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Cast iron pans a wise investment

Last year Laurie and I drove all the way to Texas to deliver fish, my mother's china set, a boyhood rocking chair and other things to daughter Katrina and her husband. But I forgot to include one of my five cast iron fry pans that I had planned to give her.

Forgoing the punishing drive this year, I flew down to Killeen to visit Katrina and grandchildren Ben and Erin while Laurie babysat our Labradors in Bozeman. Since iron fry pans are too heavy to pack in baggage and too expensive to mail (the postage costs as much as the pan!), I took Katrina to Cracker Barrel and bought her a 10-inch Lodge brand cast iron pan, made in the U.S.A., for $20 bucks. (Compare that with a quality non-stick pan that costs $60 or more, and will wear out in five years.)

The Lodge pan supposedly is pre-seasoned, but I like to put an inch of cooking oil in the pan and keep it in the oven for a couple hours at 200 degrees, or on the stove top on low to medium heat. This will force oil into the pores of the iron, much the same way one rubs linseed oil into a fine gunstock to fill the wood's pores.

Cast iron pans are simple to maintain. You DO NOT use soapy water when cleaning them. Simply put the pan in the sink under slowly running hot water and scrub it with a plastic "chore girl" scrubbing pad. Wipe the pan with a paper towel, then use a different paper towel to wipe a coating of oil onto the pan's surface. (I use olive oil or peanut oil because I don't like the taste or smell of most other cooking oils.)

Allow the pan to cool to the point where you can easily handle it without hot-pad holders before running hot water into the pan. Never pour cold water into a hot pan or it is likely to crack and be ruined. Last year a long-time friend from Helena called me, and was distraught about his decades-old pan.

"I wasn't thinking," he said. "I poured cold water into the hot pan and it cracked!" He was hoping I had an idea of how to fix it. There isn't any "fix" to a cracked iron pan. My friend had to buy a new pan.

Cast iron pans will last indefinitely if you take care of them. My own pans date from the mid-1970s and certainly will outlast me. One time many years ago I spent some time at a ranch in the Idaho Primitive Area near the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. In the cookhouse of this place was a collection of pans that dated back to the early years of the 20th Century. The cooks still used them every day and they worked just fine.

When Laurie and I hunted in South Africa in 2004 we spent the first several days at a camp in the Limpopo region, just across the river from Botswana. The cook staff had an extensive collection of iron pots and pans that were impeccably maintained and looked very old. I had our professional hunter ask several of the black cooks and wait staff (they spoke a language called Hutu) if they knew the origin of the pans or how old they were, but none of them had any idea.

Sometimes an object is so well-made and designed that it is best not to tinker with it -- think the Mauser action or the Loveless-designed drop-point hunter knife ... or the old-fashioned cast iron fry pan. Just because it's old doesn't mean it isn't any good. Try one for yourself and see if you don't agree.