Can This Cast-Iron Skillet Be Saved?
Yup, and so can some of my faith in humanity
I needed a win this week. I imagine so many of us did, for reasons both public and political and intensely private. It's so damn hard being a person. I needed a problem I could actually fix, and one found me. I recently came into possession of a chicken shed filled with terrible things: damp cushions, a couple dozen open cans of paint, improperly sealed canisters of oil, rotten wooden furniture, and a couple of badly-rusted cast-iron skillets. I hauled what I could to a dumpster and am still mulling over paint disposal, but the pans—or at least one of them—felt like a mission.
The larger of the two was cracked irreparably across the bottom, and I said farewell. But the smaller—I had to at least try to salvage it. It was caked with rust and filled with damp and indefinable matter (some of which was wiggling). In other words, it was an ideal distraction from upsets both deep inside me and infiltrating the very air we're all breathing, culturally speaking. I brought it into my kitchen to rinse, wipe, and assess the state of things, and of course post pictures on Twitter and Instagram, asking people, Can this skillet be saved?
The response was immediate and way more enthusiastic than I could have anticipated. Send it out for sandblasting. Throw it in a deep fryer. Throw it in a bonfire. Use the electrolysis method. Use a drill and a wire brush. Send it to me and I'll fix it.
I knew only one thing: That I was going to bring this pan back from the dead, and I was going to revive it with my own muscle. As I replied to more than one person, I have rage, salt, baking soda, steel wool, biceps, ADHD medication, and very little fear of fire. (And also a masters degree in metalsmithing, which I rarely get to deploy these days.)
So first, I scrubbed. Time flaked away as I threw in fistsful of salt and baking soda, relaxed my jaw, and clutched a plain steel wool pad in my right hand and the handle in the other. I bore down hard in spirals, loops, and stubborn lines. I probably grunted a little. A physically-driven fugue state is a rare luxury for me these days, and I'll take the break from my own head when I can get it. I could see the neglect of years sloughed away by the weight of will, but still it wasn't enough. Time for fire.
My friend Drew Robinson is a pitmaster, and he knows from metal and flame. He said to throw it in my oven on the self-cleaning cycle, so I did just that. I opened the door to the backyard, pointed a stand fan toward it, and cleared out while the kitchen filled up with smoke. I came back to a still-filthy phoenix, surrounded by a radius of rust. Still so much further to go.
But the world is sometimes unexpectedly kind if you let it be. I posted pictures of the progress, and to my great delight, people on Twitter and Instagram shared their advice and encouragement. It's sometimes easier to get emotionally invested in something outside yourself with a definitive physical goal than in something with an end still beyond the horizon (or actually consequential). I wasn't trying to hammer out a bipartisan solution for healthcare, appoint a Supreme Court justice, or end centuries of systemic gender inequality—just trying to clean a pan, man.
I kept scrubbing. More baking soda, more salt, the occasional douse of vinegar. Eventually, the paper towels I was using to wipe away the debris began to come away cleaner and cleaner until the soot turned to rust red, and then turned to nearly nothing.
Time to season. Also on Drew's advice, I bought flaxseed oil, and while the oven crept up to 500°F, I rubbed it into the skillet's surface as evenly and thinly as I could. The metal was thirsty in places, fuller in others, and I took my time. Slid it onto the center rack, waited a while, more oil. Back in the heat five more times until the surface was hard and almost glassy, and the metal told me it could drink no more.
When the skillet was cool, I picked it up. It was still heavy and hard, but somehow one with my hands. I transformed this iron object with the force of fire and my muscles and my will, and I made it mine. And also sort of everyone's. Here you go, strangers and friends. I hope you like her. Share our victory.