[Originally ran in the February 2015 issue of The Village.]
The Foster house. Round Pond. A nearly hundred-year-old classic Maine shingled cottage perched atop a knoll overlooking Muscongus Sound and Louds Island. One of the best vacations of my life, two weeks in July.
Unlike most other vacations where we’re served at a B&B, at the Foster house we made full use of the kitchen, which was straight out of McCloskey. This meant a serious intake of pancakes and bacon. But adjustments had to be made, for at home we used an electric griddle for pancakes, mostly because its enormous surface can accommodate mass production (followed immediately by mass consumption). There was no Presto griddle at the Foster house. Naturally, there was a cast iron skillet.
Every morning I would wake up to inhale not only the salt air but also the distinctive scent – wafting up through the cast iron floor vents – of butter and pancakes sizzling in a heated and long-seasoned frying pan. I’d stagger downstairs to pour a glass of orange juice, sneak a greasy stick of bacon, and flop down at the kitchen table in anticipation of a stack of the most satisfying pancakes Diane – you know, my wife – had ever made.
Yes, the setting was ideal. Seagulls crying, lobster boats rumbling, the sun sparkling off the sea, the glorious realization that there was nothing to do all day except relax and play. But those pancakes were awesome. Why? That black frying pan.
The way the pan heated the butter which seeped into the batter and cooked the pancakes till they were just oh-so-slightly crispy on the outside and still light and airy on the inside? An electric griddle can’t do that. Nor should it try.
So memorable were those breakfasts that even now, all these years later, whenever Diane eschews the Presto for the frying pan, we call the results “Foster house pancakes.” It’s not every week, mind you. Perhaps once a month. Just to keep them special. One thing you do not want to do is to take a cast iron frying pan for granted.
Which is what I used to do. Ours was most certainly a bridal shower gift, a Wagner Ware 11 ¾-inch skillet manufactured during the General Housewares Corp. years that ended in 1999, when the company shut down its Ohio foundry. (There are no more Wagner pans being made these days, unless you count the Chinese-made versions. Which you shouldn’t.) It’s one of the few items in our house that’s as old as our nearly 28-year marriage, a kitchen warhorse that has weathered our shifting tastes for the simple reason that a frying pan is as timeless as a wooden rolling pin. The terra cotta garlic roaster, hot air popcorn popper, wok, and ebelskivers pan may have been retired, but not the skillet.
Unlike our toaster – or rolling pin, for that matter – our frying pan has grown on me. When I was younger, it was just one of those things to be found in a kitchen. We’d use it in regular rotation with our aluminum skillet, waffle iron, casserole dish, cake pan, cookie sheet, and perforated pizza pan. It didn’t stand out. It wasn’t special.
When I started working out of the house and assuming cooking duties several years ago, however, I came to appreciate the differences in our cookware. There are dishes I’ll make only using our Le Creuset Dutch oven, others that require a Revere Ware pan, and some that come out best on the Weber grill.
Mushrooms. Washed, sliced, then placed separately on the heated and buttered surface of the Wagner, where they are allowed to brown to perfection. Sometimes I’ll go crazy and use extra virgin olive oil instead (or even a butter/olive oil blend), but it’s got to be the frying pan. That’s how I get heavenly sautéed mushrooms. And when I want to caramelize onions, they go right into the skillet for a good long spell.
I’ve come to prefer pan-grilled chicken over its Weber-grilled brethren, which sometimes runs the risk of possessing rubber-like qualities; that doomsday scenario doesn’t happen in the skillet, which produces tender chicken time after time.
It seems like I’m always washing out my frying pan, drying it, rubbing a teaspoon of vegetable oil into it with a paper towel, and returning it to its rightful place in the lower right cabinet. I know I can stack other pans into it without chipping it, but I don’t. Not only do I not want to risk it, I also like looking at it.
It’s a thing of beauty, really. Simple beauty, but beauty nonetheless. Its design hasn’t changed in ages. And why should it? A circle is perfection defined, and black never goes out of style. Plus, they’re ideal for smacking coyotes on the head.