On Agreements, Cast Iron Skillets, and Fried Potatoes

Some kitchen queens invite the family in to share in the joy of cooking. My mom took the
opposite tact, often shooing us “out from under her feet.” The stove was her personal domain. If she didn’t want her children messing about in the kitchen, she certainly didn’t want my dad at the stove. In my mother’s realm, men didn’t belong at the stove. And they still don’t. My mother and father rarely agreed on anything, but they agreed on this.

They also agree that a cast iron skillet is the only kind of skillet worth a cook’s time or
energy. My mother has never used another kind of skillet and the only memories I have of my father ever at the stove were with our cast iron skillet, creating one of three dishes he was “allowed” to make—popcorn, fried bread, and heavenly, bliss-on-bliss, fried potatoes. Fried potatoes, so simple, so hardy, so delicious they could make me weep with joy. With just the right play between crustiness
and smoothness, a smattering of grease, salt, pepper, maybe some onions, that earthy, deep fried-potato flavor, stands a testament to simple, hardy elegance that has sustained my salt-of-the earth-people for generations.

Yet, the fried potatoes of my youth continue to elude me in my own kitchen. In truth, I don’t
make them as often as my parents. They were on the table at least twice a week. I might make them twice a year. So I just don’t have the practice to perfect them. Slicing the potatoes just so (as evenly as possible) and the necessary preening over them while they are frying—moving them around, helping the cast iron skillet to cook them evenly—seems like a luxury in time and space in my harried life. Plus, I don’t even want to think about the calories. (Sorry Mom, I know that’s against the rules.)

Still, every now and then, like right now, this moment, I can think of only few dishes as
sustaining and comforting as fried potatoes from a cast iron skillet. The flavor is so much better and deeper than any non-stick fly-by-night pan yields. I’ll be making a batch in the upcoming week and report back to you next week. I’ll also offer some tips on caring for cast iron skillets. Any other fried potato lovers out there? How about cast iron skillet fans?


11 thoughts on “On Agreements, Cast Iron Skillets, and Fried Potatoes

  1. Elizabeth Massie says:

    My Nannie made the best cornbread in her cast iron skillet. I’m a wussy cook because it’s just too heavy for me to mess with, though I totally understand the appeal, both culinarily and culturally. I’d have been a terrible pioneer.

  2. Mollie Cox Bryan says:

    LOL! I love “wussy cook.” Maybe you should start a Wussy Cook blog- THAT might be hilarious. Yes, the skillet is heavy and they are difficult to manage. I don’t fry on a regular basis. So, when I do, it becomes a ritual to get out the cast iron skillet. When I have the space and time, I find it a comforting ritual.

  3. Kate Antea says:

    Ok, it made me sign in to leave a comment. Cast iron is pretty awesome, especially for things that start on the top of the stove and finish in the oven. Plus, it just looks cool.

  4. kristiehevener@hotmail.com says:

    I tried dozen of times ot make fried potatoes the way my grandmother did until I realized the secret was her cast iron skillet. Still I’m too lazy to pull it out and actually use it because its not in the greatest shape. Did you find any information on how to season it? I’d be most grateful for any tips.

  5. Roz Cummins says:

    Many, many years ago I had a dish called Potatoes Paradise at the Common Ground restaurant in Brattleboro, VT. The potato base was made of potatoes that sound a lot like the ones you’ve described, and there was cheddar cheese melted on top and sprinkled with scallions. An amazing home-made ketchup was served with this dish. It was absolutely delicious and I have tried to recreate it, but have never achieved anything quite as good. I keep trying, though!

  6. Mollie Cox Bryan says:

    Hi Elizabeth, thanks for commenting. You are probably right about that. It was probably bacon grease. My mom often used it back then. She would probably not admit that to me, since I hated meat and still do and she was always trying to sneak it into me–in any form. 😉
    Yeah, I found that using the cast iron skillet was not a problem at all. It was much easier to clean than one would imagine. I think so many of us are used to non-stick pans that take no effort to clean and maybe that’s why people think cast iron is difficult.

  7. Elizabeth McCullough says:

    I love my 10-in cast iron skillet. I’d like to have a smaller one and a larger one as well. Kept well-seasoned, a cast iron skillet is not a lot more fuss than a teflon skillet, and it WILL NOT wear out.
    Mollie, I wonder if your parents might have used lard or bacon grease to fry potatoes in. That might be the flavor that’s missing.

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