How this Winston-Salem, North Carolina, chef, culinary tour guide, and blogger always takes a piece of home with her on her travels.
By Nikki Miller-Ka
My grandma was part of the reason why I started cooking professionally. Without her or her small collection of cast iron, my culinary life would be incomplete. Nearly every meal my grandma made began in her 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Gumbo, jambalaya, biscuits, layer cakes, gravy, cornbread, pancakes, home fries, cube steak, and even scrambled eggs all had their humble beginnings in the skillet. As family folklore goes, my grandma received a set of cast-iron skillets as an anniversary gift from my grandfather. She raised three children, dozens of adopted children in the form of school friends, neighborhood kids, and me, her first grandchild, out of that skillet.
I started using the skillet while teaching monthly cooking classes back in 2007. The facility where I conducted classes was state of the art, complete with gas ranges, induction burners, infrared thermometers, and every other modern appliance and gadget you could think to have in a kitchen. The only thing missing: a cast-iron skillet. I used that skillet during every single one of my cooking classes, partly because it felt familiar and partly because I wanted my grandma to be near to me.
I don’t remember exactly when I started traveling with the skillet, but I always know that when I take my 10-inch pan with me, a little piece of Grandma is with me. If you don’t know, cast iron anything is heavy. It’s highly impractical to travel with it, even if it’s just for fun. One of the many benefits of cooking in cast iron is the minuscule transfer of iron to the food. It’s similar to the way an oak barrel imparts flavor to Chardonnay. All of the history and expertise that were put into the thousands of meals made in the skillet transfer to its contents.
In 2012, I took a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Paris with my aunt, my grandma’s youngest daughter. You can’t go to Paris without going on a gastronomic adventure, so we signed up to take a cooking class. Can you imagine strolling down the Champs-Élysées with a well-worn canvas bag thrown over your shoulder with a 7-pound skillet inside? The hard metal bounced on my hip as we inched close to the center of the City of Lights. During class, I swirled fresh butter around the pan and helped to create blanquette de veau [a stew-like veal dish], roasted pineapple, and a stacked dish of beets and chèvre. At the end of class, I posed with the skillet in pictures, beaming brightly with our family heirloom.
The skillet has been in use for well over 60 years. I used to keep a photo of the skillet in my purse to show off to people, just as one would show of pictures of their children. Now, I have a photo of myself holding the skillet in France.