How to Wash a Cast Iron Skillet

by D. Gilson



What we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us.

—Umberto Eco




This is a mundane lesson. It is a Wednesday in mid-August, and since school has yet to begin at the college where I teach, I have fallen into that professorial slump of late summer. Sleeping in when I should be finalizing syllabi. Going to the gym when I should be re-reading the books on the unfinished syllabi. Or today, driving east along Massachusetts Route 2, scouring antique stores for a cast iron skillet. “They’re better with age,” my father tells me on the telephone, “don’t you dare go buy one at Target.”




Last year, my father, a Vietnam veteran, was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma, a blood cancer the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs presumes “is related to a Veteran’s exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service” in Southeast Asia. Given his age, 76, and the delay of his diagnosis, my father is placed in a group labeled “high risk” by the American Cancer Society, a designation that means his body will deteriorate quickly, that the cancer will spread outside the lymph system, to his bone marrow, liver, and eventually, to his brain. Doctors test my bone marrow and find that I am the lone suitable donor match in our immediate family, but unless my father can survive a six-month regimen of radiation and chemotherapy in round, that point is moot.




Every late August, my father took me camping before school started, a rare moment we spent as just the two of us. Were we close then? We’d both probably say no. Are we close now? Closer. Boys often grow into a quiet closeness with their fathers as they both age. Every late August, my father would take me to the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas. We’d set up camp and over the fire, my father would fry up potatoes and onions in a cast iron skillet, spiced with pepper, coated in bacon grease. In the year I’ve learned he’s dying, I’ve craved this simple camp meal.




In a small barn-turned-junk shop outside Shelburne Falls, I find a cast iron skillet for $40. This seems ridiculous for a used pan, but echoing my father, the lady who runs the shop says, “Trust me. You don’t want a new one. These old ones are seasoned and worn. That’s what you want.”




I leave the shop and call my father. “I bought a skillet to make your potatoes!” I tell him. “Don’t use soap and don’t scrub that pan too hard. You’ll ruin it, Son,” he replies.




I will also not cook with bacon grease, I think while driving home. These days I am a vegan who often prioritizes his politics over his history. I do not tell my father this, though I do ask him, “I can’t use soap to wash this thing? Who knows how long it’s been in that barn.” He laughs, “No, sir. And a little dirt won’t hurt you.”




Since my father’s diagnosis, my siblings and I have become obsessed with what he’s eating, what laundry detergent he washes his clothes with, what kind of soap he uses in the shower. “Leave me alone,” he tells us, “the damage is done.” I take to reading everything I can about Agent Orange. That it’s a compound made of one part herbicide, one part acid. That 12,000 square miles of Vietnamese jungle were destroyed through its use during the war. That it was manufactured by Monsanto, with whom my three brothers hold pensions. That it was the most successful of what the military called the “Rainbow Herbicides,” which included Agents Pink, White, Purple, Blue, and Green. Online, photos of military planes dropping the Rainbow Herbicides are startlingly beautiful, like the PET scans my father texts me pictures of, fragments of his body where the cancer spreads like the rings of a tree, but in Technicolor.




When I arrive home to the apartment in the converted mill I’ve rented, I turn the skillet over in my hands as I ride the elevator to the third floor. It is heavy, somehow oily, which is good, my father tells me. From my kitchen table, online searching confirms everything my father tells me. Real Simple advises, “Very important—don’t use soap or scouring powder…Instead, sprinkle the pan with kosher salt and scrub it with a paper towel.” Martha Stewart counsels, “To keep a seasoned cast-iron pan in good condition, simply wipe it with a paper towel and a little oil after each use to clean it.” Bon Appétit, Epicurious, Lucky Peach…they all agree. “I told you,” my father laughs.




On the counter I slice potatoes from a nearby farm, chop onions from the local food co-op. I heat oil in the skillet as my father instructed, add the potatoes, add the onion, add the pepper, and then a little garlic and paprika, because I am my father’s son, so I’m glad to follow directions, but add my own spin. I cook this all on low-to-medium heat as my father says, “It’s best to let it cook longer than to try to hurry the thing up.” I listen to this without question, this advice from the man, after all, who taught me how to build a fire.




Fifteen feet away in the living, my dog throws up on the rug I just bought.




Having hauled the rug outside and hosed it off, having hung it to dry in the apartment building’s trash room before an industrial fan, having secured a large note next to the rug that reads NOT TRASH. DOG THREW UP. BELONGS TO APT. 309, and having petted the dog to make sure he knows I love him even though I yelled, I return to the stove, to the forgotten potatoes. I fork the least blackened bit I can find, bring it to my mouth, and then spit it into the sink. I call my father, who laughs at me again, “It’s okay. They’re just potatoes, Son. Good thing you didn’t have the bacon grease in there, I guess. Coulda had a real fire.” I hadn’t told him I left out the bacon grease, but laugh back into my end of the telephone, “Get some rest, Old Man.”




I let the skillet soak overnight with a half-cup of kosher salt. In the morning, I pick away at the burnt food, rinse the skillet, rub it with a bit of oil and dry it thoroughly before placing it on a shelf in my kitchen. I text a picture of it to my father — It’s ready for when you come visit! He texts back from chemo — Sounds good. Don’t forget: don’t use soap to clean it.


[Check out D’s back porch wisdom here]