There is no single cooking vessel in the Southern United States more revered than the cast iron skillet. And the only people who make them – at least the only ones who count – is Lodge. The pan above is my Lodge cast iron skillet. I have had it since 1993, which is young for a cast iron skillet. The surface is as slick as a baby’s bottom. It will never warp. If you treat it right, it will never scratch or rust. It is not uncommon here in the South for a Lodge cast iron skillet to be handed down from mother to daughter. And daughter to grand daughter. Sometimes I actually wonder how Lodge stays in business because these skillets never go bad. Ever.
I so love my Lodge skillet that I was thrilled when the Southern Foodways Alliance asked some of its members if we wanted to tour the factory. Heck, yes! Even in August in 100 degree heat. Even though my hair was just ruined for a reception a few hours later. Women who tour the Lodge factory do not “glisten”. They sweat buckets. And the safety glasses and earplugs are not fashion accessories.
So, this is Bob Kellerman, the CEO of Lodge. He is my new favorite boyfriend. Not only did he ask us to tour the facility, he and his wife, Cheryl, fed us first and Bob even offered to hold the baby of one of the guests while she went into the factory. Lodge has been a family business for generations. And the family is as nice as you would expect Southerners to be.
So here we go. Into the factory. This is Larry Raydo, Lodge’s quality manager. And he’s standing beside pure pig iron, which is what the cast iron skillets are made from. I was actually shocked to learn that some cast iron skillets are now being made in China from old car radiators, rusty pipes and who knows what else. Would you want to eat something cooked in that? I, for one, would not. Apparently, some of Paula Deen’s cast iron skillets were recalled after they started cracking apart on the stove. Yes, they were made in China. But you know what? I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that Paula Deen grew up cooking with a Lodge cast iron skillet.
But I digress. The pig iron is melted down and poured into a mold to form the skillets, pots and other Lodge products. I can tell you that this was the part I got a little nervous about. They let us stand fairly close – but not too close – to molten iron.
You see that really large dot of light? That is the iron being poured into the mold. Can you understand why children or frail people are not allowed on this tour? I think you can. But how fascinating to see the origins of my beloved cast iron skillet. My skillet came from six feet away from where I was standing, 17 years ago. I am about to tear up.
At the end of the day, the cast iron dances off the line like elegant if somewhat hefty ballerinas. Not two hours from being raw pig iron, the Lodge cast iron is ready for the box and shipment. Two hours. It’s a little humbling in a way that a raw element can become heirloom cookware in two hours. But it makes sense. It’s pure. It’s simple. And, at the heart of it, that’s what Southern is.
Just so you don’t think cast iron skillets are only good for fried chicken or catfish, here’s what I made in mine last night.
Ribeye Steak with Red Wine Sauce
2 ribeye steaks
Montreal Steak Seasoning
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
2 tablespoons Marsala
1 cup dry red wine
1.5 ounces beef demi glace (available in gourmet stores)
¼ cup cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat cast iron skillet to medium heat. Add a little vegetable oil. Season steak with Montreal Steak Seasoning and add to hot pan. Cook for 3-4 minutes on each side until medium rare. Remove steak, cover with foil and reserve.
Add mushrooms and onions and enough butter to sauté them sufficiently. When mushrooms and onions are nicely browned, add marsala and reduce until liquid evaporates. Add red wine and reduce by half. Add demi glace and melt it into the sauce. Add cream and combine well. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
To serve, slice steak and top with sauce.