As interest continues to grow nationwide in all things Southern food — restaurants, chefs, cookbooks — there's a "natural curiosity" about the humble yet celebrated cast-iron skillet, says Virginia Willis, the Atlanta-based authority on the region's cooking. The cast-iron skillet's virtues, and utility, can't be underestimated, in her view.
"If you have a cast-iron skillet, you can make so many things in it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner," says Willis, author of Basic to Brilliant Y'all (Ten Speed, $35). "It's a roasting pan. It's a baking dish. It's a skillet."
So symbolic is the cast-iron skillet in the South that Paul and Angela Knipple chose to title their new book after it: The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South (University of North Carolina, $35). The book tells the stories of people from around the world who have settled in the South and are helping to change how the region's food is defined. Although not every recipe calls for a skillet, each has "the same sense of enduring heritage and family," according to the authors.
Cast-iron skillets become seasoned with time and use, evolving into virtually no-stick cookware. Memories accrue over decades of cooking in a skillet, of memorable meals and of loved ones now gone. It's a connection Willis feels whenever she cooks in her beloved grandmother's skillet.
"It's about 75 years old and I use it every day. It's a talisman of sorts for me," she says.
Cindy Schoeneck of San Diego, a registered nurse who grew up in the South, prizes her collection of cast-iron cookware, especially her great-grandmother's skillet. "Cast iron means a lot to my family. That's the one heirloom that was passed down," she says.
Schoeneck contributed two recipes, tomato grits and hush puppies made with squash, to the The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook: A Treasury of Timeless, Delicious Recipes (Oxmoor, $24.95). The cookbook was published on behalf of the Lodge Manufacturing Co., which began making cast-iron cookware in 1896 in South Pittsburg, Tenn.
That Lodge is an old-time Southern company accounts for some of cast iron's popularity in the South, Willis notes. That cast iron is inexpensive, tough, an excellent heat conductor, and readily available, sold even in hardware stores, counts too.
"Cast iron is easy to take care of. It's not temperamental," Schoeneck says. "It's not a piece of $400 cookware you're afraid to use because if you burn the bottom you have to throw it out."