Skillet Stories: Cast-Iron Memories

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As told by Josh Miller

My grandmother had a habit of setting herself on fire when she fried chicken.

Well… that’s not exactly fair. In the estimated 5,287 times she pulled out her cast-iron skillet to fry chicken, she only caught fire twice—that we know of. One time, she calmly declared, “I do believe I’ve caught myself on fire,” gently patting out her flaming blouse with an oven mitt. But on the most memorable occasion, she responded with all the bravery and grit of a veteran firefighter.

About 15 years ago, my grandmother, Mary Rowland Bass (we called her May), was in her mid seventies. She was having the family over to celebrate my birthday and was preparing her specialty—a fried chicken dinner. I showed up before the others to “visit” and found her in the kitchen frying chicken. I embraced her tiny frame, her chin just hooking over my shoulder as we hugged. As we proceeded to catch up, I noticed that her cabinets looked charred. “May, what happened to your cabinets?” I asked. She gave me a guilty look. “Well, I just had a little accident. That’s all.” As I looked around, more carnage leapt to my attention—melted spots on the floor, blackened wallpaper, angry- looking burns on her forearms. “May-May! What happened!?” With a defeated look, she confessed.

In the midst of frying, May stepped away from the stove to hunt down the party decorations. By the time she got back, her kitchen was in flames. The biggest blaze was in the skillet, which she grabbed to take outside. Although she dropped it twice on her way out the door, she somehow managed to heave it into the backyard, which, of course, also caught on fire. After stomping out the grass fires, she hoofed it back to the kitchen, only to find flames licking the cabinets and some of the den furniture. Did she run in panic? Call the fire department? Burst into tears? Not Mary Rowland. She put out those fires, too. And after cleaning up the evidence the best she could, she got right on with frying up a fresh batch of chicken.

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Looking back, I’m amazed. Had it been me, I would have called the fire department, and my house still would have burned to the ground. But not May. I honestly don’t know how my tiny grandmother was able to wield that flaming 12-inch behemoth of a cast-iron skillet. She was obviously made of sterner stuff, a strong-hearted Southerner of stalwart muscle, sinew, and bone. But wield it she did, that day, and many other calmer ones, for the 29 precious years that I had with her on this earth.

She used her skillet to fry chicken for birthdays and ballgames, for picnics and potlucks. But the fried chicken I remember most was for Sundays. Growing up, we had a standing lunch reservation at her house after church; her four children, their children, and the occasional traveling cousin gathered each week. May would be cooking when we walked in the door, and she was usually still cooking when the first few family members began serving their plates.

I won’t hurl superlatives and claim my grandmother’s fried chicken was the best in the South. Her ingredients were plain—chicken, salt, pepper, flour, oil—her method was simple—season, dredge, fry. But that didn’t stop me (and her other grandchildren) from slinking through her galley kitchen like alley cats, sidling up beside her for a hug, while secretly reaching around to steal some of that crispy fried chicken skin. She got onto the others, but she always let me get away with sneaking a pinch—with a mock scolding “Josh-a-way Miller-boy!” and a forgiving wink. I miss that sweet, graceful woman with every bit of my soul.

Just a few weeks ago my mother came to visit, and she brought me a most poignant and precious gift—May’s cast-iron skillet. I couldn’t help but cry when I held that heavy pan in my hands. She’s been gone for years, but my, how Mary Rowland lives on in my heart—and in the layers of love and memories in this heavy heirloom. I’m looking forward to frying up some chicken—and hopefully not catching my house on fire. But if I do encounter some fiery mischief, maybe, just maybe, she’ll reach down and help me put it out.

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