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A Black Iron Haven

Mimi's Biscuits

Posted by Leila Wells

As the mist was rising off the fields just outside the small cinder block house my grandfather built for his family, my grandmother would rise and make her way into the kitchen to begin her breakfast ritual. She would pull out her biscuit mat--a worn, malleable, waxy plastic powdered from constant use--and the mixing bowl wherein she would combine the simple and few ingredients to be flattened and reformed upon that mat.

She made quick work of the biscuits, unceremoniously cutting lard into flour before dousing it with buttermilk to knead into the mix. With the dough formed in the bowl, she would roll the ball out onto the mat and pat it out on a frosting of flour. Next she would pull a small metal cutter out of her cluttered utensil drawer to portion the biscuits. With a sharp jerk of her knee, she could shift the weight in the drawer and slide the pieces back into their confines enough to force the drawer back into place. Before long, the biscuits have found their way to a baking sheet and into the oven.

Next her attention would turn to the refrigerator; with one hand on the door and a back crooked just enough to peer inside, she would search the crowded shelves for a package of sausage. In a moment she located it and placed her hands upon its half-frozen contents. She muttered a question about the age of the meat and wondered when they’d get that fridge fixed so everything in the back of it wouldn’t have to be thawed out before she could cook it. She breathed a sigh of resignation, dismissed the thought and moved to the sink with the package in hand. She took a step backward and simultaneously bent forward to open the cabinet below the sink where she would pull a skillet from the assortment stashed haphazardly.

The old skillet was heavy and greasy to the touch, but the sturdiness of this cast iron piece was unparalleled in her kitchen. How many times had she used this particular skillet and browned meat or scrambled eggs or mixed red eye gravy for her family? It seemed somehow ironic that the years showed on her face well before they started to show on this skillet. Still, she was comforted; despite the wear and accumulated grease on the outside, the inside was smooth, shiny and conditioned for its task. Once upon the heat, it would react quickly and evenly. She still had something of that tendency in her, she mused.

Soon the sausage was sizzling and popping. My grandmother took her wooden spoon to the skillet, pushing the meat about with determination as the first pangs of hunger were starting to reach her stomach. My grandfather was now seated at the table in anticipation of the morning’s repast after having taken the walk up the gravel road to the mailbox and to retrieve the paper. He was stirring his instant coffee in a chocolate-colored mug chipped on both its rim and handle. A faint coffee ring was beginning to form where droplets had trickled down the side of the mug.

He cleared his throat and commented on the sale paper’s announcements for the day. “They’ve got butter half off at the Piggly Wiggly. And looks like it’s two for one on Cokes.”

My grandmother nodded and mentioned she wanted to stop by the nursery for some flowers this afternoon--if they went out. She’d been wanting to get herself a hollyhock lately. She asked if Ronnie had gotten there yet. He was easing down the driveway even as she inquired and soon entered the room with an amplified “Mornin’” to be heard by the household.

Uncle Ronnie was deaf in one ear. Since my grandparents were also slowly going deaf, the general decibel level of the household had increased two fold in recent years. Each morning on his way to the woods, Ronnie would amble in for breakfast. After a little conversation, a cigarette, a satisfied stomach, and a glance at the paper, he would climb into his tractor trailor and drive a great distance to the patch of land that he would be clear cutting for the day. If a piece of equipment had broken the day before, he and my grandfather would debate the best means of eradicating the problem, which would often entail a special trip to a hardware store. My grandfather would generally accompany my uncle either way.

He and Ronnie would push back energetically from the table, leaving it and the chairs sticky with honey or jam, blackened with coffee stains and cigarette ashes, in order to get on their way and begin their work. And once they departed, my grandmother would sigh with a different sort of resignation, hum a familiar melody, and begin the ritual of cleaning up after breakfast.

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What Did You Say You Were Fixin'? (How to Cook Fried Okra)

Posted by Leila Wells

  • Cast Iron Skillet

One of my family’s favorite side dishes is fried okra. This underestimated vegetable of African origins is definitely a southern staple. Unfortunately, the most common method of serving okra is with a heavy breading. While it can still be tasty, the potential of the okra is wasted inside such doughy coatings. Cooking okra at home produces far more satisfying results than ordering it at the restaurant, but you’ll need a few simple pointers to fry okra up exactly right. (Incidentally, okra can add wonderful flavor to soups and can make an excellent combination with stewed tomatoes, but we’ll focus on fried okra today.)

Finding fresh okra is your first step. Typically, okra is in season year round in the south and from May through October in other areas. If, however, you are unable to get your hands on any fresh okra, pick up a bag of fresh frozen okra in the frozen food section of your local grocery.

Next, you will need cornmeal and oil. Typically, I use yellow cornmeal because I like the grainy texture. However, other forms of cornmeal will fry up nicely. I generally use vegetable oil, but canola oil will serve the purpose as well.

Once you’ve assembled your ingredients, you can begin. The amount of cornmeal you need will depend on how much okra you are cooking. You will need enough cornmeal in a bowl to coat the okra. If you have found fresh okra, you’ll want to make sure it is free of dirt. I recommend wiping the okra off carefully with a paper towel or an old towel. Running okra under water tends to make it slimy. Cutting the okra will also be a little slimy, so if you have allergies, you may want to wear gloves while cutting it. When the okra is clean, cut the ends off of the pieces and then slice the okra into small pieces of approximately 1/4 inch each. As you cut the okra, drop the pieces into the cornmeal. (If you are using precut, frozen okra, simply drop it into the cornmeal.) Run your fingers through the cornmeal and mix the okra into the meal until the okra is coated.

Pour enough oil into your skillet to cover the bottom. Heat the oil on medium-high heat. Heating the oil will take approximately 5 minutes. After a few minutes, test the oil by sprinkling a dash of water over the oil. If it pops or sizzles, you’ll know the oil is ready for the okra. Turn your heat down to medium. Using a long-handled spoon, carefully drop the breaded okra into the pan in a single layer. Do not “stack” the okra. Allow the okra to cook approximately 5-10 minutes (if it was fresh, longer if it was frozen) before stirring for the first time. Stir the okra slowly and periodically until it fries to a nice golden color. Once the okra is done, drop it onto a place covered by a couple of paper towels (to absorb excess oil). Salt and pepper the okra liberally. Continue cooking if you have more okra. You may have to add oil to the pan as you finish your okra. You may also need to scoop out the breading that has fallen in the pan as it can burn while you are cooking a second round of okra.

If you are not completely satisfied with your first effort at frying okra, please don’t give up! The most common mistakes when frying okra typically come from having your heat up too high or cooking the okra too long. You want to remove it from the heat when it has just become crunchy.

While okra makes an excellent side dish to most any meat, my favorite pairings are with grilled chicken, pork chops, or barbecued ribs. If you happen to be a vegetarian, you might especially enjoy fried okra with corn on the cob and stewed tomatoes.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, or you can contact Leila directly at


The Perfect Stew for Our Crew

Posted by Leila Wells

One of the advantages of growing up in a large, close-knit family is the access it provides to a variety of activities. The creativity that drives siblings (of any age) in these situations can be inspiring! I recall distinctly the nearly-annual festivity of cooking Brunswick stew in a 30 gallon cast iron pot with my father’s clan. When I say clan, I refer to my grandparents, my uncles and their families, my grandparents’ siblings, and my immediate family. Friends would also drop in over the years for this special cookout. The family would spend days in preparation for this event purchasing the ingredients and preparing them. Whole chickens, hens, pork loins, ground beef, tomatoes, corn, onions, ketchup, hot sauce, Worcester sauce, and other top-secret ingredients would be stockpiled in the kitchen and then guarded carefully until the moment they were prepared for entry in the tremendous pot.

There were particular rules that governed the entire process related to creating this stew. No one under the age of 35 was allowed to stir the pot, although the simmering process would continue for hours and hours. Only a few (rare) exceptions were ever made to this rule to my knowledge. The rationale behind the age limitation was never fully explained, but the best I could conjecture was that 35 marked a level of maturity in which an individual could be found willing to remain still long enough to contemplate the intermingling of flavors occurring in the pot over long periods of time without interruption.

Only the "elder" of the patriarchs of the family hold the knowledge of the top-secret recipe. I’m confident that my grandmother also knew it, as does my mother, but the family maintains the pretense that only the men know it. My dad has always told us that we could only inherit the recipe if we proved ourselves worthy of keeping its secrets. What might be entailed in proving this worthiness is still a mystery. Perhaps now that I am nearing the age during which I might be permitted to stir the pot, my father will share the criteria for inheriting the recipe even if I cannot yet inherit it.

Once an individual met the selection criteria to be allowed to stir the pot, then even stricter rules were applied to that person’s performance at the pot itself. The concoction had to be stirred continuously and only with designated wooden boat paddles. I also observed that the stirring had to be deep and consistent. The sides had to be regularly scraped in the rounds of the pot. All of these measures ensured an even cooking and no burnt stew. Cooking 30 gallons of stew required devotion, attentiveness, willingness to endure the heat (from the stew and from the summer air), and patience; these qualities, once demonstrated, permitted the stew stirrer to enter into the developing camaraderie of the cooking site.

The men of the family would start well before dawn and prepare the cookware and the cooking site. The fire had to be started and monitored. Once the stew was added to the pot, someone had to be on duty at all times to stir and to keep curious insects away. Often, as the stew was cooking, others would bring in an assortment of meats for barbecuing or smoking. One year, my uncle cooked turkeys on stakes by placing them in charcoal pits and covering them with pails. The meat "sides" (as the stew was the entrée) prompted competition among the family. Over the years, we voted on best barbecue sauce, best dessert, best smoked meat, and so on. Rivals sparred good-naturedly and brainstormed the competition that would take place at the next stew cooking.

By mid-afternoon, the stew had been cooking for at least six hours. The scent alone made passers-by hungry for a sample, if not an entire bowl. It was the time of day when the children were ready to pull off their shoes and commence gnawing if they didn’t get a bowl to themselves. The sliced bread, the sweet tea, the side dishes and desserts all appeared on the tables set up outdoors for picnicking. Utensils, bowls, plates and napkins also found their way to the tables and no sooner had they been placed than a line had formed at the cast iron pot. Huge ladles guided by the chefs themselves served up the delightful feast. Once bowls had been filled, plates were soon piled high with barbecue, potato salad, slaw or whatever sides were available. It didn’t take long for these very same plates and bowls to be emptied and for lines to form once again at the stew pot. I wish I could say I remembered the conversations I had over these delicious bowls of stew, but all I remember is wanting more stew.

When no more space was left inside our bellies, we began the clean-up process. Boxes and boxes of storage bags and storage containers were brought out and stew was ladled into them. As a child, I never had to worry about where this stew went since my family always took home enough to enjoy for the remainder of the year. We would store it in the freezer and reheat it. With every bag, I relived memories of the cookout and family togetherness once again.

As an adult living several states away, I traveled from some distance to come back to this event; I always considered myself fortunate if I found that I could transport even a quart bag back home with me. Now that I’m living much closer again, I’ve found that circumstances have kept the family from holding the event as often. I think fondly of the last cookout a couple of years ago and find myself more nostalgic than usual. Since that last event where over 100 people attended (friends and family), we’ve lost several dear ones and now the event won’t seem quite the same. Still, the tradition remains—a family united over the 30 gallon cast iron pot and the incredible mélange it contained.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, or you can contact Leila directly at


Cast Iron Contemplations

A reflection by Leila Wells

I recently returned from Kansas City, a locale well known for its barbecue, and a wonderful visit with good friends. During one of our conversations, I mentioned that I would be contributing to Cooking in Cast Iron. I cannot say that their response surprised me, but the quizzical looks on their faces got me to thinking about cookware and its owners, as well as the art of cooking.

Why is it that I found the idea of Cooking in Cast Iron—both the action and the blog—intriguing? Is something in my brain wired differently when it comes to cookware fixation? Do I find cast iron appealing because its austere appearance hints at is pragmatic nature even as its rougher surface glistens from its seasoning? Do I identify with cast iron because it is sturdy and yet ironically (no pun intended) fragile in some respects? How odd it all seemed to be drawing personality comparisons with this humble medium of food preparation.

In fact, I know my friends will both be laughing hysterically upon reading the previous paragraph, and I smile at the thought. During my visit, my friend Caryn took me to a cooking store and we browsed for a good 45 minutes. There was a relatively small end cap in the store devoted to Lodge cookware. I even spotted a cast iron Dutch oven on display, which is a notably larger and more expensive piece. I gazed at the various pieces available and mentally calculated when I would be financially free to indulge myself in the purchase of one following the vacation.

Despite my interest in this particular section in the store, my friend was unmoved and unmotivated to break out any cast iron over the weekend. Again, I pondered the difference in her approach and my own. Is having a favorite cast iron pan akin to having a favorite coffee mug? Is there a psychology behind one’s attachment to the medium?

In the end, perhaps our preferences for method and medium are really products of long-established habits. This evening I heard a song on one of my son’s cartoons that speaks volumes on this issue. The song emphasized that the way you do something doesn’t have to “be by the book.” The characters in the cartoon were cooking, among other things, and were shown improvising when they didn’t have all of the ingredients or all of the necessary components to complete a recipe or task.

When it comes to cooking, I have always favored improvisation that is built on a fundamental knowledge of how ingredients are meant to work together. I’ve often contemplated and experimented with ingredient combinations, but now I am thinking about the instruments with which I cook those ingredients, as well. Using cast iron to cook has so many well-established advantages, including its non-stick features, its durability, its relatively even cooking, and its contribution of iron to our diets, and I am drawn to the notion that perhaps the incorporation of cast iron into the cooking experience also makes it more natural in some respects.

Perhaps I am not able to prove this speculation (nor do I really perceive a need to do so at the moment), but I have to wonder if the instruments we cook with define us as much as what we are ultimately preparing and how we go about assembling it . After all, artists and artisans are quite selective about their instruments and implements. These individuals understand the value of the tool to the craft. It only seems appropriate that those developing their skill in cooking would opt to select the best instruments, as well.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, or you can contact Leila directly at