modernized regional cuisine and a growing appreciation of heirloom homewares—their popularity has surged in recent years. According to the Cookware Manufacturers Association, shipments of cast iron and similar enameled products in the U.S. have increased more than 225 percent since 2003, and there are even new companies, like the Portland-based startup FINEX, specializing in cast iron skillets.
But according to Jeanine Head Miller, the curator of domestic life at the Henry Ford Museum, the skillets weren’t always so en vogue.
“Cast-iron has been around for centuries, even predating European settlers in the United States,” Head Miller says.
The first skillets were made by hand in foundries, where molten hot iron was poured into tightly-packed black sand molds. Once the iron had set, rough edges would be ground down until creators were left with smooth, thin skillets made of just one piece of metal from handle to pan. But they were still a little more cumbersome than their cookware successors.
“Its popularity actually started waning as early as the 19th century with the introduction of lighter-weight, easier to clean tools like tin wear and granite wear—and moving on to aluminum and stainless steel in the 20th century,” Miller explains.
Yet by the 1950s, there were already cast iron apologists touting the skillet’s merits in the face of new kitchen innovations. Take for example, this advertisement for Flanegin Hardware skillets, which was taken out in the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, an Indiana-based paper, in 1953:
Modern, light-weight cooking utensils may be easy to clean, and look pretty on the wall, but nothing gives the Mrs. that commanding feeling like when she is brandishing a number 8 cast iron skillet.
Cast iron skillets have domesticated more husbands thru the years than all other forms of persuasion, including going home to mother. And, on top of all this, nothing beats a cast-iron skillet for cooking!
It was the history and longevity of the cast iron skillet that made it popular again in the 1950s and, if this ad is any indication, the power it gave its users, has kept it going since.
The ad also mentions that “the Mrs.” uses a “number 8” skillet. To this day, there are numbers inscribed on the underside of the skillet or on top of the handle that can be downright confusing upon first glance; but according to a 1924 catalogue from Wagner Manufacturing Co., one of the largest manufacturers of skillets up until they folded in the late 1950s, these numbers are actually markers for measurements of diameter. So, a number 8 pan measures in at about 8.75 inches. These measurements were important for home cooks to keep in mind during the days of wood-burning stoves because pans were produced to conform to the sizes of the “stove eyes,” or the openings in their tops. Having the incorrect pan could lead to an uneven bake—and nobody wants blackened cornbread.
As for the ad’s “easy to clean” claim—that’s sort of true. Keeping cast-iron in good shape is a much-discussed topic, even on Extra Crispy.
Maggie Green, a Kentucky-based cookbook author, says she grew up eating her mother and grandmother’s cast-iron creations, including cornbread sticks and a pineapple upside-down cake.
“John T. Edge wrote a piece in a cookbook that says cast iron is a relatively porous metal that holds onto odors,” Green says. “Some people might think this is a disadvantage, but it’s kind of neat, you can kind of smell what has been cooked in it before; he thought that was neat because you might even be smelling something the generation before you cooked.”
But, Green says, this also means you can’t just scrub your skillet down with soap, otherwise it absorbs that sudsy flavor. Instead, she says most cast-iron cooks focus on “seasoning” their pan, or lubricating it with a thin layer of their fat of choice. Over time, this creates a makeshift nonstick barrier. Take that, Teflon.
Green says the skillets are also particularly durable, which she thinks has contributed to their rediscovered popularity.
“If you had a glass baking dish, I would think it would be broken by now,” Green says. “I think there’s something neat about cooking with something that your grandmother might have cooked with. As they say, everything old is new again.”