Let me tell you about my cast-iron Pan. I bought it when I was 22, at a Waldbaum's in Jersey City, N.J., on a rainy night, for the cost of what then amounted to two pizzas. This black craggy pan--mistreated, misplaced and abused, in unspeakably heavy use for over 20 years--still sits on my range. It looks almost ludicrous atop the trans-human cool of that glass-ceramic surface, like a punch-card reader wired to a MacBook Pro. But that's O.K. This range will be out of fashion in a year or so, and the pan--made by the 116-year-old Lodge Manufacturing Co.--will sit on something else. That's the point of these pans. They stand outside the times and the trends.
I recently got hold of a copy of the newly published Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook: A Treasury of Timeless, Delicious Recipes, compiled and edited by Pam Hoenig. The book comes at a good time, because the primeval pan is making a comeback. According to Lodge, cast-iron-cookware sales have grown from 4% of the entire cookware market to 10% in the past 10 years. Last year, industry sales reached $114 million. Add to that the increasing popularity of the high-end manufacturer Le Creuset, with its brightly colored enameled cookware from France, and cast iron is more visible than it's been in many years.
The reasons are obvious. Heavy pans take longer to get hot than thin ones, but they hold their heat longer, and they are, for practical purposes, indestructible. Most even come preseasoned these days, so you don't have to fill the house with smoke as you try to get a protective coat of oil burned onto them. I would argue that every home cook in America should own a cast-iron pan, even those who aren't in the habit of making fried chicken, one of the many dishes for which it is absolutely indispensable.
This pan, this mute dense tool, roots us to our parents and grandparents and the hundreds of generations that came before them. It is Confucianism cast in black iron. Every one that was ever made, whether by Lodge or one of the thousands of nameless smithies across America, is basically the same: a heavy, unbending piece of metal that picks up a patina with long use and grows to fit the hands that hold it. I have thrown out dozens of nonstick pans, from toxic tin bought in discount stores to luxury versions purveyed by Sur la Table and Williams-Sonoma. I've had copper pans that cost a fortune, pans that I never even used before losing them in a divorce or a move or that were ruined after being left on the stove for too long. But I still have this one black pan.
Iron pans are no good for making Hot Pockets, Lean Cuisines or tofu tetrazzini. They're made for an elemental kind of cooking that uses whole ingredients and live fire, that has become marginal in the age we live in. You don't leave them in the sink to soak; you don't even wash them. Cast-iron pans are cleaned with salt and rags, another of their weird but lovable idiosyncrasies. I haven't always taken good care of my pan. It has gashes, it has baggage, it has lived a life. But that's O.K. As long as these pans are still around, the kind of cooking they do will be too. The absence of either would be a terrible loss.