Uncle John’s Skillet
© Nita Risher McGlawn 2009
Southern girls know how to appreciate fine china, crystal, and sterling flatware. It’s in the DNA. These things are passed down generation to generation like crowned jewels. Being “registered” with a china pattern is a right of passage. But just as important, if not more so in daily life, is a decent seasoned iron skillet. No self-respecting GRIT (girl raised in the south), will attempt cornbread without the right accoutrement.
After being feted with bridal showers galore late 1974, I came into possession of several small iron skillets, each worthy of cornbread for only two. Immediately after marrying my Bama petroleum engineer, we moved SOUTH of New Orleans to Plaquemines Parish, tiny skillets in tow. For those of you unfamiliar with the below-sea-level territory, it was the stomping grounds for the infamous Perez family and political machine. Oranges, abundant seafood, perfect duck hunting, and roadside honky-tonks are available every so many years, as long as a category 3 or higher hurricane hasn’t ravaged the pencil thin piece of low land between the Mississippi River levee and the salt marsh. Oil and sulfur are understood. Scattered along the pot-holed highway trucks touted “colossal shrimp.” These could be had for one dollar a pound with heads on, two dollars sans heads. Let’s just say, I was a frequent customer. I began learning how to cook a la Louisiana style. I needed a bigger iron skillet.
On one of our trips to Shelby County, Alabama, to see hubby’s family, I was lucky enough to spot the perfect skillet, hanging from a nail. Beneath the weathered, rustic “well shelter,” was an enormous iron pan. The tin-roofed well shelter, once used to cover the water well, was no longer used for this purpose, but to give refuge to the dogs and cats in the yard. It also made for a great catchall area to store stuff. I quickly questioned my new mother-in-law about the skillet. It had belonged to Uncle John, a long-gone bachelor relative from way back. I pictured him as a Renaissance man, since he owned such a wonderful piece of kitchenware. I later saw pictures of a handsome man, sitting on his porch with handlebar moustache. I vowed to make Uncle John proud if I owned this skillet.
I manipulated my way into pan ownership and took it home to Buras, Louisiana. After years of Alabama weathering in extreme temperatures and conditions, it was in dire need of re-seasoning if it was to ever see a decent pan of cornbread again. I lovingly researched the seasoning method and completed the process. In reality, it took years of regular use to get the right patina.
This January 19, I will have had the skillet for 35 years of married life. Where I go, it goes, with the exception of two postings in Indonesia and one in Muscat, Oman. I couldn’t chance disappointing Uncle John with a skillet MIA in Asia. The forged piece of iron has made culinary history with exquisite jambalaya and shrimp Creole. It makes a perfect roux, and as they say in South Louisiana, with a good roux, you can go anywhere, gastronomically speaking. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, the skillet cooks the perfect pan of cornbread for our family Southern-style dressing recipe.
While my children haggle and debate over Oriental antiques and rugs procured overseas, I secretly wonder what will become of one of my most prized possessions. Having only sons, I fret, knowing neither of them are rabid cooks and can’t appreciate the importance of this piece of ironware. Perhaps I will donate it on my deathbed to a museum. It is certainly worthy.