In August my sister Rachel and I had the chance to spend several days together. We were bound to talk about childhood memories, our deceased parents, and the difficult task we faced when dealing with their possessions.
“I wish we hadn’t given Goodwill the old cast iron skillet,” my sister said, while helping prepare lunch in the kitchen. “I’d love to have that back.”
“That old thing that was so hard to clean?” I pulled out one of the new coated pans.
My sister smiled. “We never did really wash it. We’d just wipe it out with a paper towel and rub oil into it once in a while so it wouldn’t rust. It had that rich patina.”
Rich patina? Wasn’t it just black? I mull this over. “And you wish we’d kept it?” I ask, still puzzled.
“Think about it,” my sister said. “That skillet held the seasonings and flavorings of years of family meals like Mom’s fried fish and appetizers.”
As my sister sets the dining room table, I wash sweet peppers and zucchini. My thoughts return to an earlier time shortly before Mom became sick when she used the skillet to make fried zucchini appetizers for my husband and me. She heated oil, coated home-grown zucchini slices in egg then cornflake crumbs, and set them in the hot grease. Finally she added spices: salt, pepper, and a dash of Italian seasoning. As the slices sizzled, she poured us each a “martuni” (her silly word for martini) and handed them to us with a naughty wink, as only she could give. The memory left me misty-eyed.
As I busy myself peeling an onion, I recall how often Mom’s cast iron skillet had fried onions, potatoes, chicken or fish. Years slipped by and in my memory, my dad and I once again stood in a trout stream. I wore rubber boots many sizes too big for me; he wore patched hip boots that leaked. Dad and I didn’t have fancy fly rods, only regular poles, but that didn’t matter. I was standing in a clear rushing stream with the prospect of a fish grabbing my spinner, and I was with my dad.
I remember after several tosses feeling a tug. I jerked back and as I reeled in, I felt the weight that joyfully told me I had a fish on the line. I held up the speckled rainbow trout and Dad proudly said, “We’ll have Mom fry that up for supper tonight.”
My mother poured enough oil to cover the bottom of the cast iron skillet and turned on the heat. Once the oil was hot, she fried the trout fillets coated with cracker crumbs. I recall taking charge of watching them and flipping them over once they browned. Their flavors surely added richness to the skillet’s patina.
I turn on the burner to heat the oil as my sister returns. “The only cast iron meal I didn’t enjoy was fried smelt,” I said. “But they sure were fun to catch.”
“I was too young and didn’t get in on that,” Rachel said.
“Oh, smelt fishing was almost like a party. When word got out they were running, we’d borrow a net, fill a cooler, and head to the pier. Night fishing was just scary enough to be exciting.” I visualized holding the lantern which cast a mysterious light over fellow fishermen and Lake Michigan. Lowering the huge smelt net into the dark water, my imagination would run wild. What might I pull up? Would the net be brimming with smelt or would it hold something unexpected like a bigger fish or a single shoe?
We’d often return home with buckets of the little fish. The cast iron skillet fried smelt so often, I hadn’t appreciated the meal as a child. If only I could turn the clock back for a day, lift my baby sister into her high chair, and sit as a family to eat a meal of smelt together again.
Now, glancing at my younger sister, I realize she is so much wiser than I. She made me realize how priceless one used cast iron skillet could be.