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A Black Iron Haven

Interview with Joanna Pruess, Author of The Griswold & Wagner Cast Iron Cookbook

Posted by Rick Mansfield

Joanna Pruess
The Griswold & Wagner Cast Iron Cookbook
2009 Skyhorse Publishing

I first heard of Joanna Pruess' new book, The Griswold and Wagner Cast Iron Cookbook, about two weeks ago. While it's always questionable as to whether we need yet another cookbook around our house, this one seemed too good to resist. And I was right. I have a number of cast iron related cookbooks, and this one may already be my favorite.

This volume is a really nice, high quality hardbound book with a stitched spine. It lays flat on the counter which makes using it while cooking very easy. You can't begin to imagine the quality of the pictures until you see them. They were taken right in Pruess' home by a professional photographer as she prepared the recipes.

Pruess herself is no stranger to the culinary world. She has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Washington Post, Food Arts, Saveur, Food & Wine and more. Her most recent cookbooks before her cast iron book include Mod Mex: Cooking Vibrant Fiesta Flavors at Home and Seduced by Bacon: Recipes & Lore about America's Favorite Indulgence. Pruess even has her own Wikipedia entry! She is married to restaurant critic, Bob Lape.

Having been so impressed with her new cast iron cookbook (only released November 1), I contacted Joanna Pruess asking her for an interview and she graciously agreed. I've inserted page numbers from the book to go with a number of the recipes that are mentioned below.

I’ve noticed that most cast iron “aficionados” have a story to tell about how they came around to embracing cooking in cast iron. For some, it was after going through multiple sets of chemically treated non-stick pans and then remembering that pan that mom or grandma used that never wore out. What about you? How long have you been cooking in cast iron?

My earliest memories are from my mom making her potted chicken [p. 102]. The smell of that dish, like no other, takes me back to my childhood and happy, simpler times. I also remember a dish that was among my favorites as I was growing up--tamale pie [pp. 145-147]--and then updated it with ingredients that probably weren't available back then, like chipotle chiles. My mom's mac and cheese [pp. 33-34] was totally beloved in our house. With at least seven at the dinner table, it was a boisterous, fun event.

The topping is what made it special. I added the panko and while her Parmesan was most probably from a green cylinder, I use Parmigiano-Reggiano. I love touching old recipes from our families and friends. It connects us to our past. What I said last night is what Adele Davis said: "We are what we eat; I like to add that we are also the product of those we have eaten with...our relatives and friends who color and infuse our life with special meaning."

You’ve been writing about food and cooking for a while. You’ve previously written other cookbooks. Why did you think it was the right time to write a cast iron cookbook?

Because we all need comfort--both emotionally and economically. Many of these recipes are inexpensive and easy to make and appeal to a huge audience of all ages. Also, cast iron endures: it's good for our environment and even good for our bodies since the small amount of iron that is leached from the pots prevents anemia. Did you ever hear of anyone in our grandparents' generation with iron-poor blood? Nope. Also, some of the chicest chefs in town are now using cast-iron pots.

You're exactly right. I've said that I believe we're going through a bit of a cast iron "renaissance."

Also, the way home entertaining has evolved, the area of the kitchen and dining room has morphed into a great room. Cast-iron goes directly from the stove to the table.

I agree about that renaissance. We are discovering that after all those fancy pans have been used and/or abused and thus discarded, cast-iron is still viable. It can almost always be reconditioned. On that score, I was so fortunate to have the advice of David G. Smith, a.k.a. "The Pan Man," who is a real expert on caring for the pans.

Who, would you say, is this book for?

So far I am amazed at how many people tell me they adore reading it...the history, the old stories and that they LOVE the food. There seems to be a connection to both young and old; sophisticated and novice cooks. Everyone finds something they can take away because the food is really tasty, yet it doesn't take intellectualizing to appreciate it.

Your book is simply gorgeous. It can just as easily sit on a coffee table as it could sit on a kitchen counter. One of the elements of your book that really rings true to me are the pans you’ve used in the pictures. When I see, for instance, the picture of the skillet in the oven on p. 88, I notice the pan has carbonization building up on the inside. In other words, this is a pan that gets regular use and has been used for quite a while. I can relate to it because it looks like my primary cast iron skillet. This is really in contrast to some cast iron books I’ve seen in which a marketing department simply went and bought pre-seasoned pans from the store and prepared a few of the recipes in them. I can even think of one cast iron book that actually has food sitting in a gun-metal gray unseasoned cast iron Dutch oven. So, what about the pans in your book? Were they all yours? Were some of them borrowed?

I did cook in much-used pans. The food was all cooked and shot in our kitchen as it actually was prepared. I have worked as a food stylist and know that many food pictures are staged. I wanted people to see how it really looks. I have used that 13-inch skillet for at least 25 years, since my kids were young and I made pancakes. A griddle would have been great but that one was also my "showcase" pot for big parties. People always "ooh" and "ah" about it. Besides, the pictures tempt people to try dishes.

The fun thing was borrowing a chef-friend's pile of small cast-iron skillets for mini cornbreads and those to-die-for chocolate chunk-pecan cookies topped with ice cream and salted caramel sauce.

You're making me hungry! How extensive is your own collection of cast iron? What’s your oldest piece of cast iron? What’s your favorite or most used pan?

I have that 13-inch skillet (25 years old), a Dutch oven and a 10-inch skillet. Unfortunately, my mom's Dutch oven got lost. To me the lesson is "less is more." You can do almost all your cooking, with the exception of microwaving, in a few pots, including induction cooking. I also think that people should look for cast-iron at yard sales. There are lots of pots waiting to be adopted. And as you said they almost always come with a story or favorite recipe.

Agreed. And "adopting" pots is a great way to recycle and give life to these old pans. Which leads me to my next question: Why Griswold and Wagnerware? Why not simply write a general book about cooking in cast iron?

[Griswold and Wagner] were the first companies that produced and sold cast-iron cookware exclusively. Also, through Dave Smith and Joel Schiff (also a fine dealer in old cast-iron ware), I had access to their old ads and printed information which is in the public domain, but both had great collections which gives the book a lot of its charm and old fashion feeling.

When we previously corresponded, you suggested that I try out “Mom’s Mac and Cheese with Bacon” [pp. 33-34] and the “Clam-and-Corn Fritters” [pp. 52-53]. These were both exceptional recipes. What are some of the other “star” recipes in the book?

That's like asking which is your favorite a mother who has a bunch. Anyway, I love the zucchini pancakes [pp. 67-68], Steak 'n' Stout [p. 138], Salted Caramel [p. 202] on anything, Raspberry-Blackberry Crisp [p. 187] is to die for, Shrimp Posole (a real surprise and from Native Americans) [p. 180], My Favorite Chile [pp. 142-143], Tamale Pie [pp. 145-147], Oven Roasted Chicken [pp. 89-90]...and the shockingly better asparagus [pp. 74-75] cooked in cast-iron. I could continue to effuse since I adore this food.

Some of these recipes, such as the previously mentioned “Mom’s Mac and Cheese” have been adapted by you. I believe you mentioned that your mom didn’t include panko bread crumbs, and my mom would have never paid for Parmigiano-Reggiono cheese as I so happily did. What other kinds of adaptations did you make to “classic” recipes?

Good question. In my mom's Potted Chicken, she used Lawry's salt, introduced in 1938 by the eponymous restaurant in Los Angeles. It had MSG in it, so I discovered a deconstructed version of the seasoning [p. 103] online and combined it with her other seasonings, and it took me immediately back to her kitchen. I took out artificial ingredients wherever I could.

Rick, I want to add that cooking and serving in cast-iron seems to be a great "ice breaker" at a meal. It's so homey and unthreateningthat people just relax and get into the food.

I agree. We love to have folks over and cook for them in cast iron. We have a baker's rack in the kitchen where some of it is displayed, and it's always great for conversation. Usually someone's grandmother and her cooking comes up in the conversation. We've also converted many of our friends to cooking in cast iron.

Another thing I think that is important is the connections between Old and New World. For example, I love my short ribs but also a Korean friend gave me her version [pp. 136-137] that spins a thread between cultures. Same can be said of paella [pp. 176-177] and jambalaya [pp. 178-179].

I agree about converting people. Last night I made 30 new converts.

Where do you live?

I live in Simpsonville, Kentucky, not too far from Louisville, but I was born and grew up in Louisiana.

Wow, that's far away but prime cast-iron country for fried chicken (read the funny story about the cornflake crusted version [p. 98]) and all those good desserts.

I appreciate your taking the time this morning for this interview. I’m certain the readers of Cooking in Cast Iron will enjoy learning more about you as well as using this wonderful cookbook. Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the book in closing?

I think we've done it...except it's not only a way to connect with the past, it's a great legacy to pass on to future generations (hopefully with this book included).

In addition to lots of great history and recipes, Joanna Pruess also includes instructions for care and restoration of cast iron pans in her book. It would make a great addition to your own collection of cookbooks and as a gift for your special someone this Christmas.

Feel free to leave your thoughts or ask questions in the comments below, or you can contact Rick directly at Joanna Pruess has agreed to answer any questions readers might leave in the comments as she has opportunity.

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