I was standing over the sink this morning, scouring my scorch-encrusted Dutch oven with coarse steel wool. It’s a labor-intensive project, and one that I’d guess isn’t much practiced in this age of chemically-conceived non-stick coatings.
But I love cooking in cast iron. It’s my own fault that the well-used pot got to this state–it was given to me with a nice patina that I haven’t kept up as well as I should have. This is a form of penance.
Most of the cast iron cookware I own was given to me by a friend who went by the name of “Ice.” I lived with him briefly in one of my moves back to Vermillion, South Dakota, when all I had to my name was a used Civic hatchback, the eventual sale of which provided a deposit for a place of my own.
To many in the community, this living arrangement meant we were “dating,” but I don’t believe either one of us ever conceived of our relationship as any form of couplehood. In fact, on more than one occasion I operated as a go-between in his rocky relationships with other women.
Ice (whose real name is Steve) was a true craftsman–known most widely as a tattoo artist, but his real talent was in metal working–wrought iron and knives. I worked with him one summer at the forge and learned enough, at least, to avoid scorching off his eyebrows as I tended the bellows.
And although the crowd tended to be motley, I loved the endless round of summer parties in his carriage house’s patio garden–where Steve grew roses and held court among the bikers and welders, construction workers and misfits–liquor and beer flowed freely, and the grill seemed a bottomless cornucopia of delicious foods.
When I married, my relationship with Steve and some of the other “misfits” I’d known soured. The dislike between my husband and that crew was strongly mutual–and while I would not have admitted it at the time, I wanted in some way to “legitimize” myself in the community, and I thought minimizing my ties to wilder times might help.
I haven’t seen Steve in the better part of a decade now; once a Vermillion icon, he disappeared in a cloud of rumor about debts, criminal activity, and other sordid whisperings. I heard he landed in Yankton eventually.
Since the end of my marriage, I have renewed some of my contacts with that crowd, though it’s rare to speak of the host who brought us together in that endless stream of parties, fishing and mushrooming adventures, storytelling, and craftsmanship. The friend whose art is permanently engraved on so many of our bodies.
But I still have the knives I helped to forge and the Dutch oven, whose patina, as I work to restore its smooth, even surface, seems to release all these memories of a rougher, wilder time. Once the pot is scoured, I’ll seal them back in with a fine coat of fat baked into the iron’s surface.
One day, perhaps, I’ll pass this pot on to my son. But I haven’t decided yet if I’ll tell him the stories behind it, or just let him wonder about the visions that come unbidden as he works the metal with his own hand.