Cast Iron Memories

Phyllis Inspiration 33 Comments

Many of us who grew up in the South have wonderful memories of the heirloom cookware used by our mothers and grandmothers. Today I’d like to share with you this witty and heartwarming story from Taste of the South editor Josh Miller. His grandmother’s fried chicken legacy is sure to live on for generations.

As told by Josh Miller

My grandmother had a habit of setting herself on fire when she fried chicken.

Well… that’s not exactly fair. In the estimated 5,287 times she pulled out her cast iron skillet to fry chicken, she only caught fire twice—that we know of. One time, she calmly declared, “I do believe I’ve caught myself on fire,” gently patting out her flaming blouse with an oven mitt. But on the most memorable occasion, she responded with all the bravery and grit of a veteran firefighter.

About 15 years ago, my grandmother, Mary Rowland Bass (we called her May), was in her mid seventies. She was having the family over to celebrate my birthday and was preparing her specialty—a fried chicken dinner. I showed up before the others to “visit” and found her in the kitchen frying chicken. I embraced her tiny frame, her chin just hooking over my shoulder as we hugged. As we proceeded to catch up, I noticed that her cabinets looked charred. “May, what happened to your cabinets?” I asked. She gave me a guilty look. “Well, I just had a little accident. That’s all.” As I looked around, more carnage leapt to my attention—melted spots on the floor, blackened wallpaper, angry- looking burns on her forearms. “May-May! What happened!?” With a defeated look, she confessed.

In the midst of frying, May stepped away from the stove to hunt down the party decorations. By the time she got back, her kitchen was in flames. The biggest blaze was in the skillet, which she grabbed to take outside. Although she dropped it twice on her way out the door, she somehow managed to heave it into the backyard, which, of course, also caught on fire. After stomping out the grass fires, she hoofed it back to the kitchen, only to find flames licking the cabinets and some of the den furniture. Did she run in panic? Call the fire department? Burst into tears? Not May Rowland. She put out those fires, too. And after cleaning up the evidence the best she could, she got right on with frying up a fresh batch of chicken.

Looking back, I’m amazed. Had it been me, I would have called the fire department, and my house still would have burned to the ground. But not May. I honestly don’t know how my tiny grandmother was able to wield that flaming 12-inch behemoth of a cast iron skillet. She was obviously made of sterner stuff, a strong-hearted Southerner of stalwart muscle, sinew, and bone. But wield it she did, that day, and many other calmer ones, for the 29 precious years that I had with her on this earth.

She used her skillet to fry chicken for birthdays and ballgames, for picnics and potlucks. But the fried chicken I remember most was for Sundays. Growing up, we had a standing lunch reservation at her house after church; her four children, their children, and the occasional traveling cousin gathered each week. May would be cooking when we walked in the door, and she was usually still cooking when the first few family members began serving their plates.

I won’t hurl superlatives and claim my grandmother’s fried chicken was the best in the South. Her ingredients were plain—chicken, salt, pepper, flour, oil—her method was simple—season, dredge, fry. But that didn’t stop me (and her other grandchildren) from slinking through her galley kitchen like alley cats, sidling up beside her for a hug, while secretly reaching around to steal some of that crispy fried chicken skin. She got onto the others, but she always let me get away with sneaking a pinch—with a mock scolding “Josh-a-way Miller-boy!” and a forgiving wink. I miss that sweet, graceful woman with every bit of my soul.

Just a few weeks ago my mother came to visit, and she brought me a most poignant and precious gift—May’s cast iron skillet. I couldn’t help but cry when I held that heavy pan in my hands. She’s been gone for years, but my, how Mary Rowland lives on in my heart—and in the layers of love and memories in this heavy heirloom. I’m looking forward to frying up some chicken—and hopefully not catching my house on fire. But if I do encounter some fiery mischief, maybe, just maybe, she’ll reach down and help me put it out.

Do any of your skillets have a story?

Comments 33

  1. I don’t remember my mom using anything but iron skillets – big and small. She even put the rump roast in one to bake. She made the best rump roast I have ever had and I surely would love to have her here to make it again.
    The thing I remember about her iron skillets was the time all of her sisters were at our house and they were cooking up a storm. One sister, however, was not a very good cook. The family was scattered about the house visiting, and we children were playing, when all of a sudden there was a boom that sounded like an old flintlock gun or a shotgun had been fired inside. We all rushed to the kitchen to discover that the big iron skillet had broken! What? An iron skillet doesn’t break! My aunt swore she hadn’t done anything, but the sisters decided that she had browned the roux for gravy and poured COLD water into that nearly redhot skillet. Anyhow, whatever happened, it broke! I will never forget that sound or how funny it was afterwards.

  2. My mom, uses her cast iron pan, she too has a hard time lifting it but she won’t part with it quite yet. I would like to purchase the lodge pans to start my own love of cast iron pans.

  3. What delightful memories Josh and others have shared!
    CJ: Amen!
    Grandmother and Mother also cooked all the wonderful items that have been mentioned; but, I cannot believe that no one has mentioned the gravy!! Hmmm!! Goodness, it is never as good as when made in cast iron — bacon, sausage or chicken gravy over homemade biscuits or even just “light bread.” Heaven on earth?
    I feel privileged to have both Grandmother’s and Mother’s well-seasoned skillets as well as our own set of three given to us by of the ministers who married us 46 years ago.
    Phyllis, thank you again for this forum in which to recall & share fond memories and be inspired to create new ones…
    Blessings of Easter & Spring to all.

  4. Thank you for this trip down memory lane. My cast iron skillet came from my grand-mother who was brought up in California. She moved back to Montreal where she was born after her mother died in St- Francisco. She was such a chearful lady , those wonderful Pineapple upside down cakes..hum… A wonderful cook but never learned to speak french really well. But her sense of humor !!!

    Monique , Montreal,

  5. I remember my grandmother and my mom and all my aunts that did frying and baking in the cast iron skillets. I started cooking when I was 6 years old and was frying and making corn bread in the cast iron skillets that we had when I was about 9 years old. My mom worked and I had to help with the meals. I had a period of time that I didn’t have one for several years because had to move and put them in storage. I was so glad when I finally got some more. I like to make cornbread and all kinds of other things in them. I have others that are nonstick but they are still the ones I like the best for those things. Great memories.

  6. I am lucky to have my grandmothers, my husbands grandmothers and my moms cast iron skillets. All of them fried chicken and made the best cornbread in them ever!
    I do have a funny story about the year cast iron skillets came with triangle dividers in them….It was Christmas and all our families got together for our Christmas dinner and gift exchange. Every female gave and received one of these skillets from every female in the house….Ive never seen so many skillets in one place in all my life….they all thought they were giving the perfect gift! I laugh every time I pull mine out…..I have my moms, and both my grandmothers!! Wonderful memories happy times.

  7. I remember my moms Pineapple upside down cake and her cornbread she cooked in her iron skillet Thank you Josh for sharing with us. Wonderful memories.

  8. I have a vivid memory from the early 1950’s in St. Louis of playing on our kitchen floor with our family chow dog, Toko, while my mother was cooking. Suddenly the frying pan caught on fire, and I remember seeing my mother grab the pan, dexterously step over both me and the dog, rip open the back door and heave the flaming pan into the snow!

  9. Awwww!! Such a sweet sweet story!! Nothing like cast iron cooking!

    Irish Soda bread made in cast iron… Great memories.
    Fried potatoes…. Ymmmm

    Thanks, as always, for the trip down memory lane…

  10. What a lovely story…had to grab a tissue. A reminder for all of us to treasure our memories of our grandmothers…I miss mine so very much and the tastes and aromas and occasional over boiling of the pots from her kitchen.

  11. Due to Rheumatoid Arthritis, I gave my cast iron chicken fryer and other 10 inch skillet to my daughter, because it hurt to try and lift them. After about 6 months without them,
    I asked for them back! I knew she would not use them as I had, and I just could not cook as well, it seemed, in the cookware I was using. My own chicken fryer is over 50 years old and well seasoned as it should be. Let’s all give a cheer for cast iron cookware and the memories we have from using it! Hip! Hip! Hooray!!

  12. Last September our family reunion was held in North Carolina. A cousin fried hot dogs and dried Apple pies . Recently my Born and bred in South Dakota husband who loved those fried hot dogs and apple pies, decided to make a fryer out of a farm disc. When we got it home there was a crack. He took it to a welder who fixed it. When the man called my husband wasn’t home so I spoke with him and told him what he was going to do with it. (We live in Colorado) I’m a southerner born and bred with a pretty thick accent. It was too much for the man to hold inside and he laughed out loud. We do love our fried chicken, dried Apple pies and hotdogs and our iron frying utensils.

  13. I love that story! Why is it that memories of the kitchen and times around the table always seem to be the best? Maybe that’s where the love flowed so unending. May the cast iron skillet stories live on and on!

  14. My mother also fried chicken in a large deep cast iron skillet using lard and a tad of butter to help with browning. The main memory for me which comes to mind is our trip to Yellowstone National Park in 1948. Mother had two old maid aunts who were school teachers and worked in the park every summer to supplement their income. We were headed out to visit them, all 7 of us in a 1939 Dodge and mother fried chicken for us to take along and have on our first lunch stop which was in Nebraska. Things were so different back then and I treasure all those memories. I don’t have her skillet but I do have her cast iron griddle hanging on the wall in my kitchen.

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  15. We, who live up north, also have fond memories of our mothers and grandmothers making fried chicken in a cast iron frying pan.
    My mother’s reputation as making the best fried chicken to be had was broadcast for miles around and to be invited to sit at her table to eat such fare was considered to be a dining plum.
    Oh, the wondeful memories of those times!

  16. My mother always made Pineapple Upside Down Cake in the cast iron skillet! I also watched everything she baked and remember it all fondly. Nothing beats the old fashioned meals we had growing up. Love you Mom

  17. What a sweet story! It brought back memories of my own mother and grandmother who never used anything but cast iron skillets for frying. Both of them made the BEST fried chicken! I’m still carrying on their tradition and have two cast iron skillets that I use on a regular basis. My children love my fried chicken . Must be the iron skillets along with an added ingredient – a whole lot of love)! :O)

  18. I will always cherish the memories of Mamaw’s potatoes fried in her cast iron skillet. No matter how many times I make them they are never as good as hers were! Loved being in her kitchen & having samples. Miss those fun times!

  19. What a sweet story. I too have fond memories of my grandmother, apron tied around her dress and pearls, frying something in her cast iron skillet, although it was in Europe. Her pan stayed in the ” old country” but when I got married here in the states, the first thing my Dutch husband and I purchased for our kitchen were two cast iron skillets. Despite all the expensive fancy pans we now have, they are still my “go to” pans for everything.

  20. What a wonderful story. It brought back so many great memories of my husband’s grandmother, Maumau, and her coveted iron skillets and dutch oven. Her cornbread was the best. When she passed, I was lucky to receive one.

  21. Wonderful! Although she never caught anything on fire, this brought sweet memories of my grandmother to mind. Thank you for the stroll through the past.

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