Friday, June 29, 2007

Cast Iron Castes

About a year ago, I started to use cast ion cookware. I got a set from Wal-mart before we went camping and I started to use my pans whenever I could. I learned about the benefits, experienced the hardships and tasted the deliciousness of cast iron cooking. I am hooked and enjoy cooking with my Dutch oven and skillet either camping, in the back yard or in the kitchen. I find it fun but I have found others are much more serious than I am. I have learned that there is an entire world devoted to cast iron cooking and like other cults; they have their belief system, their feeling of superiority and their caste system.

Here is the caste system as I see and understand it:

1) The Newcomers: this caste has just gone through “the awakening”. They have just become aware that there is such a thing as cast iron and that it is different from the cookware they received as a wedding gift or bought at Traget. Cast iron, for this group, is primarily for camping. With the advance of non-stick coatings why would you want to use anything but Teflon when at home? Cast Iron is cool, but it ranks with the coolness of sleeping in a sleeping bag, in a tent, with rocks in the middle of your back, smelling like a campfire and licking s’more remnants from your mustache. Its “roughin’ it”, but not anything practical.

2) The Health Conscience: This caste has learned of the potential health hazards of non-stick coatings and has decided on a “healthier” way. The feeling of superiority has begun to take hold. They are now trying to use cast iron beyond the campsite and becoming possessive of the cookware. They have now started calling dish soap evil and rejecting any meal cooked with the poisons of modern culinary development. The majority of the food is still prepared in the traditional use of the stovetop and oven, but now with cast iron. Of course, in order to make food not stick to cast iron, generous, and I mean generous, amounts, of grease, oils or cooking spray is required. It’s still considered healthier, because it’s “natural” and “that’s how our grandparents did it, and look how long and healthy they lived!”

3) The Quality Conscience: Name brand of cookware, type of lid, with or with out legs, depth, diameter, and personalization all become important and discussed. To paraphrase a skit by Emo Phillips, a conversation within this caste would follow as such:

Cook #1: I just got new cookware.

Cook #2: Really? Me too! What kind?

Cook #1: Cast Iron.

Cook #2: Really? Me too! Pan or Dutch oven?!

Cook#1: Dutch oven.

Cook #2: Really? Me too! What kind is it?

Cook #1: Lodge.

Cook #2: Really? Me too! What size?

Cook #1: 12”

Cook #2: Really? Me too! How deep?

Cook #1: 5 1/4”

Cook #2: Really? Me too! Flat bottomed or legs?

Cook #1: Legs.

Cook #2: Really? Me too! Flat topped or rounded lid?

Cook #1: Flat top.

Cook #2: Really? Me too! With a lip or no?

Cook #1: With a Lip.

Cook #2: Really? Me too! Pre-seasoned or non-seasoned?

Cook #1: Pre-seasoned.

Cook #2: (Hitting cook #1 over the head with a skillet) Die heretic! Die!

4) The Fire Cookers: There are arguably different stages of this caste, but they all espouse open flames. Some use the flames of the campfire, some the flames of propane, some the indirect use of the flames of the gas grill. This group usually develops either a taste or immunity to the taste of burnt food as many dishes are burnt on the bottom due to inconsistent high cooking temperatures. The unburned half of the dish, however, is proclaimed delicious and is “how food is supposed to taste like” by the chef. To understand the correct order of things, open flame users look down upon propane users as a culinary equivalent of an urban cowboy, close but not fully evolved.

5) The Charcoal group: This cast is separated into two sub groups: Commercially prepared briquettes and hot coal users. Briquette users have learned how to control the heat, not by unnatural knobs and dials, but with counting the number of briquettes that can be arranged on or over the cookware. High heat, low heat, fry, or bake. All cooking requirements are possible and burning becomes rarer. Cooking times, however, extend and sometimes even double but that’s part of the “experience”. Hot coal users take the coals of the open fire and use the same process of the briquette users by counting coals, but with less predictability. This uncertain heat causes the skill of the user to be honed more carefully.

In general, at this point most stop their evolution and some even regress back to a reasonable stance as to what works, what is required, and what is really needed and desired. A conclusion of the fact that there is no “right or wrong”, just different ways to do the same thing is usually grasped by the fully evolved cast iron expert.

There are some, I am sure, that will continue down an evolutionary path. Continuing the logic of the previous path without coming to the final reasonable conclusion, I speculate that the path would resemble the following as the “natural way to do things”.

6) Eat no food prepared and placed in a box.

7) Eat no food not raised and harvested by your own hands.

8) Eat no animal you have not killed with your own hands.

9) Reject the use of industrial cookware altogether and cook on fireplace hearth and eventually stones and rocks.

10) Use only fire started by lighting.

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